Scotland have grown under the guidance of Gregor Townsend, but will they deliver under the pressure of growing expectations?
The bookies currently rate Scotland as third favourites behind Ireland and England to lift their first championship since 1999. But substance rather than sentiment is responsible for shifting their market price.
Scotland’s evolution to this juncture has been gradual and their 2017 Six Nations’ campaign was notable for victories over Ireland and Wales, as well as Italy.
Since then, Gregor Townsend has taken over from Vern Cotter as head coach and the Scots delivered some improved performances during the autumn series.
Significantly, many critics feel this form is not fleeting.
- Six Nations since 2000: None.
- Overall: 15 titles outright (1887, 1889, 1891, 1895, 1901, 1903, 1904, 1907, 1925, 1929, 1933, 1938, 1984, 1990, 1999)
- Wales – Principality Stadium – Saturday, February 3 – 2.15pm (GMT)
- France – Murrayfield – Sunday, February 11 – 3pm (GMT)
- England – Murrayfield – Saturday, February 24 – 4.45pm (GMT)
- Ireland – Aviva Stadium – Saturday, March 10 – 2.15pm (GMT)
- Italy – Stadio Olimpico – Saturday, March 17 – 1.30pm (GMT)
There’s real optimism in Scotland ahead of this Six Nation’s campaign.
This optimism is rooted in a win/return ratio of seven from 11 games last year. A run which included victories over Ireland, Wales, a double against Australia and a showing of real substance against the All Blacks.
But it’s how those results have been achieved that has marked Scotland out.
Those close to Scottish rugby say the evolution started under Vern Cotter and the team has streaked to a higher plain under Townsend.
But unlike previous years, the foundations are solid and the stars may well be aligning for this Scotland team to deliver on expectation. The men in dark blue have never won the competition since Italy joined in 2000.
Scotland’s front row has been decimated by the loss of hookers Ross Ford and Fraser Brown, tight-heads Zander Fagerson and WP Nel, and loose-head trio: Darryl Marfo, Allan Dell and Al Dickinson.
This injury crisis has forced Townsend to recall 36-year-old hooker Scott Lawson who has not played since 2014 and prop Jon Welsh who has not played since the World Cup in 2015.
Scotland managed to overcome a weakened front-row in the autumn by starting Marfo, who was then forth choice loosehead, against the All Blacks. But it was a New Zealand team that didn’t necessarily come to scrum.
Still, the concern over the possibility of losing even more players to injury, particularly in the front five, is acute. There is also a touch of discomfort about Scotland’s away form, best exemplified by the heavy 61-21 defeat suffered against England in Twickenham in the same campaign that featured those wins over Ireland and Wales.
If reports are to be believed then Townsend arrived at his first Scotland training session and made grand declarations about Scotland playing the most high-tempo style in world rugby.
The former Glasgow coach has managed to progress that philosophy, and Scotland’s high-energy game has won fans over and led to some captivating performances, in particular that 53-24 autumn win against Australia.
In players like Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell, Scotland have individuals capable of capitalising on this style.
Stuart Hogg. Scotland’s full-back is their star man. And if there’s caution over Scotland’s collective substance, then the mercurial Hogg is rated by his opponents as the one player they would definitely include in their team.
Injury has interrupted his rhythm somewhat in the last eight months but Hogg recently returned against Exeter in the Champions Cup at his brilliant best.
The 25-year-old has won the Six Nations player of the tournament for the last two years in succession.
John Barclay. Last season Greig Laidlaw was the undisputed captain before Barclay covered his absence and acquitted himself with such authority. That he has retained the armband to the point that the bigger conversation is whether Laidlaw will get the nod over Ali Price at scrum-half.
With the absence of some key players up front, there’s an even greater onus on Barclay to fill a possible void in both leadership and experience, with Wales likely to seek to ruthlessly exploit this in their opening game.
Scotland’s 40-man squad for the 2018 Six Nations
BACKS (19) –
Back-Three: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow), Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow), Lee Jones (Glasgow), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh), Sean Maitland (Saracens), Byron McGuigan (Sale), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow)
Centre: Mark Bennett (Edinburgh), Alex Dunbar (Glasgow), Nick Grigg (Glasgow), Chris Harris (Newcastle), Huw Jones (Glasgow), Duncan Taylor (Saracens)
Fly-half: Finn Russell (Glasgow), Pete Horne (Glasgow)
Scrum-half: Nathan Fowles (Edinburgh), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont Auvergne), Ali Price (Glasgow), Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow).
FORWARDS (21) –
Hookers: Neil Cochrane (Edinburgh), Scott Lawson (Newcastle), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh)
Props: Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow), Murray McCallum (Edinburgh), Gordon Reid (London Irish), D’arcy Rae (Glasgow), Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons)
Locks: Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Glasgow), Richie Gray (Toulouse), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh)
Back-row: John Barclay (Scarlets, c), Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh), David Denton (Worcester Warriors), Cornell Du Preez (Edinburgh Rugby), Luke Hamilton (Leicester), Rob Harley (Glasgow), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow).