The Rugby World Cup years have, unfortunately, taken on a much greater meaning than they ever should have. Nowadays, there is a natural tendency to completely dry the slate. I remember the first time this happened in Scotland in 2003. Returning from an unsuccessful tournament in Australia, the Scots threw the baby out with the water.
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A string of top players, including the current head coach, were unceremoniously escorted out the door. Matt Williams took over and bled many young goats, but the ensuing whitewash of the six nations was all too predictable.
Williams, ridiculously out of his mind, led the team to just three victories in 18 months – over Samoa, a Japanese touring team made up mostly of students, and Italy. The last match was a disappointing 18-10 win over Murrayfield (Chris Paterson’s six penalties, what else?) and Scotland narrowly avoided being whitewashed twice.
Williams was shown the door and still has the worst record of any Scottish coach, ever. 2023 could be the same kind of minefield. It’s a big Six Nations, followed by a long summer of prep, then the France Rugby World Cup 2023. By the end of the year we could have a raft of player retirements, a head coach moving on, and the future could look very foggy indeed.
Most likely, Gregor Townsend, wittingly or unwittingly, will not become head coach of Scotland by November next year. He will likely have to leave if Scotland are not in the top eight of the last Rugby World Cup matches again. It only happened twice, in 2011 and 2019, and of course Gregor was in charge of Japan.
Six years as head coach of the national team and these days is a long time. Only Warren Gatland has lingered longer than this in recent years, and he has consistently been successful in Wales. In addition, Gregor may have other long-standing ambitions. Depending on who you talk to, he still dreams of working out somewhere in France before he hangs up his sneakers. Or perhaps there is a controlling role, a recast position of “rugby director” at Murrayfield, as his mentor and friend Ian McGeechan had.
The nemesis in the way
Meanwhile, in 2023, Gregor’s old nemesis, Ireland, is determined to do what he wants, in whatever direction he chooses. The result for the “Six Nations” should be three home victories – over Wales, Ireland and Italy. None of the three is a given.
Wales should resurrect under a returned Gatland, the Italians are on the rise (although the defeat of the South African IIs in November shows that there is still much to be done). As for Ireland, they have the number of Scotland under Townsend so unambiguous that no one even counts it.
Indeed, two games against the Irish – at Murrayfield on 12 March and at the Stade de France on 7 October – are central to Scotland throughout the year. After seven defeats on the rebound, is anyone particularly confident in both games? If so, what evidence do you have for this?
Similarly, the first Rugby World Cup was against another team that Scotland had recent problems with, defending champions South Africa. Sure, they won’t lay eggs like they did at the 2019 opening in Yokohama, but where’s the reason for optimism?
Scotland badly needs to regain the spirit of 2021. The victories at Twickenham and Paris then both behind closed doors are probably too great to hope for. But the resilience and fighting they showed – even in two defeats that spring – was the best we’ve seen under Townsend.
Edinburgh on Wednesday confirmed the signing of Ben Healy, the 23-year-old from Munster who is eligible to play in Scotland thanks to his Glasgow-born mother. For more to know about Scotland vs Romania Tickets.
A couple of years ago, the Glasgow Warriors were very interested in Healy, whose star was on the rise at the time. He decided to sign a new contract to stay at home, but hasn’t taken much of a lash since then, dropping to third on the Munster depth chart from 10th.
However, as a substitute last weekend, Healy scored a last try and converted it to win the game in Ulster. In hindsight, his contract negotiations were probably over by then, unfortunately for him. Healy is definitely nearing the end of the article as a 10, big, good distributor and a really good goalie – 90% hit this season. And, unlike Blair Kinghorn, he was a 10-year-old throughout the entire age range, including Ireland’s under-20s.
The idea is that Healy will initially cover for Kinghorn during the September Worlds and later in competition. Charlie Savala has been a decent, if not amazing, substitute 10. Jaco van der Walt is out of contract soon and has seen little to no room in the dead end for a while.
The need for a succession plan at 10
Can it go further? There are no commitments to Scotland yet, although this has been rumored to be part of the discussions. There is no evidence other than my own speculation that Finn Russell could very well be done with international rugby after the Rugby World Cup. But Scotland needs to develop a succession plan anyway.
Ross Thompson in Glasgow, mostly injured this season, is another notable future option. 20-year-old Fin Smith from Northampton is also still considered a target. Eddie Jones got him to train with England at the end of autumn testing, but he never saw the pitch. Just like what happened to Cam Redpath.
It remains to be seen whether Steve Borthwick will play these games with dual-qualified players as much as Eddie. But if you were Fin, how would you rate your chances of beating Owen Farrell and/or Marcus Smith and making it to international rugby? Or would you have a better chance with Scotland?
Scotland hoping four players will swap nations for Rugby World Cup 2023
We take a look at four rugby union players who could switch countries to represent Scotland at the Rugby World Cup 2023.
#1. Ben Healy
- Age: 23
- Position: Fly-half
- Honours: Ireland U20
Healy will join Edinburgh this summer on a two-year deal. The 23-year-old has represented Ireland at under-20 level but qualified for Scotland thanks to his grandparents. Healy has been playing for the Irish province since 2019 with 275 points in 47 matches. It’s clear how much they want to play. I am looking forward to diving into the new environment and seeing how I do, Healy told the Edinburgh website.
“I would like to thank everyone in Munster for their support over the past few seasons. I loved every minute of my time at the club, but I felt that now is the right time to take on a new and exciting challenge in Edinburgh.”
#2. John Cooney
- Age: 32
- Position: Scrum-half
- Honours: Ireland (11 caps), Emerging Ireland, Ireland U20
- The former Connacht ace has not played for Ireland in three years — and can move under World Rugby’s new eligibility rules.
His father, John Cooney Sr., born in Blantyre in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, was a journalist working for the Glasgow Herald before becoming a European correspondent and then a religious affairs correspondent for The Irish Times.
Players may change country if they have not competed in international rugby for three years and they, or their parents or grandparents, were born in the country they wish to represent.
#3. Fin Smith
- Age: 20
- Position: Fly-half
- Honours: England U20
“I’ve spoken to Fin Smith three times since Six Nations and have spoken to other players who are dual-qualified but didn’t make the team, Townsend said. He is definitely a player that we think very highly of.”
He played a lot of rugby at a young age and turned 20 a few weeks ago. It was also great to get to know the person. He has close ties to my old club, his grandfather played for Gala and the Lions, and his mother is from a village three miles from Gala. It was nice to get that connection and see how his game develops. I think one of his best games was at the weekend when he played in Bath.
“I went to see the Premier League final against the London Irish so yes he is progressing but we didn’t feel this tour was the right time for him and obviously he will have to make a commitment between us and England.”
#4. Zach Mercer
- Age: 25
- Position: Number 8
- Honours: England, England U20, England U18
“I grew up in Scotland and got the right to play as a resident, that’s what I did, said Mercer. I played for Scotland under 16s because at the time I just wanted to play international rugby and compete against the best.”
I tried to get into the Scotland Under 18s a year early but didn’t get selected. The next year came and I was going to play. Around the same time, I was looking at several different contracts, and that’s when Bath offered me one. When a team like that offers you a contract, it’s stupid to refuse, so of course I agreed.
“Unfortunately, that’s when the Scottish under-18 coach called me and said he wasn’t going to take me because I’m not tied to Scotland and Scottish rugby. I remember that day well, because 20 minutes later, when I told the England under-18 head coach that I hadn’t been selected, he just said, Then come out and play for us. After that, my first England U18 game was against Scotland. Honestly, you couldn’t write it.”
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