>> Guscott: Scots have chance of Grand Slam
“The Scots are playing pretty directly, and they are doing it with the pace that enabled them to put New Zealand and Australia on the back foot”
THE outright winners from the Autumn series are Scotland, especially as England and Ireland were pretty well nailed-on to have strong campaigns with teams like Argentina, Samoa, South Africa and Fiji as their opponents.
The Scots, by contrast, had New Zealand and Australia to contend with, and they had an opportunity to win against the All Blacks. They kept themselves in the chase long enough to take a late lead, and although they could not hang onto it there was plenty of evidence of the improvement in their attack since Gregor Townsend became coach.
Scotland backed it up with another strong performance against Australia, and they would probably have won even if prop Sekope Kepu’s red card had not meant they were playing against 14 men for the best part of the match.
The Scots are playing pretty directly, and they are doing it with the pace that enabled them to put New Zealand and Australia on the back foot for long periods. There is real industry in their pack, and with John Barclay and Hamish Watson as the back row spearheads they contest hard at the tackle and the breakdown.
Ali Price is a busy scrum-half, although he has to learn to pass faster rather than always looking at whether there is anything on for him. If he doesn’t get out of the habit, he will find himself getting clipped on a regular basis.
Finn Russell is maturing into a wonderful fly-half, and with runners of the ability of full-back Stuart Hogg – who has been the Six Nations player of the tournament for the last two seasons – the Scots backline thrives off quick ball.
Huw Jones at centre is another real threat, but so much depends on the Scottish forwards. During the autumn they were very competitive against classy opponents, but there is still the lurking suspicion that they could get bullied.
However, if they stand up to be counted against England – where they are at home – and against Ireland in Dublin, they could gain enough momentum to secure a long-awaited Grand Slam.
England played Argentina, who are a spent force, and Samoa, who are in turmoil, to notch a couple of expected wins. In the game against Australia they were helped by the Wallabies giving away two yellow cards, because against the No.2 side in the world you cannot expect to win with only 13 or 14 players on the pitch for 20 minutes.
Eddie Jones is working on making England more resilient mentally, and they are travelling well. My main criticism this autumn is that in terms of attacking ability they are way off the standard required to make their world champion ambitions come true.
They are working hard on set moves off scrum and line-out, but I don’t see anything ground-breaking in what they are doing, and at the moment New Zealand, Australia and Ireland all have better back-lines.
Ireland have a well-manicured look about them under Joe Schmidt, and Jacob Stockdale is a big find. The Ulster wing is a big, powerful runner, but he is also graceful, with an impressive step and swerve. Having played centre he appears happy to come infield and look for work, and the Irish appear to have unearthed one hell of a player.
Joey Carberry is also finding his feet, giving Schmidt a new generation playmaker, and with the likes of Peter O’Mahony and Tadgh Furlong leading the charge up front the Irish look in good shape.
What Ireland have to work-out is how to outmanoeuvre an opposition that comes at you with great line-speed in defence. However, on the plus side the Jonny Sexton wrap-around is still there, and their passing and accuracy has improved.
Wales have found this autumn that under pressure their skills are not up to scratch. The Welsh have adopted a new two playmaker set-up, with either Dan Biggar or Rhys Priestland at 10, and Owen Williams at 12.
However, you sense that, like England, what they also want is the option of a big unit at inside-centre to get them over the gain-line. It used to be that tight-heads were the bigger money makers in our game, but now everyone wants a big line-breaking 12, although those who also have the vision and distribution skills of a fly-half are as rare as hen’s teeth.
I can see what Wales want to do, but at the moment their accuracy is lacking. They probably need to simplify their game, and straighten it up by becoming more direct – which is what they did with Jamie Roberts. The problem they have discovered is that the more you pass, the more lateral you tend to get.
Wales entertain Scotland in the opening round of the Six Nations, and that looks like a more demanding start than they would have liked to a tournament that this time looks pretty finely balanced.
Maturing: Finn Russell is becoming a wonderful fly-half