Six Nations review: Progress, but more is needed for Scots to be force

Edinburgh and Scotland prop Willem Nel has played himself into Lions contention

Edinburgh and Scotland prop Willem Nel has played himself into Lions contention

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WHEN defeat in Cardiff stretched Scotland’s winless run in the tournament to nine, there seemed to be a fresh gruesome stat everywhere you looked at Scotland’s Six Nations record.

Even after that horror run was mercifully ended with victory in Rome there remained a lingering threat of a worst run of home defeats. Ever. The uplifting 29-18 win over France, which was the undoubted highlight of the campaign, put paid to that and all of a sudden the Scots were on the verge of their best run since the 1996 Five Nations.

That was not to be as things took a bit of a backward step with the 35-25 loss to Ireland in Dublin but, come the final whistle in the Aviva Stadium, however, with three more tries scored albeit in a losing cause, there were far more pleasing statistical nuggets to soothe the soul somewhat.

Two wins (more than the past two campaigns combined), a record points total of 122, the first ever positive points difference in the Six Nations and 11 tries, beating the previous best total of nine. From a low base, admittedly, but welcome developments all the same.

An overall mark of B minus would probably be fair when looking generally at five games which included enough signs of continued progress under Vern Cotter to provide reasons for optimism on the back of a promising World Cup.

The sparkling returns to form of star men like Stuart Hogg and Richie Gray, the thrilling displays by Duncan Taylor which further boosted the burgeoning strength in depth at centre, and the strength of the set scrum, built on the rock of Edinburgh front-row trio of Al Dickinson, Ross Ford and WP Nel, were all sources of cheer.

The scrum didn’t go quite as well in Dublin, but expectations in that sphere of the game were set extremely high following masterclass displays against the usually formidable Italians and French. Nel in particular has built a fearsome reputation and, if he maintains that level, looks a stick on to be the Lions tighthead next summer.

Hooker Ford, meanwhile, is for the time being stranded on 99 caps and it will be interesting to see if he hits the century on the summer tour to Japan, or is rested and has to wait to bring up the ton during the autumn series.

In the past a two-Test trip to Japan would have “development squad” written all over it but, as the 2019 hosts showed at the last World Cup, they will provide a serious challenge and Cotter will need a decent chunk of experience to win that series.

Looking ahead there are still clear areas where Scotland need to improve if they are to be consistent winners.

More accuracy at the breakdown, greater concentration in defence and some serious addressing of the continuing Achilles heel that is the restart are key phases Cotter and his squad need to work on.

Discipline dropped badly in Dublin too after seeming to be getting under control.

It seemed too good to be true when Scotland finished the fourth round of games as the team with the lowest penalty count in the tournament. That was a remarkable turnaround from previous seasons when the Scots have consistently been at the other end of the disciplinary table. That fell apart dramatically on Saturday as normal service was resumed and then some as French referee Pascal Gauzere risked repetitive strain injury, so often was his arm flying up in Ireland’s direction. The points leaked during the sin binnings of John Barclay and Alex Dunbar cost the game for Scotland, who find things hard enough when it’s 15 v 15.

With the international season now at an end, the focus returns to the domestic arena and the Scottish pro-teams quest to finish on a high note.

Four wins on the bounce have resurrected the Guinness PRO12 defence champions Glasgow, while Edinburgh face a real battle to secure the top-six finish and return to the European Champions Cup that coach Alan Solomons has made an absolute priority.

Injuries to Gloucester-bound centre Matt Scott and luckless lock Grant Gilchrist are a blow but the return in the next week or so of the front-row warriors and flanker John Hardie will beef them up for the challenges ahead.

Scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, who has had a frustrating lack of game time, will also be looking to build a good run of form and secure his place on the plane to Japan where he would hope to add to his list of caps.