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Projected Starters Series: Scotland

Projected Starters Series: Scotland

Stuart Hogg Scotland

After suffering late heartbreak in Argentina in the summer, Scotland will be looking to end the calendar year on a high in the Autumn Nations Series.

Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and a shot at revenge against Los Pumas represents a tough test for Scotland, but as shown with victory over the Wallabies in last year’s Autumn Nations Series and against England in the Guinness Six Nations, Scotland can beat anybody at BT Murrayfield.

Head coach Gregor Townsend is blessed with several options throughout his squad, and he will be eagerly watching the opening rounds of the United Rugby Championship, Gallagher Premiership and Top 14 to sort any selection headaches.

It is now 12 months till the Rugby World Cup, and Townsend will be looking to finalise his starting XV – here we look at what that team may look like in the Autumn.

Front Row

The loosehead prop position is one of a few areas in Gregor Townsend’s team that is very much up for grabs, with Rory Sutherland and Pierre Schoeman seemingly the two main men in the battle for the starting spot.

Sutherland was a British & Irish Lion in last summer and has been excellent in the set-piece for Scotland since his debut in 2016.

But Schoeman is one of the world’s best props in the loose which gives Townsend a real dilemma when it comes to deciding who starts and who finishes the game.

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Against Argentina in the summer Schoeman started two Tests with Sutherland starting the third Test – suggesting that Townend is likely to rotate depending on the opposition.

Another area that is far from decided is at hooker, where three different players started in the summer Test series in Argentina.

George Turner, Ewan Ashman and Dave Cherry all started and came on as a replacement in one Test each, and all three have their own benefits of starting.

Ewan Ashman Scotland

Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally have been the two main options for some time and will surely be among selection again this Autumn too.

Turner would have been in pole position before the summer, but the continued improvement of 22-year-old Ashman has created a real battle for the Scotland two jersey, while Cherry is also an option.

The tighthead prop position is a different story altogether with Zander Fagerson making the tighthead position his own in recent years.

Fagerson earnt his 50th cap against Los Pumas this summer and has certainly taken that position by the scruff of the neck.

Javan Sebastian was the prop on the bench in all three Test matches in the summer, so he is likely to continue in that role, while WP Nel was involved off the bench in the Guinness Six Nations.

Second Row

Scotland’s second row pairing seems fairly secure heading into the Autumn, with Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray looking like the preferred duo for Townsend.

Gilchrist captained Scotland in the first two Tests in Argentina in the absence of Stuart Hogg, showing his credentials as a leader in the Scotland camp.

He is an excellent lineout forward and seems to form up perfectly with Gray, who is surely one of the first names on the team sheet with his outstanding work rate and simply ridiculous defensive stats.

Other options include 2021’s Sir Willie Purves Quaich winner Scott Cummings, who featured in two of the three Tests against Argentina, while Sam Skinner is also a potential option, although his flexibility to also play in the back row, may well see him operating as a replacement for Townsend.

Back Row

Scotland’s back row is probably one of the most settled areas of selection – with only injury forcing Townsend’s hand to make changes.

Jamie Ritchie was ruled out for the remainder of the season after suffering a torn hamstring in the 20-17 win over England in Round 1 of the Guinness Six Nations.

He was back in full training in the summer though with Edinburgh, which would suggest he will be straight back in at blindside flanker.

Hamish Watson

Hamish Watson is one of the best openside flankers in world rugby and has been for some time now.

Another of Scotland’s Lions, Watson earned his 50th cap in the summer, and his ability both with ball in hand and more impressively defensively, make him an absolute certainty to start at openside flanker if he is fit.

Matt Fagerson completes the back row for Scotland, and at just 24, he has quite quickly become one of the most dependable members of the team.

Player of the match in the recent Calcutta Cup triumph, Fagerson played every minute of the tour to Argentina, and again barring injury will be at the back of the scrum on October 29th against Australia.

