Scotland: Six Nations Preview

One word to describe Scotland’s 2022? Frustrating. It was another year of near moments and narrow defeats, one step forward, one step backward, and plenty of sliding doors and what-ifs. There were some niggling off-field moments, invariably involving their talismanic fly half, Finn Russell, while Stuart Hogg was stripped of the captaincy after being one of six players to breach team rules following a win in Rome. Questions swirl around Gregor Townsend’s future beyond the World Cup, where Scotland find themselves in a pool with Ireland and South Africa thanks to World Rugby’s absurd decision to fix the pool years in advance.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Scotland showed us in 2022 what we’ve known for several years. When they dictate the game’s pace and all components come together, they are a dangerous side. However, consistency remains elusive, with an inability to back up good results. Their win over England at Murrayfield was followed by a narrow loss against Wales in Cardiff, a game they should have won. Similarly, their hugely impressive win over Argentina in Salta was followed by a heart-breaking defeat a week later, Emiliano Bofelli’s late try snatching the series from under the Scots’ noses. They lost to Australia by a point in the autumn, Blair Kinghorn missing a last-minute penalty. There’s a disturbing pattern for Scotland of losing tight games, self-inflicted wounds hurt the worst, and Scotland seem particularly adept at shooting themselves in the foot.

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The relationship between Gregor Townsend and Finn Russell was another prominent storyline of 2022. Russell was part of the six-man group disciplined for an illicit excursion after Scotland’s win in Rome. He was dropped for the final game in Ireland when admittedly, his form wasn’t brilliant, but his initial exclusion in the autumn was baffling. Recalled after Adam Hastings got injured, Russell was named man of the match in Scotland’s victory over Argentina. Russell was at his magical best that day, pulling rabbits out of hats, his best display for Scotland for several years. It has long been a relationship of friction and admiration. Last week Townsend hailed Russell as “an all-time great player”, while Russell recently described their relationship as “better than it’s ever been”. The reciprocated kind words suggest a breakthrough in their relationship, which can only be good for Scottish rugby.

Scotland boasts an impressive array of talent in their backline, with Sione Tuipulotu emerging as a potent threat in the autumn. He will likely partner the dependable Chris Harris in the centres, while full-back Stuart Hogg could pass the hundred-cap mark in the tournament. Duhan van der Merwe provides a physical threat coming in off the wing, but Scotland will miss Darcy Graham for at least the first couple of matches. The winger has been in electric form all season, topping the try-charts in the United Rugby Championship. The recalled Sean Maitland will likely battle with newcomer Ruaridh McConnochie for a spot on the wing. McConnochie benefits from World Rugby’s bizarre eligibility rules, able to represent Scotland through his father and having completed the requisite three-year cooling-off period. It is neither McConnochie nor Scotland’s fault; the rules are there to be exploited, and you can hardly blame Scotland given their limited resources.

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Scotland begin their campaign with a trip to Twickenham, providing the first test of Steve Borthwick’s regime. Scotland’s recent record against England is excellent, and they haven’t lost in their past two visits to London. The following week they host Wales, a game they should, and arguably must win, though the Welsh have a strong record against the Scots. Round three sees a daunting trip to Paris before they host Ireland in the penultimate round, another tough ask. They finish the tournament at home to Italy, another game they must win. So what would represent a good tournament for the Scots?

Scotland need at least two wins for credibility, while three wins would represent a good tournament. The key for the Scots will be matching their high-tempo style with some brutality up front. Scotland’s back line has the potential to carve teams open, especially with Russell pulling the strings. To do this, they need to create dominance up front and provide Russell with quick ball. Scotland should be buoyed by Edinburgh’s recent victory over Saracens, where they matched the English side’s much-vaunted physicality. If they can harness that physicality, Scotland could cause a few upsets. The time for near-misses is over. Scotland need to deliver.

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