We preview each of the team’s prospects ahead of the upcoming Six Nations Championship. Next up, Scotland.
Scotland approach this year’s tournament buoyed by an impressive trio of November displays under new boss Vern Cotter.
Five punishing Tests against Europe’s elite, however, present an entirely different proposition – one with the proven potential to quell the encouragement swelling among the nation’s supporters.
Last Year: Oh, do we have to? Scotland’s campaign – if we can call it that, for this pitiful two-month traipse down the pits of despair sapped morale from a group of players already stricken by mental fragilities and rendered Scott Johnson about as popular in Glasgow as Margaret Thatcher – was simply hopeless.
From the unfathomable handling of captain Kelly Brown to the toothless Calcutta Cup performance, the Australian’s wacky selections and Stuart Hogg’s seeing red in Cardiff, Six Nations 2014 roused Scottish supporters to a new degree of exasperation.
Duncan Weir’s drop-goal, remarkable for its timing as well as its technique, snatched a solitary, overplayed victory in Rome.
This Year: As I cautioned mid-November Tests, the recent history of Scottish rugby is peppered with false dawns.
But with Cotter at the helm, the side played with long-awaited verve and liberation, putting Argentina and Tonga to the sword (scoring five tries in each game -equalling their combined tally for the entire November Tests and Six Nations of 2013/14) and even ran an experimental New Zealand XV close.
With, as usual, no shortage of quality across the second and back-rows, and a new-look, high-calibre backline capable of so much more than its predecessors, Scotland’s lack of form and depth in the front-row is Cotter’s chief concern.
Key Players: Scrum-half Greig Laidlaw was exemplary this autumn, and is likely to be handed the captaincy again. Scotland will rely on his sharpness of mind – if not fleetness of foot – to create opportunities and give the likes of Finn Russell and Matt Scott the possession they need to make things happen. Blair Cowan must build on a similarly strong November to match the formidable Sam Warburtons and Thierry Dusautoirs of the contact area, and dispense the tonic many Scots require to overcome the exclusion of Brown and John Barclay.
Players to watch: After so many years of limp attack, and wooden attempts to play running rugby, how refreshing to examine a Scottish backline and it find it boasts fluency and panache in abundance.
Scott’s return from injury is a major boost, but it is Tommy Seymour, a man of diverse heritage and eye-catching flair who ranks among Europe’s form wingers that will spearhead the offence.
Up front, much will rest upon the sturdy shoulders of Euan Murray. The ageing Lion has near-superhuman strength, but a string of opponents, domestic and continental, with neither his power nor experience, have shunted him into reverse gear this season.
Should he remain the anchor-man at the core of the Scottish scrummage? Can he still thrive at the top? If not, who best to replace him?
At the other end of the professional spectrum, Jonny Gray has taken to Test rugby with ease, winning line-outs and plaudits aplenty, and even running the set-piece during November. No mean feat for a twenty-year-old.
Centre Mark Bennett is another star in the making, possessed of the searing pace and nimble footwork the Scottish midfield has sorely lacked for swathes of the professional era.
Prospects: Sixteen years have passed since Gregor Townsend, Glenn Metcalfe, Alan Tait and co. ran riot in Paris on their way to claiming the final Five Nations Championship – Scotland haven’t won there since.
Triumph at the Stade de France, and with tricky but winnable home ties against Wales and Italy to follow, they might rightly be considered dark horses for the title.
But with the help of some cold, hard facts, let’s temper that prospective label with a little restraint. In tandem with the Parisian hoodoo, Scotland last tasted victory at Twickenham in 1983, and have not won more than two Six Nations matches since 2006 – the same year, coincidentally, they last opened their championship with a win.
It will take a mighty effort, bristling with the precision, pragmatism and bravery absent for so long, against opponents who, year on year, have bested them to come within a Weir-sized drop-goal of the trophy. Fifth
Sat, 7 Feb v France (Stade de France)
Sun, 15 Feb v Wales (Murrayfield)
Sat, 28 Feb v Italy (Murrayfield)
Sat, 14 March v England (Twickenham)
Sun, 21 March v Ireland (Murrayfield)