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THE BREAKDOWN, STEVE SCOTT: Now championship has gone, Italy game should Scotland’s fifth World Cup warm-up

Ireland and Mack Hansen illustrated that while Scotland have come far, they've a long way to go.
Ireland and Mack Hansen illustrated that while Scotland have come far, they've a long way to go.

It’s tempting, comparing the first two games of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations with the last two, to come to the conclusion that Scotland are exactly who we thought they were.

Euphoria over the first fortnight was understandable. We’ve had cauld kale from Scotland in the championship for so long, after all. You could easily have been forgiven for thinking there was something different brewing.

The last two weeks, however, have been sobering. It’s been the top two ranked sides in the world. Unlike in many sports, the rankings actually pass the eye test in rugby.

Sobering, and even worrying

France bested Scotland in Paris, and you could say the result flattered them. But they then threw shade on the Scots’ opening week Twickenham triumph with their record demolition of England at HQ.

And Ireland continued their firm grip on Scotland at Murrayfield. It was a contest at half-time at 8-7. But the ease in which the Grand Slammers-elect bossed the last half-hour was not just sobering, but actually worrying.

Scotland did not have a single meaningful possession in the Irish 22 in the second 40. You struggle to see evidence of progress there. Or any clue that the Scots might do better in their World Cup meeting in Paris in October.

I actually think the Scots ARE further along than I had suspected they would be in January. The only problem is, the mountain remains as high as ever, and they’re only a little further up the trail.

Plenty people seem to be targeting Scotland’s withdrawal of their two starting props as the “turning point” in Sunday’s game. I’m inclined to agree the switch was a little early, but the real turning point was who Ireland threw on at roughly the same time.

A transformative replacement

Some of us were surprised when the veteran Conor Murray was preferred to Jamison Gibson-Park at scrum-half for Ireland.

Murray is a all-time great, a hall of fame standard player, but these days he’s a bit pedestrian at the base now and his box kicking game isn’t what it was.

When Gibson-Park came on to direct operations Ireland were utterly transformed. Their speed of ball and purpose increased immediately, and it was the replacement scrum-half’s perfect box kick that created the – crucial – second try.

This is what you get with Ireland – their sustained run of success has created a formidable machine with interchangeable parts. Their bench always looked much stronger than Scotland’s, and so it proved.

It reminded one of the New Zealand game in the autumn. They too had experienced presence on the bench that turned that game away from Scotland and in their favour.

The Scots have talked up their strength in depth and god knows Gregor Townsend has capped multitudes of players in an attempt to build it up.

But looking at the bench on Saturday you were confident about possibly Hamish Watson or maybe Blair Kinghorn producing a change of gear. Not Jamie Bhatti and Simon Berghan, or anyone else there.

World Cup warm ups start now

There are four World Cup warm-up games this summer to get more miles on the clock for Scotland’s depth or their other alternatives.

But really, I think that should be now regarded as five warm-ups, starting against Italy on Saturday.

Yes, the Italians are definitely an improving team and nobody should be treating them lightly.  Yes, Scotland would like to finish third in a Six Nations for the first time.

That would be progress, of a sort. But every Scot I’ve heard asked about finishing third has reacted like they were being offered a cup of cold sick.

And that’s good. Winning three games in a championship is no longer a progressive achievement, and finishing one place above the last couple of seasons shouldn’t be either.

But the World Cup now takes on even greater importance. Scotland in the 2024 Six Nations could be a very different looking team to what we see now. Both on the field and in the coaching box.

All focus should be re-directed towards September and October.

Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell’s absence this weekend offers greater scope to scout what we have in reserve at two key positions.

The fact that the Italians offer a far greater challenge than recently should actually encourage the coaching team to make, if not a developmental or experimental selection, at least an inventive one.

Scotland have beaten Italy 11 times in a row. It’s definitely worth the risk.

More representative games are always good

For once executing the wishes of the SRU AGM, Scottish Rugby have announced details of the refloat the Inter-District Championship agreed last year.

It’ll be short and sharp, with just four games – two semi-finals played in early May at Inverness and Galashiels. That’ll followed by two more games, a final and 3rd/4th place play-off, on May 21 at a venue to be determined.

In the semis Caledonia Reds will take on Glasgow and West, while Edinburgh will host the South.

For Caledonia, Dundee Rugby’s director of rugby Colin Sangster is to be head coach. Three well-kent and respected faces from North rugby, Kevin Wyness (Highland/GHA) Junior Bulumakau (Highland) and Sam Mountain (Gordonians) will assist.

Some who were campaigning for the inter-district’s rebirth probably envisaged it replacing the semi-pro Super6. That’s clearly not happening. Instead Glasgow and Edinburgh development sides are coming into an enlarged competition.

Anyone who watched through their fingers as Ireland Under-20 destroyed the young Scots last Friday will appreciate the need for our younger players to get more intensive match time more regularly.

For whatever reason, the existing Super6 set-up hasn’t resulted in enough games for younger players. The two pro team developmental sides should be made up of no-one else.