'Positive finish sets Scots up for momentous year'

2 months ago 35
Finn Russell and Darcy Graham were the star turns for Scotland in a big win over ArgentinaFinn Russell and Darcy Graham were the star turns for Scotland in a big win over Argentina

An autumn campaign that started with Finn Russell's shock omission from the Scotland squad ended with the number 10 basking in the acclaim of an adoring Murrayfield crowd.

Russell's display against Argentina, hot on the heels of an impressive showing against New Zealand, was the fly-half at his best. He does his best work in the eye of the storm, drawing defenders to him like a moth to a flame before finding a way to put others through gaps.

Without Russell, Scotland struggled to get their back three into the games against Australia and Fiji. Against the Pumas Darcy Graham, Duhan van der Merwe and Stuart Hogg plundered five tries. All eight of Scotland's tries were scored by backs, an increasingly rare thing in this age where the driving lineout maul is king.

So what have we learned about Scotland over the course of an autumn campaign that delivered wins against Fiji and Argentina and defeats to Australia and New Zealand? Not a lot that we didn't already know.

Russell proved beyond doubt he is by some considerable distance Scotland's preeminent fly-half, but we already knew that, even if Gregor Townsend wanted us to believe otherwise at the outset of the campaign.

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It looked like Townsend was going all-in on his project to turn Blair Kinghorn into his first-choice 10, but in the end he started just one of the four Tests, the opener against Australia in which he performed well before missing what would have been a match-winning penalty at the death.

The Edinburgh man has not done much wrong and it's unfair how the Russell-Townsend saga has deflected so much focus onto him. The reality though is it's hard to see Kinghorn getting too many further opportunities in the near future to displace the Racing 92 man.

With the World Cup less than a year away and the Six Nations on the horizon, the time for experimentation is over. Russell is the man in possession of the number 10 jersey - Townsend said as much after the Argentina win - and when he's in this form it's unthinkable that Scotland would contemplate going into a big Test match without their chief playmaker.

Whatever issues still linger between Russell and Townsend must be ironed out once and for all. Hopefully the last two weeks have rebuilt some trust between the two and they can move forward together in what will be a huge year for them both.

Just as Russell is key to Scotland's game, so too is Darcy Graham.

The little Hawick winger has been outstanding for club and country this season. Increasingly he's been likened to the Springboks livewire Cheslin Kolbe, and on current form you'd imagine Kolbe would be perfectly happy with the comparison.

Darcy Graham scored a hat-trick of tries in the win over ArgentinaGraham scored three of eight tries in the win over Argentina

Graham made an explosive start to the campaign with Edinburgh and has carried that form into the international arena, his hat-trick against the Pumas adding to the one he grabbed against the All Blacks.

It's easy to say he's developed into one of the game's deadliest finishers, but the truth is he has been since he burst onto the scene. A small, powerful frame combined with electric footwork makes him a nightmare to defend against. Captain Jamie Ritchie said after the game he expects Graham to come out on top any time he gets into a one-on-one situation. Invariably he does.

The next Lions tour is not until 2025, but those are the sort of terms in which Graham must be thought of and be thinking of himself.

It's almost a decade since Richie Gray was selected for the Lions, and you would have been forgiven for thinking the towering Glasgow lock had retired from the international scene given his lack of involvement in recent times. He's been nothing short of a revelation this autumn.

Scotland's lineout looks so much more assured when the size and experience of Gray is in there. He's a pretty imposing figure for opposition hookers to contend with too.

It was a shame Gray was banned for the final match given the form he was in, and with his brother Jonny in there along with Grant Gilchrist, Scott Cummings and Sam Skinner to return, the second row seems in fine health.

It feels like Scotland neither took significant strides forward nor suffered any huge setbacks this autumn. They were a Kinghorn penalty against Australia away from what would have been considered a fine campaign. Then again, who knows how things would have played out had that gone over.

The important thing was to end on a positive note, and putting eight tries and 52 points on a Pumas side who have picked off some huge scalps themselves this year was certainly a satisfactory finale.

There's only one question this Scotland team and its coaches should be asking themselves going into a momentous year - how do we want to be remembered?

For Gregor Townsend, for Finn Russell, for this crop of players we have been led to believe are Scotland's best in a generation, what they do in 2023 could very well define them all.

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