State of the Nation: Scotland

Date published: March 25 2015

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As we do at the end of a major tournament, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, Scotland!

It's becoming almost as much of a tradition as Burns' Night. January draws to a close and Scotland are talked up as Six Nations dark horses.

Almost without fail the Scots are singled out as a team on the rise and capable of going from Wooden Spoon battlers to top half challengers.

This season there seemed to be more reason than ever to fancy Scottish chances: they'd enjoyed a successful November, in Vern Cotter they had a coach with an impeccable pedigree, and thanks to Glasgow Warriors they had the core of their side regularly competing at the top of the Pro12.

Two months on and it feels like nothing has changed after a first whitewash since 2012. Promising performances against France and Wales preceded the disaster that was Italy at home.

Then, despite a semblance of resistance against England at Twickenham, the way in which they crumbled at home to Ireland on the final day was almost as bad as the loss to the Azzurri.

Arguably the most startling statistic to come out of the competition was Scotland's inability to score in the second half. With the exception of their game against Wales, they scored just three second-half points all tournament. A single Greig Laidlaw penalty against the Italians was all they could muster, and that will surely have to change come the World Cup.

That would seem to point to a fitness issue, although given how Scotland came back at the end against Wales, perhaps it is just a statistical anomaly.

Cotter was renowned for having his players in top condition when in charge at Clermont, and you'd fancy the Scots to be in better shape come the World Cup.

They won't face any of their Six Nations rivals in the pool stages, but having failed to reach the knockout stages for the first time in New Zealand four years ago, there is a very real danger it happens again this time.

South Africa are clearly the class act of the pool, while Samoa beat Scotland comfortably the last time the two sides met.

Even Japan need to be taken seriously, having gone on a long winning run last year that included knocking off the likes of Samoa, Italy and Tonga.

Still, it shouldn't all be doom and gloom. The reasons for optimism mentioned at the start still apply. Cotter is a top quality coach and Glasgow are genuine contenders for the Pro12 title.

And in full-back Stuart Hogg and lock Jonny Gray they look to have two certain Lions tourists in 2017. The loss of Alex Dunbar to a serious knee injury was a major blow, but Mark Bennett showed why he was so highly-touted at age group level with his performances at centre.

In terms of personnel, the Scots will always struggle for depth, and the loss of Finn Russell against Italy really hurt them. While he is far from the finished article, he is at least a genuine fly-half, which wasn't the case for Peter Horne.

If Horne had a miserable time of it against the Italians, it was nothing compared to Dougie Fife on the final day, and he will surely drop out of contention after that game.

In the same way, Blair Cowan tries hard, and is certainly very visible. Yet, it's hard to see what he offers that John Barclay does not.

Barclay and Kelly Brown surely won't return for the World Cup though, so Cotter will stick to what he has, although Josh Strauss should make an impact when he qualifies.

That will leave them with a functional front row, some top quality locks, a real threat out wide and a burgeoning half-back combination, including a top quality goal-kicker in Laidlaw.

Whether the skipper's accuracy from the tee makes up for his slow service is another conundrum for Cotter, but the Gloucester man's experience is probably necessary in an inexperienced backline.

How you think Scotland will progress probably depends on your faith in Cotter to turn things around.

Depressing as it sounds, reaching the World Cup quarter-finals would probably constitute a surprise.

However with the exception of the front row, the rest of this Scottish side will still be there in 2019, at which point a place in the last eight should be a minimum requirement for the Kiwi coach, if he's still there.

By Paul Eddison

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