Quick Team Reviews- RBS 6 Nations 2016

So now that the dust has settled on the annual Northern Hemisphere meeting of the Six Nations, I’m going to take a look back at each of the sides, how their tournament went and what lies ahead for them in the summer.

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England

 

England ultimately silenced their critics. Being the first host nation to ever duck out of your own World Cup at the pool stages is not something to be proud of, which caused the RFU to do away with Stuart Lancaster and replace him with the coach who took on England in the Rugby World Cup final 2003 and led Japan to their famous victory against South Africa at last year’s Rugby World Cup, Eddie Jones. In the first games of the Jones era England looked flat on quite a few occasions. However, on others they looked an exciting side to watch, unfortunately they struggled at times to finish off their moves to get over the line.

The main difference to the Lancaster era, is that after finishing second on a number of occasions in the past, they finally won and did so with a grand slam. As many have highlighted, this is just the start. England are a young team, who have experienced a lot already and Jones could potentially make England into World beaters once again. That’s one thing to say and another thing to do though, but Jones has some young, quality players at his disposal and has made a dream start.

This summer they tour Australia and will be keen to make up for their pool stage loss to the Aussies. With Australia making the World Cup final, I can see Australia taking the tour, 2-1.

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Wales

Not a bad showing from the Welsh. Other than a defeat to the revitalised England and a draw to Ireland in round one they overcame a French side chasing the title, a resurgent Scotland and latterly a tired Italian side. In the final ten against England at Twickenham, with Dan Cole in the sin bin, they showed signs that they have more than the single dimension of Warren ball.

My biggest concern for Wales, is that although they have good depth and a mix of experience and youth, they are a settled side. Other than for injuries, Gatland, his coaching staff and his team have been settled as one of the top in Europe, who struggle against Southern Hemisphere sides. At this stage they should be demanding to push on to beating the giants of the south.

This summer, they embark on an ambitious tour of New Zealand. The World Champions are in a transitional phase, with a number of key names retiring, but I struggle to see this phasing the All Blacks too much. Unfortunately, I can’t see Wales recording a victory there (It’s hard to imagine many sides doing that..)

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Ireland

Following a round one draw with Wales, Ireland went on to lose by a solitary point to France and then succumbed to England at Twickenham, too. However, when the Italians visited, they were in no mood to dwell on their fall from Champions status last year, scoring some excellent tries and recording a rousing victory. They then had the task of stopping the high flying Scots, which they duly did, as Scotland slowed a little, Ireland kept their foot on the pedal.

They struggled initially with injury, but this led to the discovery of Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey. With a number of other young players available to Ireland, they future looks bright.

Ireland also undertake a big challenge as they face South Africa in their summer tour, a side who they’ve never beaten on South African soil. Provided everyone is fit, I can see Ireland winning a game, but again, South Africa have to be favourites to win the tour.

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Scotland

Eventually, they backed up their impressive World Cup showing. Following a home defeat to England, then a sixty fifth minute implosion against Wales, I think we were all thinking ‘here we go again’. However, from their they with stood a second half Italian charge and overcame France for the first time in a decade. The fairy tale ending wasn’t to be as they were defeated by Ireland in the last round, but there’s more to be positive about than there has been for a long time for Scottish supporters.

They look to finally have some serious depth in the centre’s with Alex Dunbar, Peter Horne, Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor and Matt Scott. However, areas such as the second row and wings are a cause for concern. Hopefully some of the young players at Edinburgh and Glasgow will make the step up soon, there are young talents creeping into both sides at the moment.

With a summer tour of Japan, the Japanese will be looking for a win, to further prove what they might have done at Rugby World Cup 2015 where they lost heavily to Scotland after a short turnaround. However, if Scotland are more or less injury free, I see Scotland taking the series, but perhaps not as the walk over it might have been in the past.

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France

 

Oh France. In my opinion, they were lucky to come away with two wins. Had Parisse’s drop goal gone over and Ireland not have been struck by injury so early on, they’d have picked up the wooden spoon. I know that’s not what happened, but they cut it fine. They were then dispatched of by the Welsh, by Scotland for the first time in ten years before putting up a fight, but ultimately losing out to England at home.