Skinner can cover the back row, but the likes of Andy Christie, Rory Darge and Magnus Bradbury are the most likely to compete for spaces in the team, with Darge in particular impressing when deputising for Ritchie, and the most likely to force his way into the run-on team.

Half-Backs

Scotland are blessed with Lions at both scrum-half and fly-half, again making selection in those positions almost completely concrete.

Ali Price, who earned three Test caps on the recent Lions Tour to South Africa, has started seven of the previous eight Scotland matches, and would be as close to a certainty as you can get to be Scotland’s starting scrum-half for the duration of the Autumn Nations Series.

Outside Price will likely be Scotland’s play-maker Finn Russell, who quite simply is world class.

In every facet of Scotland’s attacking game, Russell is an absolute necessity, getting them into the right areas of the field with his clever kicking game as well as creating tries for fun from anywhere on the field.

Price and Russell look set to be the starting pair, with George Horne and Ben White battling it out for the replacement spot on the bench, alongside Blair Kinghorn who appears to have secure the long-term berth as Russell’s deputy, starting all three Tests in his absence in Argentina. At this point, he probably has not done enough to challenge Russell’s starting role, but that could yet change.

Centres

An area of real strength for Scotland, Townsend has some incredible options to deploy in his midfield.

Sam Johnson started at inside centre for two of the three Tests in the summer, but in Sione Tuipulotu, he has competition to hold down that jersey long-term.

Johnson is an excellent defender and has been a part of the squad since 2019, earning 26 caps in the process, while Tuipulotu is a younger, more powerful and exciting centre.

Chris Harris is yet another British & Irish Lion and has been Scotland’s preferred option for some time at outside centre.

He epitomises Steve Tandy’s defensive vision but is now under threat from two more attacking centres – with Mark Bennett and Huw Jones both having undergone recent career revivals.

Bennett played in all three Tests in Argentina, scoring his first international try in seven years in the first Test.

He will certainly be in Townsend’s mind now, as will Jones, who starred at Harlequins last season, although mainly operating as a full-back.

Jones has a sensational record with Scotland, scoring 12 tries in 30 caps, and will certainly be knocking right on the door for selection again, although he too may be selected more as a replacement option due to his versatility.

Back Three

Scotland have several options at wing and full-back, but in reality, when fit, they have a pretty set back three.

The combination of Duhan van der Merwe, Darcy Graham and Stuart Hogg is one that contains an excellent mix of pace, aerial ability and power, and contains two more Lions.

Van der Merwe brings serious power to the Scotland back line, at six foot four and 105kg, Van der Merwe is a real threat to any defence – as shown by his prolific try scoring record of 12 tries in just 19 Scotland appearances.

Duhan van der Merwe competes in the air with Jesse Kriel 13/11/2021

That is balanced out by Graham on the right wing, who is an out and out speedster with electric feet.

One of the most improved members of the Scotland team, Graham may be smaller than most wingers at five foot nine, but he makes up for that with serious speed and agility, as evidenced by his outrageous finish against Wales in Cardiff in the Guinness Six Nations.

Stuart Hogg is Scotland’s captain, record try scorer and talisman and it is simply unfathomable that he would not be wearing the 15 jersey against Australia if fit.

Huw Jones could work his way into the back three at some point, while 22-year-old Rufus McLean has already managed to score twice in his three Test caps, Kyle Steyn scored four tries on debut against Tonga, with the likes of Damian Hoyland and Kyle Rowe are also options should there be an injury to any of the established trio.

Possible XV

15 Stuart Hogg
14 Darcy Graham
13 Chris Harris
12 Sam Johnson
11 Duhan van Der Merwe
10 Finn Russell
9 Ali Price

1 Rory Sutherland
2 George Turner
3 Zander Fagerson
4 Grant Gilchrist
5 Jonny Gray
6 Jamie Ritchie
7 Hamish Watson
8 Matt Fagerson

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