There is an audible sigh of relief across Great Britain and Ireland. The end of a long, dark, cold January slips into a short, dark, cold February. But this month sees the fiery passion of the Six Nations light up the dark and help us through to the warmer spring days.
In Scottish rugby hope springs eternal, and the build up to this campaign has been no different. This week Jim Telfer described the current crop of players as the best since his 1999 Five Nations winning side, and lots of fans are excited to see what they can produce.
Reasons to be cheerful?
There are plenty of reasons why this optimism is justified. Most notably of course is the continued success of Glasgow, particularly in making the last eight of the Champions Cup for the first time, poignant because the final drubbing of Leicester was carried out by a team of all Scots.
Edinburgh too, despite being infuriatingly inconsistent, have shown glimpses of positivity and certainly individual talent from their cohort of Scottish youngsters. Again demonstrated by European progression.
Strong Backs, Weak Pack?
For years Scotland were viewed as a team with a hefty forward pack, capable of applying pressure at the set piece and setting up a platform for the backs. The problem was that the backs often lacked the skill and nous needed to score points. This is not the case now.
The back line is brimming with talent. Finn Russell, though still far from the finished article, is the one of European rugby’s hottest properties at the moment. A back three of Hogg, Maitland, and Pro 12 top try-scorer Seymour would threaten any defence and the depth of the midfield is staggering. Though Alex Dunbar and autumn star Huw Jones have been given the nod in the centre for the opening fixture, it could feasibly have been either of those two or Mark Bennett, Matt Scott or Duncan Taylor.
That is not to say that Scotland’s pack are not up to scratch either. Jonny Gray is arguably one of the best locks in the world, and brother Richie is not far behind. Josh Strauss has been outstanding in the back row for the Warriors this season, and Hamish Watson’s insatiable work rate will also help to make up for the loss of his bruising Edinburgh team-mate Denton to injury.
Nonetheless the strength in depth is not quite the same as in the backline. The loss of props WP Nel and Alasdair Dickinson is a hammer blow to Scotland’s scrum. Glasgow youngster Zander Fagerson showed he can mix it with the best in the autumn internationals, but the ferocity of the forward dominated Six Nations, particularly in a Lions year, is a different test altogether. Should the pack be hit by further injury across the course of the gruelling seven week tournament, this could severely impact on Scotland’s hunt for victories.
Of course assessing the quality of the Scotland squad is only half the battle.
With the usual Six Nations cliché of momentum applying, Scotland, as ever, face a huge challenge to get their campaign off to a winning start against Ireland on Saturday. The Irish are fresh from a clean sweep against the Southern Hemisphere nations and their club sides have shown European resurgence. They are equipped with a formidable forward pack, with the likes of Rory Best, Jack McGrath and Tadgh Furlong providing power both in the loose and set piece. Whilst dynamic back row options CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip means injured Peter O’Mahony will not be hugely missed.
Johnny Sexton will be, but nonetheless the Irish backline carries a threat which will be unleashed by the work of their forward colleagues. Even the brightest of optimists may struggle to see this as a victory for the Scots.
Next up is a trip to Paris to face the French, a game which is winnable. Scotland ran out 29-18 winners at Murrayfield last year, but have not won at the Stade de France in the Six Nations era. As ever the French are an unknown quantity but it is almost impossible to shake the feeling that the Top 14 is choking the cockerel. If Scotland front up in Paris they have a real chance of turning history on its head.
So too against Wales, who Scotland’s recent record against is dismal. The Welsh are without coach Warren Gatland, on Lions duty, and are showing signs that the old aura is waning, having been demolished by the same Australia side who Scotland have almost beaten twice now. They have fresh young options such as Osprey’s fly-half Sam Davies and Leicester’s Owen Williams who can inject more pace and guile into their game. However, Rob Howley’s team selection for the Italy game this weekend suggests they will go with the more tried and tested power game. If they persist with this when they pitch up at Murrayfield, Scotland should have no fear.
The squad’s chances in their final two fixtures could not be more contrasting. Scotland have not won at Twickenham in 34 years, and Eddie Jones’ rampant England, undefeated since being unceremoniously dumped from their own world cup in 2015, do not give the impression they will be the ones to let the record slip. Whilst a final home game against Italy, though a potential banana skin, should end in-whisper it- a Scotland victory.
Scotland have an excellent young squad of players who can, on their day, match the best the Six Nations has to offer. Every match will be tight and what is crucial is performing basic skills under pressure and winning the key moments in the game. That is the difference between winning a test match and the stale, admirable defeat. It is a skill this group has yet to demonstrate on a consistent basis on the international stage. If they master it in this tournament, then the country will really have a team to shout about.