I was happy to see Trinh-Duc back in the side, I thought Virimi Vakatawa was very impressive, as was captain Guillem Guirado. Gael Fickou and Wesley Fofana are great players, but both were relatively quiet this year. Other than that, I’m struggling to find positives. France seemed to back up their World Cup fall from grace after being destroyed by the All Blacks and coming fifth in this years Six Nations.

With a tour to Argentina this summer, Guy Noves’ has his work cut out for him. I honestly think this French side have the ability to win, but they’ve got a lot to do to reach that level. Seeing France’s marginal defeat of Ireland and Argentina’s unpicking of Ireland in the Quarter Finals, I think they have a tough summer ahead.

ITALY

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Italy

 

Another year, another spoon for the cabinet. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that now takes them to eleven spoons in seventeen seasons. In their first game they came agonisingly close, losing to France as a final minute Sergio Parisse drop goal failed to bisect the posts. After that, unfortunately, things went downhill as Italy fell to a series of heavy defeats, ending with their worst points differential in a Six Nations season ever, at minus one-hundred and forty-five points.

However, with Harlequins coach Connor O’Shea taking over, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Azurri. Talisman Sergio Parisse has decided not to retire, Leonardo Sarto will be joining the impressive Simone Favaro at Glasgow- don’t underestimate what playing in a winning environment will do for those two players. Michele Campagnaro has moved to Exeter Chiefs and looks even better for it, whilst Carlo Canna showed a lot of potential in his short appearance in the Championship. Luca Morisi also made a big impression last year and hasn’t been seen in the tournament since due to injury. His return will be a big boost.

Italy will take on the USA and Canada this summer. They spluttered past Canada in the World Cup, but will really need to be targeting a win there. The USA are generally stronger than Canada at the moment and could be a potential banana skin, but I would like to think, a banana skin that the Azurri will avoid. Take nothing away from USA and Canada though, they can both target wins against Italy.

That’s my short review of the Six Nations teams this year. Let me know your thoughts!

The Scribbler, March 28th, 2016

Twitter:@RugbyScribbler

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Team of the Tournament- RBS Six Nations 2016 Dream Team

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My Six Nations 2016 Dream Team/ Team of the Tournament

This is my team of the tournament for 2016. Largely based on performance, but also on strength moving forward, this is a combination of experience and new guys with real potential. I will pre-empt the comments about a lack of Italians- there were some contenders, but it’s hard to select them when they recorded their worst ever Six Nations points margin. When the players genuinely stand out, they will be selected (Other than, Sergio Parisse). I refuse to oblige to this ‘one player from each nation’ attitude. Hopefully Italy will learn from the experiences of this season and have a better championship in their first season under Conor O’Shea in 2017.

 

  1. A few players to mention here. Scotland’s Ali Dickinson has been outstanding in the scrum. Jack McGrath has, in Cian Healy’s absence, more than stepped up to the mark in the set piece and has also improved his work in the loose. However, the shirt goes to young Wales prop, Rob Evans. He seems to have eased into International rugby and secured his shirt in a competitive Welsh scrum.

  2. For me this was a straight choice between two. France’s most consistent player, their Captain Guillem Guirado against England’s new captain Dylan Hartley. Hartley has impressed at scrum time and has been a great captain (not to mention his clean discipline record so far) However, it’s harder to impress when your side aren’t on form and that’s exactly what Guirado has done and for that reason, gets the nod at Hooker. He even managed a couple of tries along the way.

  3. Dan Cole made a good claim for this shirt- being a constant nuisance at scrum time. However, a late yellow for him nearly let the Wales game slip. Up north, WP Nel has transformed the Scottish scrum, giving the backs the platform they need to play from. For this reason, he’s my tight-head.

  4. The second row has tough competition. Jonny Gray has been excellent, going into the France game having made one hundred consecutive tackles (no misses) which seems to have pushed elder brother Richie into some better form. Alun Wyn-Jones and Luke Charteris have been their ususal excellent selves. However, one very hyped player, has in my opinion, lived up to that hype. That is, of course, Maro Itoje. Big runs, great offloads and a strong set piece. What more can you ask?

  5. Paternering him could easily have been George Kruis, who has had a great tournament. However, in the end I have gone for Ultan Dillane. As such a young guy, he has really made an impression this tournament, with many Irish fans wanting him to become a starter. A key man at the revitalised Connacht, Dillane is being tipped for a big future in the green jersey.

  6. A few names to mention here, too. CJ Stander made his debut for Ireland after an excellent few years at Munster. John Barclay has also made a brilliant return from the wilderness, being a key man in Scotland’s dynamic back-row. However, I give the six jersey to Chris Robshaw. After a disasterous World Cup, with him at the helm, he’s gone back to Quins, earned his spot again in the England side and been solid throughout the tournament. That takes a lot of mental resilience and the guy deserves credit for that.

  7. Josh Van der Flier was making good inroads to the Ireland squad after the injury of impressive Sean O’Brien. Sam Warburton has been tenacious as ever. However, John Hardie takes the seven shirt for me. Since joining the scotland side pre-world cup, Hardie has been ever present, making hard hits (and lots of them) whilst also showing he has the abillity to get over the line.

  8. This was one of the harder decisions, with plenty of candidates putting their hands up. Sergio Parisse has been excellent at times for Italy- but without support, his presence going forward often ends in a negative net result with turnover. At times, there is an over dependence on him. Billy Vunipola is in the form of his life for England and really looks to be flourishing under Eddie Jones. Depsite this, his cousin Taulupe Faletau has impressed me for Wales- he always seems to be central to Wales attacks, carries the ball well from eight and is a consistent player and is my number eight.

  9. Again, this position has a number of candidates. Danny Care seems to be back on form and managed a couple of tries and was used well to up England’s intensity. Despite criticism, Connor Murray managed a couple of tries and played well. Greig Laidlaw was sctrong, but needs to learn to get the referee on side. Gareth Davies has been magnificent in Rhy’s Webb’s absence, but Webb managed to recover from injury and reclaim the scrum-half shirt within a few weeks. A constant threat to the line with a good pass, Webb is my nine.

  10. This is a position for me that was the hardest to choose as no single player appeared to be outstanding this season. George Ford struggled for form, but improved as the championship went on. Dan Biggar was consistent and Rhys Priestland impressed me in his short cameos from the bench and for the Ireland game where he replaced an injured Dan Biggar. Carlo Canna also looked impressive for Italy, before injury stopped his championship. This leaves Johnny Sexton as the best option for me. Yes, his play acting was shameful against Scotland, but he really controls a game and is a constant threat, Ireland are an entirely different side without him, such is his impact.

  11. Virimi Vakatawa was one of few impressive French men. However, despite not being back to his best, George North gets the nod for me. He scored more tries than anyone in the competition and looked threatening on the ball.

  12. This may cause some debate, but personally for me, Owen Farrell was the best inside-centre. Jamie Roberts was a wrecking ball as ever and Italy’s Gonzalo Garcia was one of their more noticeable players, but for me, Farrell’s defence was strong, he attacks the line and his distribution helped England’s men out wide. Not England’s long term answer at twelve, but a great championship from him (even if I often think he’s like a petulant child)

  13. Another Italian centre caught the eye (as he always seems to) which was of course the impressive Michele Campagnaro. He always looks strong on the ball and was often a light in a poor Italian outfit. Jonathan Joseph was good for England, but not outstanding- he was far more impressive last year and for that reason is overlooked in place of Scotland’s Duncan Taylor. He played at twelve, thirteen and can cover wing too. Great tries against France and Wales, a great try saver against Wales and he stole the shirt from one of the northern Scotland’s brightest prospects, Mark Bennett.

  14. Anthony Watson, in my eyes, is one of the most exciting Wingers in Northern Hemisphere rugby at the moment, so was easily pencilled into this side. He has a killer sidestep, pace and a great eye for space, not to mention a knack for finding the try-line.

  15. Mr Angry grew into the competition (Mike Brown) and certainly played well. However, Stuart Hogg, voted player of the tournament, was either scoring or setting up Scotland’s tries. Without Hogg, the two tries that closed out the Italy and France games might not have been scored, had he not been there to add his magic touch to release the final man. He’s in for a good shout on the Lions tour.

