THE Autumn Nations Cup has had a bad press in some quarters for the lack of attacking fizz on display, with matches tending to be dominated by arm-wrestles at the breakdown plus lots of kicking for territory – and Scotland prop Zander Fagerson has warned that this weekend’s tournament finale is not likely to bring a change in tone.

The lack of crowds has undoubtedly been a factor, with the eerie atmosphere in vast empty stadiums definitely contributing to more restrained performances on the park – but the main issue has been a tightening up in the interpretation of the way the tackle area is policed by referees, which has turned the breakdown into more of a lottery, contributing to that increase in kicking as teams opt to play for position rather than try to build pressure through relentless possession.

The most potent attacking weapon in world rugby has become the close-range line-out drive, which can’t possibly be regarded as a positive thing by anyone hoping to sell the game as a spectacle.

For Scotland, this change in emphasis has been even more dramatic because Gregor Townsend’s team had a reputation for playing free-flowing, high-risk rugby up until last year’s early World Cup exit but have since put a huge focus on their defence and contact work.

We are not seeing as many audacious breaks or breath-taking tries from the likes of Stuart Hogg, Darcy Graham and Blair Kinghorn, but the team is harder to beat, and that – points out Fagerson – is the most important thing.

Scotland head to the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday to take on Ireland, looking to avenge a narrow 19-12 loss against the same opposition at the same venue on the opening weekend of the 2020 Six Nations back in February, and in the process claim third spot in the Nations Cup. “I do understand some of the fans’ frustrations but as a player I think both defence and attack is improving, so trying to create mismatches isn’t as easy as it used to be,” said Fagerson. “I wouldn’t say it is boring, there are still a few nuggets and you just need to be patient.”

“I’m a front-row, I’m not kicking the ball, and I don’t like it either because I have to run to and from, but it is what it is and that’s how you win games, which is the main thing.

“I think we always had the attack, playing quick tempo, and I think our defence has now improved massively but we’re still not the finished article.”

While Scotland have been praised for making themselves hard to beat, their loss at home to France last time out was a sobering reminder of just how difficult it is to match the top teams in the world physically. They face a similar level of challenge this coming weekend, and Fagerson has vowed that he and his team-mates will be ready for whatever Ireland throw at them on Saturday.

“We didn’t capitalise as much as we should have when we played them in the Six Nations back in February,” he lamented. “We know it will be a battle but there are definitely a few cracks there so we will just take it as it comes. “England definitely got on top of them physically in that game two weeks ago. Throughout the 80 minutes they were constantly in their faces and really took it to them.

“It wasn’t Ireland’s best game, but they turned it round against Georgia and had a pretty dominant scrum as well, so I’m not underestimating them in the slightest. We know they will come out firing on Saturday.  

“They are always a very physical pack. They have some great players – I have played against Andrew Porter for many years, Cian Healy as well, they’ve got James Ryan in the second-row and CJ Stander the backrow – so I’m looking forward to a very physical encounter. It is going to be a tough slog but I definitely think we’ve got the pack to do it.” 

Meanwhile, it was announced yesterday that Scotland will play world champions South Africa, former Glasgow Warriors coach Dave Rennie’s Australia and a third team yet to be named during next year’s Autumn series.