Analysis: Scotland still a match for world’s best

On the face of it, one win from five in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations is an unsatisfactory return for Gregor Townsend’s Scotland.

On the face of it, one win from five in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations is an unsatisfactory return for Gregor Townsend’s Scotland.

After back-to-back Championships in 2017 and 2018 with three wins in each, and on the eve of a Rugby World Cup, Townsend and his troops will have wanted more.

But the results don’t tell the whole story of an injury-riddled campaign for Scotland who still produced the greatest individual performance of the whole Championship on the final day.

New faces were uncovered, key positions strengthened and the Calcutta Cup retained.

After a crazy Super Saturday at Twickenham, optimism has returned – and just in time.

It feels a lifetime ago that Scotland kicked off their 2019 campaign in style with a bonus-point win over Italy.

Blair Kinghorn shone brightest with a hat-trick of scores while Finn Russell gave us a flavour of what was to come with a couple of delightful assists.

But Italy struck with three late tries of their own to slow Scottish momentum and in Round Two Townsend’s side came unstuck against Ireland.

Again, Russell shone with a fine intercept and offload to Sam Johnson, but injuries were beginning to strike a Scottish side that already had a substantial list of walking wounded before the Championship began.

Stuart Hogg and Huw Jones joined the sick bay and despite mounting pressure, Ireland could not be broken down and Townsend’s impressive home record in the Championship was at an end.

Round Three in Paris was the low point, with Russell also missing, as Les Bleus ran away with a bonus-point win.

Then back in Edinburgh, Grand Slammers Wales proved too tough a nut to crack and the Scots headed south to Twickenham for Super Saturday with neither the history or form books on their side.

But what unfolded in south west London on the final game of Super Saturday almost defied belief.

Trailing 31-0 after half an hour, every Scotsman both on the pitch and in the stands feared a repeat of the 60-point shellacking two years ago in the same fixture.

However, this time Scotland came out firing after the break, threw caution to the wind and produced an astonishing comeback.

Russell was again the star man, picking off intercepts, throwing no-look passes and conducting an orchestra of attacking weapons as they ran in 38 unanswered points at a ground they had not won at since 1983.

In the end, they fell just short of a momentous win as George Ford went over to level the scores at the death.

But Johnson’s final score will live long in the memory of all who saw it as Scotland proved they are a match for just about anyone in world rugby when it all clicks.

A mention must be made here for Hamish Watson.

The flanker made such a stunning impact in just a game and a half for Scotland after returning from injury that one was left wondering what a difference he might have made if fit for all five games.

The openside carried like a snowplough against Wales when coming off the bench before starting at Twickenham and inspiring the fightback.

A broken hand came at just the wrong time before Round One, but now he is back to his best and Scotland will hope it stays that way.

A word too for Stuart McInally, promoted to captain after Greig Laidlaw was moved to the bench, and one of only three Scots to start every game of this year’s Championship.

The hooker provided some much-needed consistency to their spine, was solid in the set-piece and showed the pace of a former back-rower to score his solo effort at Twickenham that began the fightback.

But the star man of the Championship was undoubtedly Russell.

He is the pacemaker of this Scotland side, a fly-half with natural creativity that few that can match in the modern game.

And he showcased his full arsenal across the Championship, creating tries for others and himself as Scotland showed attacking flair throughout.

The move to Racing 92 has clearly borne fruit for the No.10 – now Scotland must work out how to turn his magic into sustained success.

Injuries forced Scotland to test their depth this Championship. And two men in particular caught the eye when called upon.

Up front, openside Jamie Ritchie proved a magnificent find in the back row – starting the first four games before injury struck.

Having only made his Scotland debut in November, he looked to the manor born in his first Championship as a breakdown nuisance and a surprisingly solid lineout option.

The Edinburgh man has Watson to compete with for club and country, it might be interesting to see if the two can dovetail together in the same back row for future Championships?

Meanwhile in the backline, Johnson looks an international operator in midfield but it is Graham’s emergence as a tricky winger that really captured the imagination.

The twinkle toed winger scored on his first Championship start against Wales – one of only seven tries Shaun Edwards’ defence leaked all campaign – and then went better still at Twickenham.

Hailing from Hawick like a certain Stuart Hogg, Graham turned on the style against England in the second half with a jet-heeled double.

Scotland’s back-three depth is extremely impressive, they withstood injuries to Hogg, Kinghorn, Tommy Seymour and Maitland over the Championship and now Townsend must decide if he can leave Graham out again?

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend: “The Calcutta Cup comeback says so much about who they are, what it means to play for Scotland, how they would never give up and the toughest of environments to do it in.

“The Scotland team in the last 100 years have only won four times I believe at Twickenham and to be trailing so much on the scoreboard, nobody would have ever predicted that we could have got back into the game.

“It was a great way to finish the championship. The France game was the most disappointing and the first half at Twickenham, but there were a lot of moments in games where the players did very well.

Scotland skipper Stuart McInally: “We need to be honest about the whole Six Nations. We’ve showed up in parts, played well second half last week against Wales, second half this week against England. We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves. That was a really good second 40 [minutes].”

Attentions initially will return to domestic matters with both Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors in European Champions Cup quarter-finals.

This is the first time both teams have made the last eight in the same year and optimism is high that one of the two sides can go even further and make the final four.

Both sides are also still fighting for the Guinness PRO14 play-offs as well, but soon it will be all eyes on Japan and the Rugby World Cup.

Scotland have four warm-up games planned in the summer, double headers home and away first against France and then against Georgia.

And then their World Cup gets underway in Yokohama with a clash with Guinness Six Nations rivals Ireland.

The other teams in their group are hosts Japan, Samoa and Russia, and Townsend will fancy his chances of leading Scotland to a quarter-final berth at the very least.