Representation- England 4, Wales 4, Scotland 4, Ireland 2, France 1, Italy 0.
Had lots of discussion, particularly around the half-backs and centres. Namely Taylor to 12 and Campagnaro to 13 and Biggar in at 10, which I also agree with. Let me know your thoughts and ideas, by commenting or tweeting me on Twitter!
The Scribbler, March 26th, 2016

Super Saturday: RBS 6 Nations Round 5 Preview

Wales VS Italy, Principality Stadium, Wales, 14:30 UK Time, BBC, 19th March

So England are the champions. With most people expecting a Welsh win this weekend, you could say this is a bit of a dead rubber. Italy can’t prise themselves from the bottom of the table and Wales can’t win the title- so why does anyone care?

From a Welsh perspective, as World Cup quarter finalists, they will want and rightly expect to be in the top half of the table and I imagine will come out all guns blazing; France and Scotland are hot on their heels, only a point down in the table. A win would ensure a top half finish.

On the other hand Italy may not have so much to play for, but there’s always an element of pride. Since their inclusion in 2000, Italy have picked up the wooden spoon ten times and finished six campaigns without a win. Victory in Wales would give them some hope as they see out the era of Jaques Brunel and welcome in their new coach, Mr Mystery. Italy have shown this year that they can compete- losing by only two points to France, putting Scotland under immense pressure and holding England close for 60 minutes. Unfortunately, they let slip against Ireland completely in their 58-15 loss and really suffer by not putting out eighty minute performances. That said, if they can stay in a game, it’s not entirely out of reach

KEY MATCH UP- This one is a case of two men, who show resolve and play well in bad circumstances. Again, for Wales, I choose Taulupe Faletau. Even when Wales weren’t playing well and were down on the scoreboard against England, Taulupe was there and scored. He’s key for the Welsh. As for the Azzurri… well do you really need me to tell you why it’s Sergio Parisse?

PREDICTION- Italy could hold out the game, but given results, it seems unlikely. Wales to win by 10+ points.

Ireland VS Scotland, Aviva Stadium, Ireland, 17:00 (UK Time) ITV, 19th March

This game is important for both sides. Scotland chase their first three-winning streak ever in the Six Nations, and Ireland try to prove that their new stars can shine and back up their emphatic victory over Italy last time around.

Thus far Ireland fans will be disappointed- a draw with Wales and a win over Italy are the best they’ve managed off the back off two Six Nations titles and a World Cup semi-final. Many questions were asked of their attack, as pre-Italy they had only scored two tries. After obliterating a sorry Italian side, they’ve now recorded eleven tries and will be looking to build on that by defeating a resurgent Scotland side.

Scotland will be flying high too- two consecutive wins and the opportunity to shake their under performers tag to make a statement about just how much they’ve improved under Cotter. They go into this game with the knowledge that the last time they beat two teams in a row in 2013, Ireland was one of them. They also go into it with an embarrassing 10-40 point loss to Ireland at Murrayfield in round five last year fresh in the memory. They nearly settled the score at the Aviva in the summer, fielding an inexperienced team at a World Cup warm up where they came up just short as Ireland won 28-22.

If both teams play like last week I expect a high pace and exciting game, with free-flowing, expansive rugby. That or Ireland will be wary and try to close the game down with a choking defence like they’ve done so often in the past.

KEY MATCH UP- For this game it has to be the two scrum halves; Ireland’s Connor Murray and Scotland’s most capped captain, Greig Laidlaw. Murray was a first choice for the Lions tour of Australia in 2013. He has been criticised for slow ball at times, but also has an excellent ability to snipe around the edges of rucks. Laidlaw has also been subject to similar criticism about his inefficiency in delivering the ball, but possesses brilliant game management and a great boot. At his best, he can be a brilliant little runner, too.

PREDICTION: As much as Ireland have been a little off the boil, it’s still early days for this Scotland side and I think Ireland will edge them out by 3-5 points- as much as I’d love to be proven wrong.

France VS England, Stade Francais, France, BCC, 20:00 (UK Time) 19th March

England’s last Grand Slam was back in 2003, the year they won the World Cup, leading some to question whether they deserve to win a Grand Slam the year following their embarrassing pool stage exit from their own World Cup. The answer in short, is yes.

They haven’t been clinical and at times it has been ugly and a bit dull. However, each game they’ve changed and adapted. They’ve shown plenty of promise, but have not always been able to turn opportunities into points. They’ve been reckless at times, but at the end of it, they’ve done what’s necessary to win. Against Italy they bashed away for a good hour, tiring out the Italians so that they could open space and let the backs fly. Against Scotland they used raw power to barge their way to victory.

