Darcy Graham will be a key man for Scotland in 2023
If you had told the Scottish management and players – and the supporters – that 2022 would start with a win over England and end with a team scoring over 50 points against Argentina, then everyone would have been intrigued to discover the 10 Tests sandwiched in between.
Sadly, only three of those other Tests – against Italy in the Six Nations, Argentina in the summer and Fiji in the fall – have delivered victories.
Defeats came to Wales, France and Ireland in the Six Nations, two defeats to Argentina to lose the summer series 2-1 and autumn reverses to Australia and New Zealand have since followed.
Winning England, 60 minutes against Australia, an hour against the All Blacks and beating the penalty-killed Argentines last Saturday gave a glimpse of Scotland. We just haven’t seen this shape regularly enough.
So what are the main things to watch ahead of a very busy 2023 that starts with a trip to Twickenham on February 4 and ends with the Rugby World Cup in France later in the year?
Pierre Schoeman has been a great addition to the Scottish top tier of late and if Rory Sutherland’s knee injury isn’t too serious then having these two men covering loose heads on Matchday 23 is solid. Jamie Bhatti has also done well off the bench on the loose recently.
Hooker is interesting because no one has appropriated the number two jersey recently. Fraser Brown has had his injury problems but the 33-year-old is now the man in possession after the past two weeks and he looks very determined to extend his international career. Whether Stuart McInally can return to the mix remains to be seen and George Turner and Ewan Ashman are also options.
Zander Fagerson is only 26 years old, but has more than 50 caps to his name and is the nailed one at the start. If he does get injured though, Gregor Townsend could be in trouble as WP Nel is now 36 and needs to be managed and Murphy Walker has just two caps and is struggling for playing time with Glasgow. Scarlets’ Javan Sebastian and Bath’s D’Arcy Rae may be needed.
At the start of 2022 few would have thought that Richie Gray’s Scottish career still had legs, but after the way he played in the fall (pre-suspension) he could well be one of the first names on the team sheet in February. . Scott Cummings was Scotland’s leading man in this area from 2020-2021 but injuries have blunted his progress.
It would be great to see him and Gray senior bond at some point as Jonny Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Sam Skinner and others in the country are well supplied in that department.
When Rory Darge gets back to full fitness, it will be interesting to see what combination Scotland choose in this area. As skipper Jamie Ritchie is due to start while Matt Fagerson has been one of the best performers this year at No 8 but now has real pressure from Jack Dempsey. Darge may well be in competition with Hamish Watson for the starting seven shirt, but whichever trio are chosen, Scotland need to get more consistent results from this talented section of the squad.
Back line potential
Ali Price is the man wearing the number nine shirt at the moment, but London Irish’s Ben White is knocking on the door after looking good every time he joined the action from the bench. You also have to feel a little for George Horne. He returned from injury and made an appearance against Australia a few weeks ago never to be seen again in the fall. He still has something to offer at this level, that’s for sure.
The most talked about thing in Scottish rugby for about six weeks. It’s clear there are still issues between Townsend and Finn Russell, but hopefully they’ve had time over the past two weeks when the latter has played to chat.
If more conversations between the duo are needed by February, then too bad because Scotland need Russell happy and laid off if they are to head into 2023 feeling as optimistic as possible. Feel Blair Kinghorn, Adam Hastings and Ross Thompson stuck in the middle of this soap opera.
Gloucester’s Chris Harris was the go-to man for Townsend – and defense coach Steve Tandy – at 13 and that shows little sign of changing going forward.
Who plays 12 is interesting and at the moment Sione Tuipulotu is the front man who did well in the fall and scored a few tries against Argentina. Sam Johnson is a Townsend favorite and should be back after injury at the Six Nations, but you just feel Scotland need the frankness that Tuipulotu brings.
And it’s still a mystery to many why Rory Hutchinson hardly ever watches Scotland.
Anyone playing in midfield for Scotland, their main job must be to create space around the edges and pass the ball to Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham.
The former has now scored 14 tries in 23 caps for his adopted country while the latter is the name on everyone’s lips north of the border at the moment, his hat-trick against Argentina meaning he has 16 tries in 33 appearances for Scotland.
They are bankers to start with if fit while Stuart Hogg has shown in patches over the fall that he is getting back to his best at the back. And with the Exeter chief now just four 100 caps away for his country, expect a huge 2023 from him.