Next in our previews ahead of the Six Nations we examine the prospects of last year’s fourth placed finishers, Gregor Townsend’s Scotland.
Optimism in and around the corridors of Murrayfield hasn’t been this affluent since the millennium as Scotland prepare for what could an historic Six Nations.
Scotland were one of three teams last year that ended the campaign with three wins from their five games, but it was the manner in which Scotland secured those wins which earned so many plaudits.
Vern Cotter, now of Montpellier, was determined to go out with a bang and since narrowly coming up short to Australia in controversial style at the 2015 World Cup, the Scots have made huge strides forward.
Last year: Hosting Ireland in the opener was the best possible way to show the continent they meant business, despite the Irish turning up as favourites. Scotland scored 21 points in the opening half hour before the visitors came racing back to lead by a point with 10 minutes remaining. Two Greig Laidlaw penalties though turned the match to secure a 27-22 success.
The Scots were undone in Paris a week later though, with 17 points from the boot of Camille Lopez doing much of the damage.
Cotter’s side bounced back in Round three with another standout performance at Murrayfield. Trailing to Wales after Liam Williams had crossed, tries from Tommy Seymour and Tim Visser contributed to 23 unanswered points as they won comfortably 29-13.
They were once again brought back down to earth as talk of a famous win at Twickenham was dashed in a seven-try blitz with Jonathan Joseph bagging a hat-trick. 61-21 it finished in a definite low point of the Championship.
They did finish on a high though in Edinburgh as they nilled Italy in a four-try rout.
This year: After a November which yielded two wins from three – the only reverse a narrow one to New Zealand – talk is rife that Townsend has taken Scotland to the next level after Cotter laid down an impressive platform.
The success of Glasgow on the domestic front, where they have 12 wins from 13 games, has seen many Scottish internationals further enhancing their credentials. None more so than Finn Russell who will leave Scotland this summer and head to Paris after signing a deal with Racing 92.
Centre with Russell at Glasgow; Huw Jones, who moved from South Africa late last year, is looking to continue his rich vein of try scoring form after making a name for himself in the 2016 year-end series.
The challenge for the Scots this year is how they cope away from the home comforts that Murrayfield provides. As excellent as they were in Edinburgh, the way in which they travelled will need to be addressed if they’ve any interest in challenging this time round; especially with two away days to end the tournament.
Key players: With Russell, as already mentioned, leaving for pastures new Scottish domestic rugby has lost one of its gems. Fortunately for them, Stuart Hogg looks settled as he aims to win the Player of the Tournament award for the third year running.
He continues to light up games with his electric pace and his three tries last year, two of which came against Ireland, were vital.
Allowing him the foundation to play, along with being a vigorous defensive linchpin and lineout operator is Jonny Gray. Finally stepping out of his brother’s shadow the 23-year-old has been amongst the best forwards in Europe over the past 12 months.
Players to watch: Despite enjoying plenty of game time 12 months ago and being prominently deployed in November, Ali Price is still to stamp his authority on the nine shirt. With Laidlaw injured the Glasgow scrum-half more than filled the void but, with the Clermont man now back, Price will have to prove his energetic style is best suited to Scotland’s game plan.
At number eight, Ryan Wilson has led Glasgow impressively after being named captain by Dave Rennie upon his arrival. The hope is that he takes his domestic form into the Championship and alongside the likes of John Barclay in the back-row can allow for dominance at the breakdown.
Prospects: The challenge for Scotland, and the fortunes of their campaign, will hinge on this; whether they can travel as well as they can host. With only two games at their Murrayfield base the Scots will have to head to Cardiff, Dublin and Rome. Italy will not prove too daunting but Ireland, buoyed by a strong end-of-year campaign, will look to avenge their defeat of 12 months ago.
A home match against England on February 24 could turn out to be a Championship decider if Scotland find it in them to win away. But beyond that a win over the English would certainly make the men south of the border stand up and listen.
Saturday, February 3 v Wales (Principality Stadium)
Sunday, February 11 v France (Murrayfield)
Saturday, February 24 v England (Murrayfield)
Saturday, March 10 v Ireland (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, March 17 v Italy (Stadio Olympico)