LONG READ | Scotland 2018 - a year in review

In this piece we take a look back across Scotland’s 12 Tests of 2018, reflecting on the key moments and notable performers from the year.

Scotland enjoyed a year of stirring national team performances in front of capacity crowds at every home game, celebrating four wins from the five, and seven from 12 overall.

In that time the national team scored 320 points and 40 tries (26.67 and 3.33 per game), conceding 256 points and 26 tries (21.33 and 2.17 per game) – Sean Maitland emerging as the year’s top try-scorer with five, despite missing the summer tour.

Some 10 players made their Scotland debuts in the year (coincidentally the same as the year prior), with this year’s group split evenly between forwards and backs, with six of the 10 given their opportunity on the three-Test summer tour.

2018 debutants

1090 - Murray McCallum v Wales, Principality Stadium (6NC)
1091 - Blair Kinghorn v England, BT Murrayfeld (6NC)
1092 - James Lang v Canada, Edmonton (ST)
1093 - Jamie Ritchie v Canada, Edmonton (ST)
1094 - Adam Hastings v Canada, Edmonton (ST)
1095 - Lewis Carmichael v Canada, Edmonton (ST)
1096 - Matt Fagerson v USA, Houston (ST)
1097 - George Horne v USA, Houston (ST)
1098 - Darcy Graham v Wales, Cardiff (AT)
1099 - Sam Skinner v Fiji, BT Murrayfield (AT)

Pictured: Adam Hastings, Jamie Ricthie and George Horne became established internationalists in the year of their debut

2018 SIX NATIONS

An impressive autumn in 2017 set Scotland up nicely for the 2018 NatWest 6 Nations, the first with Head Coach Gregor Townsend at the helm, ultimately finishing third with three wins for the second time since five nations became six.

The tournament will be most remembered for the country’s first victory over England in a decade and an excellent comeback against France, in which Jonny Gray, Stuart Hogg, Huw Jones and captain John Barclay all played starring roles… but more on them later.

Scotland didn’t get off to the championship start they had in mind, as early scores gave Wales a stronghold on the opening game in Cardiff, which they never relinquished.

Experienced heads like Sean Maitland, Greig Laidlaw, Pete Horne and Ryan Wilson were then drafted into the starting line-up to face France in round two.

Maitland scored after 13-minutes but Scotland still had to fight back from behind, Greig Laidlaw kicking six penalties to punish French indiscipline and win the Test.

Then followed the oldest rivalry in international rugby, with Scotland aiming for not only their first win over England since 2008 but also becoming just the second team in 25 games to inflict defeat on their English opponents.

The atmosphere inside BT Murrayfield was as intense as you’d expect, and the noise levels were only increased by what was a fantastic first-half performance by the home side.

Huw Jones (2) and Sean Maitland scored to give the hosts a 22-6 half-time lead before ferocious Scottish defence and a dominance at the breakdown ensured a famous victory and the return of the Calcutta Cup.

Virtually the same side that downed England was fielded against unbeaten Ireland in Dublin.

The big difference between the sides was the conversion rate of try-scoring opportunities. Scotland certainly caused the Irish plenty of problems, but some errant passing meant they didn’t always go rewarded, eventually leaving the Emerald Isle in defeat.

The final day of the championship produced one of best games for the neutral. Scotland caught Italy at their best, with the hosts desperate for a first win and, when former Scotland U20 stand-off Tomasso Allan scored his second try of the game after 45 minutes, the Scots were staring down a 24-12 deficit.

Tries from Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg brought the Scots roaring back into the game before the nerveless Laidlaw showed his worth once again as he kicked the winning penalty from out wide to win.

Some 6NC stats

While Scotland will always look first to collective credit in performance, a cursory glance across a number of performance indicators highlights some impressive individual efforts.

It will be of little surprise to see Stuart Hogg’s name at the top of the metres-made list – both positionally as a kick recipient and as an individual of audacious talent – a feature complemented by the Borderer’s ability with ball in hand, that saw him top the tournament’s offload list – indicating that he not only finds space for himself but looks for it for others around him to carry on.

Maitland and Jones also feature regularly in conspiring KPIs – Jones, for instance was second only to Hogg in metres made and defenders beaten, heading Scotland’s list of clean breaks.

In the pack, Barclay and Gray rightly take many plaudits for their Six Nations showings, Gray putting in a herculean, championship-record breaking 100 tackles.

To put this in context, this was 20 more than the tackles-made runner up for the tournament overall, Scotland back-row Hamish Watson (80).

Barclay’s seven turnovers identified his as a clear leader for Scotland’a campaign in that regard, sharing the top spot for the tournament with formidable France centre Matthew Bastareaud.

SUMMER TOUR

Scotland completed the 2017/18 season on tour to Canada, USA and Argentina. The tourists scored 18 tries and saw impressive debuts from six players, four of whom featured in the opening tour defeat of Canada in Edmonton (48-10).

Hooker George Turner scored a hat-trick of tries, becoming the first Scotland player to touch-down three times since Ally Hogg against Romania in 2007.

The following week Scotland recorded their first ever loss to the USA, by a single point, in an eventful match in Houston (29-30), before the national team made amends by concluding their tour with an emphatic win over Argentina in Resistencia, scoring five first-half tries to put the game out of sight by the end of the first 40 and eventually winning 44-15 - captain Stuart McInally making up for lost time on the tour through injury after sitting out the Canada and USA games (the only two Tests he missed in an excellent year overall) with a try-scoring start.

Some Summer Tour stats

Arguably the most notable feature of the 2018 tour was the showcase made by some of the nation’s most promising young players breaking into the Test scene, in particular the maturity shown to bounce back from defeat to USA and deliver such an impressive display against Argentina.

Blair Kinghorn (25 carries, 10 tackle breaks and three line-breaks) was a key contributor and arguably led the way, with Adam Hastings (16 carries and eight tackle breaks) and scrum-half George Horne – who scored twice against the Pumas – close contenders in recording performances to build on fine club seasons and stand them in good stead for the autumn and years ahead.

AUTUMN TESTS

The high of the summer tour win over Argentina was brought to an abrupt end in the autumn’s opening Test as Scotland suffered a disappointing 21-10 defeat to Wales in Cardiff.

Taking place outside World Rugby’s designated international window, the sides were made up wholly of home-based players.

With plentiful possession in the second-half, Scotland were able to produce some promising attacks, however, the side lacked the necessary penetration to get over the line and a scoreless second-half left the Scots looking forward to home comforts and the prospect getting back to winning ways.

Scotland responded in impressive fashion, running in eight tries – five in a second-half where they prevented the free-spirited Fijians from scoring a single point – to open their home 2018 Autumn Tests campaign in fine style – a result put in greater perspective by the Islanders’ defeat of France in Paris later that month.

A hat-trick from Tommy Seymour lifted him one above his Glasgow Warriors team-mate Hogg (as well as former playing greats Gavin Hastings, Alan Tait and Gregor Townsend) on Scotland’s all-time try list with 19, while touch-downs from Allan Dell, Fraser Brown, Maitland, Ritchie and Hastings junior helped Scotland to their biggest victory against Fiji to date.

In the second of three home fixtures Scotland withstood a brutal South African onslaught for much of the contest, drawing level on three occasions but, in a second-half where opportunities were precious, it was the visitors who emerged victorious.

Last up was arguably the least free-flowing Scotland contest in recent memory, such is the attacking verve to which we have become accustomed.

However, ‘a win is a win’ was enough consolation for most as the hosts defeated Argentina for a second time in the year.

At one point we were looking at the record books to check the last game that Scotland had failed to register a try – it was against Japan in Tokyo on the 2016 summer tour in case you were wondering – however some rare second-half continuity and accuracy saw Maitland dot down and complete an impressive season as Scotland’s top try-scorer for 2018.

Some Autumn Test stats

While the autumnal opponents differ from nation to nation it’s noteworthy to consider at least anecdotally the big Scotland player performances in the context of the home nations and visiting teams that include the likes of South Africa, New Zealand, Fiji and Argentina.

As an illustration of consistency then, it is impressive to see both Jonny Gray and Hamish Watson listed among the top ten tacklers in the autumn in sixth and seventh place overall, while it’s interesting to note the team conceded the joint-lowest average number of turnovers per game – equal to Wales and Tonga.

Hogg and Jones were back at the top of the team’s list for metres made however the defenders beaten category looked quite different – Alex Dunbar, Watson and Pete Horne making up the top three, while it was Ritchie (5), Fraser Brown (4) and Dunbar (3) who took the top three spots on turnovers won, impressive considering Brown was also third-top in carries made (34), showing impressive work rate in attack and defence to make his case amidst formidable alternatives in the position. 

Ritchie’s 42 tackles (the third best from the team in the autumn) got him in the positions needed to make those table-topping turnovers, with these stats appearing to underpin his emergence on the Test scene. Interestingly, he was also a major presence in the lineout, receiving the second most ball in the air.