Jones selection has been excellent as he is slowly starting to build a team of quality, giving opportunity to new players, but also letting players such as Billy Vunipola express themselves, which has been a revelation. Once they properly click, they could be a seriously dangerous side. In the end, they deserve credit for turning around so well from the World Cup and becoming at least Six Nations champions, if not Grand Slam winners.

France have been largely underwhelming. Two wins put them on a positive three point differential until Wales set them back nine points and Scotland a further eleven. France under Noves haven’t quite gelled yet and having lost against Scotland for the first time in a decade, confidence will be low. That said, they have shown signs of promise and they will want to restore pride in the jersey. What better opportunity than to prevent England winning a Grand Slam at the Stade Francais?

KEY MATCH UP: This time I’ve gone for a war of wingers. Anthony Watson for me is one of the most exciting wingers in northern hemisphere rugby at the moment, he can inject real pace to a game and has a criminal side step. His potential opposite number Virimi Vakatawa has shown glimpses of his capabilities and has been one of the more consistent players in Guy Noves’ France side, so could be a real danger to England, especially given his size and strength.

PREDICTION: France have a history of ‘flair’ and unpredictability, but I have to go with England. Hopefully in another high scoring game like last year. England to get the slam by a margin of 5-9 points.

All match ups are presumptive of selection. I won’t be able to write a match review for ‘Scotland Rugby News’ or for here this week unfortunately, but let’s hope for another classic Super Saturday to finish off, what has been in my opinion, a slow but tense championship.

My match report for Scotland VS France is available through a link, here.

The Scribbler, March 16th, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

The Business End: Round 4 of the Six Nations

Ireland vs Italy- ITV, 13:30 (UK time) Saturday 12th, Aviva Stadium, Ireland

So to start the weekend off the win-less Azzurri take on the win-less Irish. The wooden spoon decider..? I would expect not, as most people are fairly certain the men in green will come out on top this weekend. Unfortunately it seems like it will be another year at the bottom for Italy.

For Ireland, this game is an opportunity for the young guns to put their hands up for shirts and to experience a home game at the Aviva stadium. Having impressed against England, I expect to see Josh Van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey in the side again and Ultan Dillane should at least retain his bench spot, if not get promoted to the starting XV. There are also potential opportunities for other fringe players, but I expect the side to be mixed with experience to ensure the win.

Italy went well against France and the first half against England. They also put huge pressure on Scotland, but despite their efforts they ended the game 16 points behind. For them, coming up against a potentially inexperienced Ireland side who are yet to win sounds promising on paper, but following three demoralising defeats, I don’t see them recovering.

KEY MATCH-UP

Assuming both are selected, it has to be Henshaw against Campagnaro. Campagnaro has been a stand out for the Italians amongst some nasty results and is consistently one of their best players. Henshaw, although he doesn’t quite emulate Brian O’Driscoll, has been a main stay in the Irish centre’s ever since BOD’s departure, bringing a lot more physicality to the centre than Ireland have had previously and he too has been a solid performer for his country.

PREDICTION: Ireland by 7+ points.

England vs Wales- ITV, 16:00 (UK Time) Saturday 12th, Twickenham Stadium, England

The next game is arguably the Championship decider. England are undefeated and Wales have two wins and a draw to their name. Wales have to win to keep their fate in their own hands and their title hopes alive. An English win would keep that seemingly impossible first Grand Slam since 2003 on the cards, with France then being the only side left in their way thereafter.

So far both sides have been strong defensively. England have conceded only one try to the Irish, holding out the Italians and the Scots entirely. Wales have conceded just four tries to Ireland, Scotland and France. In attack, many have criticised Wales of looking one dimensional, playing their only game plan of Gatland ball. However you feel about this though, all of Wales tries have been well executed and they certainly haven’t wasted that many opportunities. On the other hand, England have looked exciting when they’re on the ball, but have struggled at times to do much with it. Indeed, Ireland were lucky to go into half time at Twickenham with a score line of 6-3 to England. If England can find that cutting edge for eighty minutes, they can cause Wales some real problems. After Wales beat England at Twickenham in the Rugby World Cup last time around, England won’t be short of motivation as they aim for revenge. Wales will also leave everything on the field in order to stay in the title race and to keep the bragging rights they gained in last time around.

