Argentina v Scotland: Test series on the line in Salta
|Venue: Estadio Padre Ernesto Martearena, Salta Date: Saturday, 9 July Kick-off: 20:10 BST|
|Coverage: Follow live text updates on the BBC Sport website & app|
When Gregor Townsend revealed his list for the summer Tests there was some surprise at the experience of the squad for a South American tour that was seen as a prime opportunity to introduce new blood.
The key trio of Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Chris Harris were left at home, but other than that the group was as strong as Townsend could have selected in the circumstances.
After a deeply underwhelming Six Nations campaign, the head coach perhaps thought it imperative this team starts generating momentum ahead of what will be a fiercely challenging run of autumn internationals.
Thus far, it has not played out like that. After the ‘A’ side dispatched Chile in Santiago, the full side ran into a highly-motivated Argentina that put them to the sword in Jujuy. As has largely been the case in 2022, the Scotland performance provided more questions than answers.
With the series on the line in Saturday’s second Test in Salta, this match has taken on huge significance for Townsend just over a year out from the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Loss of identity
In the aftermath of Scotland’s attempts to play “the fastest brand of rugby in the world” being brutally dismantled at the 2019 World Cup, the team discovered a harder edge and a meaner defence.
But what are Scotland all about now? What’s the mantra? It’s hard to detect a clear game plan at the moment.
What’s often forgotten amidst the charges of naivety in relation to the all-court game of the early Townsend years is that it produced arguably the greatest attacking rugby in Scotland’s history.
Marrying that imagination and invention in attack with some of the post-2019 defensive steel has proved elusive for Townsend and his coaches. The team has regressed in both attack and defence this season.
“That was the lowest ball in-play time we’ve ever had as a team,” Townsend said of the first Test defeat to the Pumas. “If that happens at the weekend, we’ve got to make sure that, when the ball is in play for either team, we play much better.
“It’s a cup semi-final and we’ve got to make sure we put our game out there. We didn’t do that last weekend. We were frustrated with our performance and the errors we made and frustrated that the game became stop-start.
“We know this tour is about a number of things: seeing a group of players come together for four weeks and seeing how that environment is, giving players opportunities. But it’s about winning a Test series.”
The fly-half conundrum
Scotland have an issue at 10. Finn Russell’s form in the Six Nations was far beneath his best. His part in the ‘Boozegate’ episode towards the end of the Championship saw him dropped for the final match against Ireland and provoked another round of questions about the state of his relationship with Townsend, with whom he had a very public falling-out in 2020.
Adam Hastings was cast aside for reasons that are hard to fathom, brought back in and then ruled out through injury.
Ross Thompson is quite clearly too green to run a Test match, which leaves Blair Kinghorn.
The Edinburgh man is so talented that he unquestionably belongs on the international stage. The doubts are whether he is capable of being the main playmaker and brings the required level of game-management to the Test arena.
Despite a very encouraging season for his club, Kinghorn’s displays in Test matches in Dublin and Jujuy – though there were some flashes of his best in the latter – mean those questions still hang over him.
“We’re massive believers in Blair in terms of what he can do individually and also how he can lead our team,” Townsend said.
“Blair has been very consistent for Edinburgh this year. While he would have wanted to play better last week, it’s all part of the learning and growing experience and process that we have as players, especially the players who have to make a lot of decisions.”
Where is the next wave of talent?
What must be of grave concern for the Scottish set-up is the current state of the under-20s side. A midweek hammering at the hands of Georgia is cause enough for reflection, but the fact it is the side’s 13th consecutive defeat ought to set alarms bells ringing around the corridors of Murrayfield.
“We obviously feel for them,” Townsend said.
“We’ve not done as well at that level, that’s clear, but there have also been some very good individuals, some very good performances, where they have learned as a group why it hasn’t worked this year and what we need to do better.
“We’ve got to look deeper at what we need to be doing at age-grade level, academy level, to support our players, challenge them and give them better competition. That’s probably the big lesson in all of this.”
Showdown in Salta
The good news for Townsend is he can recall the influential Hamish Watson to the back-row for Saturday’s crucial Test. The British and Irish Lion will earn his 50th cap, and wants to mark the occasion in the right fashion.
“To get 50, it’s quite an exclusive group and an amazing achievement for me and my family and friends,” Watson said.
“It’s about marking it in the right way and making sure we get the win which is the most important thing for us to make sure we make a series of this.”
If they don’t, the sense that this team has lost its way will only be strengthened.