Next in our set of previews ahead of the 2016 Six Nations, we examine the prospects of Vern Cotter's Scotland.
For an awfully long time now, preparing for the Six Nations Championship in Scotland has been akin to watching a hopeless punter ploughing coins into a pub fruit machine.
With each fresh insertion, each ritualistic scrape of money on metal, there is an instinctive optimism. Hope that this will be the coin to rouse the lights and unleash the bounty.
In the 15 championships since Italy made the Five Nations into Six, there have been fleeting moments of tartan joy – mud-caked but victorious Calcutta Cup slugfests that seem an eternity ago, the toppling of disinterested French visitors, and a glorious, malevolent sacking of Croke Park among them – but the wait for anything resembling a jackpot goes on.
Last year: A championship too soon, you feel, for Scotland’s greener cohort. A truly maddening Wooden Spoon silenced tentative whispers of revival triggered by an encouraging November the previous year.
First-up, the French in Paris were too muscular and relentless in their physical pummelling. Errors from Scotland and from referee Glen Jackson saw an opportunity squandered against Wales. There then unfolded the most harrowing, head-wrecking loss to Italy in the Murrayfield drizzle.
A more pugnacious display at Twickenham followed, before Ireland, in ruthless pursuit of the title, handed Vern Cotter’s troops a 40-point shellacking to confirm their fate.
This year: The Rugby World Cup was a source of invigoration for Scotland – even if it ended with a measure of agony many of the squad may never truly be able to surmount. The tournament showcased the good and bad of Cotter’s Scotland.
High-octane, blood-and-thunder attacking fare that even Australia laboured to suppress, and a nasty scrummage spearheaded by Willem Nel were the highlights. A defence that is still too haphazard, and perhaps overly impulsive, proved the greatest detractor.
Momentum is a crucial filip in the Six Nations – and it’s worth noting Scotland have not opened with a victory in a decade. A Calcutta Cup triumph would be the perfect springboard from which to launch a valid tilt at – at least – the top half of the table, and maybe beyond.
Eddie Jones’ England are an intriguing prospect, a somewhat surprising blend of old faces and, you’d imagine, fresh ideals. Jones’ impudent assertion that Scotland are favourites is of course a blunt jab aimed at inflicting psychological damage to his opposition – opposition who do not, historically, cope well with pressure.
Scotland’s hapless return in this fixture – four wins since 1990, the last of which came in 2008 – and the presence of five English clubs in the Champions Cup quarter-finals contradict the Australian in the extreme. Glasgow Warriors’ post-World Cup slackness and the patchy form and lack of fitness among their potent strike runners remain a concern – Cotter needs his game-breakers and try-scorers in merciless mood.
Key players: The eye-catching “flair” candidates pepper the backline – Glasgow’s Finn Russell, Mark Bennett and Stuart Hogg, Edinburgh’s Matt Scott. But if the Warriors have wanted for one thing above all others, it is the presence of a gnarled leader. They have been deprived through injury of Mike Blair and Henry Pyrgos, and thus their quality in unlocking, channelling and conducting the brilliance that lurks outside them. Too often excessive zeal has infiltrated attacking play – much to Glasgow’s detriment.
In that regard, Greig Laidlaw, the stout little Borderer with his ruthless streak and captain’s qualities is utterly pivotal. John Hardie too, among the tournament’s most influential opensides, must maintain the exemplary form he has displayed since jetting in from Otago. A flank pairing with prodigal son John Barclay is a stirring breakdown prospect.
Player to watch: Cotter is unlikely to pitch him into the heart of a Calcutta Cup battle, but Edinburgh’s Damien Hoyland is knocking very hard indeed on the Kiwi’s door. Still just 22, he is a superb finisher and Sevens international, and his pace is such that his legs seem to blur like a cartoon Scooby Doo high-tailing it away from ghouls whenever he speeds after tries or kicks.
Prospects: Likely to hinge heavily on the opening weekend. Upending Jones’ chariot may not guarantee a championship to savour, just as defeat does not consign Scotland automatically to yet more dejection.
Despite dips in form and fitness, Cotter boasts settled, and talented, personnel who have yet to unshackle their true potential. Approaching this tournament with a degree of trepidation to temper one’s excitement is only prudent where Scotland are concerned. But a victory over the Auld Enemy would certainly foster the belief that this Scottish squad can be legitimate Championship contenders.
Saturday, February 6 v England (Murrayfield)
Saturday, February 13 v Wales (Millennium Stadium)
Saturday, February 27 v Italy (Stadio Olimpico)
Sunday, March 13 v France (Murrayfield)
Saturday, March 20 v Ireland (Aviva Stadium)