KEY MATCH-UP

This is a battle of the back-rows. There are so many match ups across these sides, it was hard to choose. However, under Eddie Jones, Billy Vunipola has really impressed, especially against Ireland. Opposing him is arguably one of the most consistent number eights in Europe at the moment, cousin Taulupe Faletau. He has been in good form for Wales too and I look forward to them going head to head.

PREDICTION: A tough one. England by a margin of around 3 points.

Scotland vs France- BBC One, 15:00 (UK Time) Sunday 13th, BT Murrayfield, Scotland

Round four and France have delivered two wins against Ireland and Italy and a defeat to the Welsh. Many would argue the French have played get out of jail free cards on both occasions. None the less, this keeps them in the running for the title and with Philippe Sant-Andre gone and replaced by Guy Noves, the French will be hoping to stay in the title race by beating the Scots at Murrayfield, a place where Les blues have not lost since 2006.

Scotland however, will be desperate to back up their impressive win over Italy. They improved from the previous two weeks to hold out the Italians whilst under an immense amount of pressure. For them it’s key to forget the history and just go for it. In their last three games, results have been tight. Pre-Rugby World Cup in Paris, Laidlaw had a kick which almost certainly would’ve drawn the game with France. Scotland opted for a tap and go which unfortunately ended in a knock on from new cap Hugh Blake, but the Scots have been closing in on an elusive French win with a string of close results. As was highlighted to me on Reddit though, France have heritage and have the most Championship wins of any side, (5 wins, the most recent in 2010) so will nonetheless be a stern test for Stern Vern’s men.

KEY MATCH-UP

Maxime Medard and Stuart Hogg have both been highlights in their sides this Championship, bringing that level of class and skill to their sides to make for some exciting periods of play. Both have been key in getting the team on the front foot and I expect both to be crucial to their sides again this weekend.

PREDICTION: Another tough one, but I’m going to predict Scotland a 3-5 point win. Based on current form alone, I think Scotland just edge this one.

So there you have it. My look ahead to the weekend with some questionable predictions! Also, don’t forget to join me on Tuesday 15th at 20:00 UK time, as I guest host a popup version of Driving Maul’s #RugbyChat

Ps. If anyone wins money off the back of this article, let me know I did a good job!

The Scribbler, March 9th, 2016

Twitter:@RugbyScribbler

The Scottish Exodus- Good or Bad?

Over the last few seasons, Scotland have lost a fair share of stars. This week, Greig Tonks confirmed his move to London Irish, with Sean Maitland having signed for them last year and Edinburgh captain Mike Coman also on their books as of next season. Glasgow have lost two prop-forwards as Cusack has signed for Newcastle Falcons, following Jon Welsh’ switch to the Premiership side in the summer. Other stars who have left or are due to include Scotland internationals Matt Scott, David Denton, Tim Visser, Euan Murray and Tom Heathcote. Other players such as DTH Van de Merwe, Niko Matawalu and Connor Braid have left Scottish shores, with Taquele Naiyarovoro, Grant Gilchrist and Leone Nakarawa all set to leave too. Whether they’re Scottish qualified or not, or whether you rate these individuals is irrelevant. That’s an awful lot of players to lose over the space of a season. But is this a good or bad thing for Scottish rugby?

I thought I’d start with the negatives. These players who are leaving are big names. Some, maybe don’t fall into the international class category, but have made significant impacts at their clubs. These are players who have grown alongside Edinburgh and Glasgow. Last season saw Scotland’s first significant piece of club silverware in the professional era as Glasgow Warriors became PRO12 champions. Edinburgh also managed to shake off a poor string of form at the start of last season, to make it to the Challenge cup final. These are significant steps for these clubs and the players had a winning mentality which helped to achieve these things. With those players leaving, it feels like it’s a step backwards, especially for Edinburgh who are set to lose/have lost so much quality by the end of the season, they will need a rebuild.

