Now that we’re just a couple of months away from the Rugby World Cup, it seems a good time to take a look at some of the contenders for the championship. Let’s take a look at fifth ranked Scotland and see how Gregor Townsend’s team are looking heading into the competition.
Scotland heading into the tournament
Scottish rugby is in the best position it has been in for decades. Gregor Townsend has this team playing at an incredibly high level and there has been a clear improvement from Scotland over the last few years.
Having now been in charge of Scotland for six years, it seems like things are really starting to click for Townsend. Scotland are coming off the back of their best ever Six Nations performance, being comfortably the third best team in competition.
While they lost to both Ireland and France, neither results was a hammering and both games were close until near the end. Their performance in France was particularly impressive considering France scored three tries in the first 20 minutes. They also had their biggest every win over Wales.
Scotland once again reclaimed the Calcutta Cup, with the Scottish attack looking absolutely brilliant throughout the Six Nations. Scotland’s performances have been excellent outside of the Six Nations as well. Over the last two years, Scotland have wins over Argentina, Fiji, Australia and Japan.
Their domestic sides have been very up and down over the last two years. Edinburgh missing out on the top eight of the URC this season was a big disappointment. But on the other hand, Glasgow keeping the game close against eventual URC champions Munster with just 14 men was a very impressive performance.
While the top four teams in the world have been able to pull away from the rest of the competition, Scotland are certainly the best of the rest. It certainly helps that they are littered with world class players.
It might be a bit of a stretch, but Scotland’s backs might be as good as any around the world. If you were picking a Lions starting xv, then it is pretty likely that Scotland would be covering a lot of the backline. They might even have the most in form centre partnership in the world. That is without even mentioning their superstar fly-half Finn Russell.
There are quite mixed feelings about this tournament for Scotland fans. While this is a brilliant Scottish team, the world cup draw being three years ago means it is almost impossible for this Scottish team to make it out of the group stage.
Scotland will certainly have a lot of opportunities to test this team before the tournament. Back to back games against France will really show how likely Scotland are of causing an upset somewhere in this tournament. A result in just one of those games would give this team a huge amount of confidence.
Gregor Townsend will also have a great opportunity to test some of the depth in this team with games against Italy and Georgia surrounding those matches against France. Not only are these the sorts of games where Scottish player’s can get to full health, but Gregor can also test some of the player’s who might be on the fringe of the squad.
Scotland’s team for the tournament
Despite being one of the best team’s in the world, there are some positions where it is going to be difficult to pick who will start for Scotland in their hardest tests. Gregor Townsend does have some great options on the front row, with tighthead a particularly difficult position to pick considering the experience of WP Nel.
It is similarly difficult to pick the second row, with Jonny Gray out of the tournament. It therefore seems most likely that Townsend will go with the experienced pair of Grant Gilchrist and Richie Gray, with Sam Skinner coming off the bench. Scotland’s back row really picks itself, particularly with Hamish Watson returning to form.
While Ali Price is the more experienced option at nine, Gregor went with Ben White for the majority of the Six Nations. Despite his previous exodus from the Scotland team, Finn Russell will be crucial to this Scotland teams success.
Their centre and wing partnerships are very easy to pick. Sione Tuipolotu and Huw Jones played phenomenally throughout the entire Six Nations. With Darcy Graham back to being fully healthy, his partnership with Duhan van der Merwe will continue into this tournament.
One of the big storylines heading into the tournament for Scotland has been the immediate retirement of Stuart Hogg, leaving a hole at fullback. While Ollie Smith seems like the future of the position, I think Townsend will go with the experience that Blair Kinghorn brings, as well as his excellence with the boot.
2.George Turner-Glasgow Warriors
3.Zander Fagerson-Glasgow Warriors
4.Richie Gray-Glasgow Warriors
8.Matt Fagerson-Glasgow Warriors
9.Ben White-London Irish
10.Finn Russell-Racing 92
12.Sione Tuipulotu-Glasgow Warriors
13.Huw Jones-Glasgow Warriors
14.Duhan van der Merwe-Edinburgh
Who to look out for in this squad?
If there is one weakness to this talented Scottish squad it is really the front five. There is a good chance that Gregor will use the depth he has available to keep his first choice guys fresh for their two big group games against South Africa and Ireland. Pierre Schoeman and Zander Fagerson will have a massive role to play.
Behind them, Sam Skinner will need to step up in the absence of Jonny Gray. Skinner will become first choice off the bench and will be even more important in the other group games.
Scotland don’t quite have the superstar number eight that some of their competitors have, so it means that Matt Fagerson will need to step up. Fagerson has not played in the world cup before, but he needs to be the battering ram for this Scottish team when they come up against some of the best teams in the world.
If it is not Fagerson, Scotland might turn to former Wallaby Jack Dempsey. While Dempsey has not been great in his few appearances so far, he does have World Cup experience and could be the physical force that Scotland are looking for in this tournament.
Most of the backline will want to continue their exciting form. Sione Tuipolotu and Huw Jones will be the crucial pieces in Scotland’s attack and with Finn Russell supplying them, there is going to be a lot of exciting highlights.
Blair Kinghorn has a massive role to play at this tournament. Losing a man as experienced as Stuart Hogg this close to the tournament is not ideal, so Kinghorn will need to step up. While he is better under the high ball than Hogg, Kinghorn need’s to make the right decisions and be more reliable with the boot than he was in the Six Nations.
Scotland’s path to winning the tournament
Thing are going to be extremely difficult for Scotland at this tournament. They have been the most unlucky team with the draw, having to face the number 1 and number 3 teams in the world in their group.
Scotland need to upset one of those two teams if they want to get anywhere in this tournament. South Africa and Ireland will be incredibly difficult to beat, but if Scotland lose both of those games then it is almost impossible for Gregor Townsend team to make it anywhere in this tournament.
If they do somehow manage to beat one of those teams, then things somehow get even harder in the quarter-finals. Home favourites France will likely be waiting for Scotland and so Scotland would have to pull off the greatest result in the team’s history if they wanted to get to their first semi-final since 1991.
There is no other way around it really, Scotland would likely have to beat all three of the top three teams in the world if they wanted to become World Cup champions. That is an almost impossible mountain for this Scottish team to climb, even if they may find England at some point of the knockout stages.
What are Scotland’s chances in this tournament?
If there are some positive for this Scottish side it is that there might not have ever been a better Scotland team heading into a Rugby World Cup. Fifth ranked in the world, Scotland do seem in the best position to upset one of the top four teams in the world.
Scotland have pushed all four of those team’s close in the last two years and they have the backs to cut through any defence. You don’t want to get in a high scoring, open field game with this Scottish side.
But the draw has just ruined this Scotland team’s chances. Beating two of the top three team’s in the world to get to the semi-final stage is incredibly unlucky. It just seems like too much adversity to overcome for this young, exciting Scottish side.
Prediction of Scotland's tournament: Quarter-final exit