It is fiendishly hard to decipher what kind of rugby Scotland will serve up this spring, and where they sit in the game’s world order.
By turns rugged, dazzling and infuriating, Scotland found their teeth last year, but lost some of the spark that Gregor Townsend worked so hard to cultivate.
This championship, and this year, is about striking the right balance between defence and attack, brutality and panache, and about delivering tangible rewards for an abundance of promise.
Coach: Gregor Townsend
Captain: Stuart Hogg:
Grand Slams: Three
Scotland have transformed themselves into a team that loves defending, thrives on winning collisions and scuttling opponents, but in doing so, surrendered the marauding attack that defined them under Townsend.
We’ve yearned to see this gnarly side of Scotland for an age. For the kind of steamroll-your-granny-if-it-means-stopping-a-try dog that seemed to come much easier to their rivals in the championship.
They finished the Six Nations with the tournament’s best defence. They have brilliant jackal threats in Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson, and a scrum that has become a weapon with the coming-of-age of Rory Sutherland and the hiring of Pieter de Villiers to oversee the set-piece.
When it comes to scoring, in 2020, Scotland went from Barney Stinson to The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
It stands to reason that since Townsend has switched defence coaches, and is presumably allocating more training time to the system, Scotland have become far stingier and significantly more pragmatic.
It is also logical to assume that with less emphasis placed on high-tempo, off-loading fare, the attack might suffer a little. Scotland’s play with the ball is not poor, but it needs a bit more love. Finn Russell’s return ought to release the handbrake.
Their line-out suffered too in last year’s Six Nations, although it improved come the autumn. Without Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown, their two front-line hookers, George Turner’s throwing will be subject to huge pressure.
Most valuable player
Emphatically, Finn Russell. So much of what Scotland do goes through their wondrous pivot. Russell can transfix and mesmerise and haul defences this way and that like a matador, and Scotland have missed him dearly when he has not been available.
He will be utterly central to the rediscovering of their elan and their prospects of mounting a credible bid for the title. His short kicking game is outrageous, and there are tantalising possibilities for him to toe Van der Merwe or the powerful Chris Harris in to pockets of turf. But, as the likely first-choice place-kicker, his precision from the tee must hold.
For all that Russell has added gears to his game at Racing 92, and eradicated much of the flakiness that used to plague him, there is still a lingering fear over his propensity to try the stunning when the simple will do. His bravery and willingness to back his skills is at once precious, rare, and punitive.
Russell will be acutely aware that his form this championship will shape his chances of being a Lion. In Warren Gatland’s eyes, he must still prove that he can be trusted to steer the ship through the frothing waters of a Test series.
Player to watch
Duhan van der Merwe is a deadly weapon, the like of which Scotland have never really been able to wield before. At 6ft 4ins and well over 100KG, he shifts that giant frame at a ridiculous speed, and the numbers he has posted for Edinburgh are outrageous. Excel this spring, and he could be a dark horse for Lions selection against the country of his birth.
What the coach says
Gregor Townsend: “We have to keep growing belief but, over the last year, we’ve built a team that is much tougher to beat,” Gregor Townsend told The Guardian. “We’ve got some real leaders and a group with lots of Test match experience.
“Over the next five games we’ve got to put in our best performances because we will be tested. There is no bigger test than going to Twickenham. So that’s what we are working towards despite all the restrictions – going out and playing our best rugby against England.”
Get all of their heavy hitters on the field, and playing their best stuff, and Scotland can put away just about anybody. But how often do they have each of their key personnel available and firing on all cylinders? How many times have they been built up only to come clattering down again?
In 2021, Townsend has big players on form in England and France, a short injury list and encouraging depth. The optimism is building anew, but the wretched cycle of hope and dismay must come to an end. The minimum target should be winning all three home matches against Wales, Ireland and Italy.
Scotland Six Nations squad
Forwards: Ewan Ashman, Simon Berghan, David Cherry, Alex Craig, Scott Cummings, Allan Dell, Matt Fagerson, Zander Fagerson, Gary Graham, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Richie Gray, Oli Kebble, Willem Nel, Jamie Ritchie, Grant Stewart, Rory Sutherland, Blade Thomson, George Turner, Hamish Watson
Backs: Darcy Graham, Chris Harris, Stuart Hogg, Huw Jones, Blair Kinghorn, James Lang, Sean Maitland, Byron McGuigan, Ali Price, Cameron Redpath, Finn Russell, Scott Steele, Duncan Taylor, Jaco van der Walt, Duhan van der Merwe
England (a) Saturday 6 Feb, 16:45
Wales (h) Saturday 13 Feb, 16:45
France (a) Sunday 28 Feb, 15:00
Ireland (h) Sunday 14 Mar, 15:00
Italy (h) Saturday, 20 March, 14:15