The loss of players arguably may stunt the growth of professional rugby in Scotland, too. It’s a natural reaction to support a winning side and this has certainly shown at Glasgow. The club reported at the start of the season that season ticket holders were up seventy percent since the 2012/13 season, which is a significant growth within two years. Perhaps this growth isn’t so evident at Edinburgh, but even when you look to the national side, Murrayfield sold out in record time for the Six Nations this year. Following a disruptive season, with both sides losing players to the Rugby World Cup and the Six Nations, next season looks as though it may also be a tough one for the Scottish sides as the they attempt to gel and incorporate the new players coming through. My big question is, will rugby continue to grow if the results begin to drop off at club level? It won’t necessarily happen, but if it does, it would be a shame following all the steps Scottish Rugby has been making after a slow start to the professional era.

This is subjective. If you believe that International results will make more people interested in supporting professional rugby in Scotland, then the exodus could well work out positively with lots of new talent developing. On the other hand if you believe it all starts with the clubs being successful and increasing the profile of the sport in Scotland, to then feed the national side, then perhaps you will feel that the number of departures is worrying.

The above is, of course a worst case scenario. There are also a lot of positives you can take from these players moving on.

One positive to take is that ultimately teams need a good coach to win-  In Vern Cotter, Alan Solomons and Gregor Townsend Scotland have that, and all of them have renewed their contracts (Scotland, Edinburgh, Glasgow respectively). They will be key in helping to nurture young talent as they have done for the past few years. People argue that although coaches are hugely important, at the end of the day, it’s the players on the field who ultimately decide whether the game is won or loss. The thing that makes a great coach is turning those new players into quality operators. Look how many players have become classy internationals who were in Sean Lineen/Gregor Townsend’s squads a few years ago (Hogg, Bennett, Dunbar..) and how many quality young players are coming through under Solomons at Edinburgh now (Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Blair Kinghorn, Jamie Ritchie..)

This opens a real opportunity for young talent. Scotland U20’s have so far gone well in the Six Nations, defeating last years winners and world championship runners-up, England, as well as Italy. They recorded a narrow 18-15 loss to Wales. Players such as Jamie Ritchie and Blair Kinghorn have been slotting in well at Edinburgh during the Six Nations period. Out west, Glasgow Scott Cummings has been playing well in the second row and James Malcolm the academy hooker has looked comfortable in the front-row Glasgow this season. With established internationals and club players moving on, this gives young players the opportunity to step up to the plate and I feel that in Solomons and Townsend, these players are being given an excellent opportunity to become full-time and quality professional rugby players, players who can make the national squad a few years down the line.

Another large positive (depending on your opinion of the PRO12) is that the players who will be  on, will be going to more competitive, better supported leagues. This will only help to push them on with their performances and rounding their skills. Lots of Premiership and Top 14 sides have got lots of strength in depth, where perhaps in Scotland some of the players would be pencilled in as the first choice player without a second thought. Players will have to fight for their shirt and that can only be a good thing.

At larger clubs it can also add that element of coping with pressure. With average attendances much higher across the board in England and France, the players will have to deal with larger crowds on a more regular basis, making them more accustomed to a pressurised environment. If there’s something Scotland sides have been criticised of, especially of late, its not knowing how to close out games and win. If key players are playing in a high pressure environment more regularly, this should help them to keep a cool head at International level- just look how well Greig Laidlaw has progressed in his overall skills and leadership since his move down south to Gloucester in 2014.

Of course, I wanted to see what people think the reasons for the number of departures is- The majority voted that it was a combination of financial reasons and a sign that Scotland is now producing more, quality players. Many also suggested that it was planned by the SRU to make space for the up and coming stars of Scottish Rugby.

Scottish exodus
My twitter poll on Scottish players leaving the country

 

Personally, I see these moves as a positive, with more Scottish qualified players getting access to regular, top flight rugby and believe that it will pay dividends a few seasons down the line. The only thing that concerns me is that a number of the players have gone to London Irish and Newcastle Falcons- both fighting to avoid relegation. This doesn’t provide a winning culture (at present) and could well affect players internationally- in my pre six-nations squad I went as far as dropping Maitland as I feel he just isn’t doing anything special at London Irish, only occasionally showing signs of how he used to play at Glasgow. He now gets more regular game time, but losing that winning culture has worked against the regular game time he now gets. If one of these sides is relegated, you’d hope the International players have a get out clause.

As usual, please let me know your thoughts by commenting here, Reddit, or on my Twitter!

The Scribbler, March 4th, 2016

Twitter:@RugbyScribbler