WE have been here before. Heading into a championship daring to believe that this might be the year when Scotland finally upset the established order to finish higher than third in the table.
Buoyed by the positive aspects of recent performances and choosing to overlook the negatives, we hope, despite the lessons of history, that the team can play with the required consistency across all five matches to sweep all the way to a first Grand Slam since 1990 – or at least a first championship success since the last Five Nations in 1999.
It never quite works out like that, as Scotland’s record of four Wooden Spoons, eight fifth-place finishes, five fourth-place finishes and four third-place finishes during the last 21 years demonstrates. Scotland have consistently been a mid- to lower-table team. The stats don’t lie.
So, why should this year be any different? Do we have any right to continue harbouring such optimistic notions? The evidence of recent history is ambiguous.
The last Six Nations brought one of those fourth-place finishes, which is nothing much to write home about, although Scotland did manage to derail France’s Grand-Slam push thanks to a ferocious set-piece performance which rattled opposition tight-head Mohamed Haouas into getting himself red-carded in round four, then picked up a first win in Wales since 2002 when their final match of the campaign was finally played in late October (albeit against fairly rudderless opposition who did not have the benefit of a raucous home support propelling them onwards).
Even the defeats at the start of the championship to Ireland away and England at home were close-fought affairs, which on the face of it appears to back up head coach Gregor Townsend’s assertion that his team have become better at staying in the contest and therefore harder to beat since their World Cup flop.
The problem is that Townsend’s new emphasis on set piece, defence and kicking smart has come at a cost. While Scotland conceded just five tries during the 2020 campaign, fewer than any other team, they only managed to score seven, which is nine less than in 2019.
The Autumn Nations Cup was more of the same, with Scotland getting the job done against Italy, before coming up short against France at Murrayfield and being blown away after a positive first half-hour against Ireland in the third/fourth-place play-off at the Aviva Stadium.
They picked up four tries against Italy, but against the higher-class opposition of France and Ireland, they managed to get across the line just once in two matches.
Over the course of the year, Scotland had scored 20 tries in nine matches, but 15 of those had come in the three games played against either Italy or Georgia. That left three well-taken tries against 14-man France at the start of March, and one each against Wales and Ireland during the Autumn. In three matches they did not get across the line at all.
It feels like Townsend has finally shelved his “fastest rugby on the planet” motto – which won plenty of admirers but not enough games – and has not quite worked out what to replace it with.
The return of Finn Russell will make a difference. The stand-off has taken his game to the next level during the last year with Racing 92, and no player in the world at the moment can match his ability to conjure opportunities out of nothing. While Townsend is making no apologies about his lurch towards pragmatism, he has also stressed that he wants Russell to play his natural game.
“We don’t want to take away from any of our players the ability to seize opportunities and make those decisions that they believe are right,” he said at the start of October, just before Russell picked up a groin injury which ruled him out of the rest of the Autumn series.
Pragmatism is, by definition, “an approach that evaluates theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application”. In a rugby context, that should not automatically mean conservative or lacking ambition. If the practical application of Russell’s full attacking armoury offers the team their greatest chance of success, then that is the pragmatic approach.
However, if Russell were to become unavailable again for whatever reason while Adam Hastings is still injured, then expect to see Scotland contract back into their Autumn mindset, because as honest a grafter as Jaco van der Walt is, he does not have the toolkit to play Russell’s type of game. Very few do.
A key factor in any sort of successful Six Nations for Scotland will be how badly hit they are by injuries. Whilst the likes of England can swallow the loss of four or five key men in the pack without a noticeable drop-off in quality, Scotland do not have that luxury. Townsend has spoken a lot about building depth, and he is making progress on that front, but the truth is that he does not yet have genuine international quality coverage across the board.
As it stands, Scotland have been hit hard at hooker with both Fraser Brown and Stuart appearing to be out for the tournament, but they are lucky that this is one of the areas where they do have a credible third-choice option in George Turner, who now needs to prove that he can make the same sort of impact from the start as he did off the bench during the autumn. Meanwhile, Dave Cherry has been around the block enough times to be a reliable understudy.
Apart from two missing hookers and Hastings at stand-off, Scotland go into this Six Nations with pretty much a full-strength squad, so there is never going to be a better opportunity for Townsend – who signed a two-year contract extension in December – to prove to his doubters that he does have a clear vision for the future of this team.