The flowering of Scotland was a feature of rugby union's climate change last year. Having withered on the Six Nations' vine for most of the century, they bloomed – apart from a miserable afternoon at Twickenham – before recording home and away victories over Australia and, in November, coming within a completed pass of beating New Zealand for the first time.
"That day at Twickenham was one of the most disappointing in my career," says John Barclay, who will captain Scotland in this Six Nations after leading them for most of 2017, including that 61-21 defeat by England. "We had an early yellow card and had to replace a couple of players, but we did not stick to what we had been doing. To a man, we did not play, but you can only learn from an experience like that and we have to make sure it does not happen again."
Scotland start their Six Nations campaign against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday but if they are to live up to their billing as contenders behind England and Ireland, they have to correct a poor away record in the tournament. The last time they won in England and France was in the days of the Five Nations and since 2000 their only victories on the road that do not include Italy were Cardiff in 2002 and Dublin eight years later.
“We will look at how we think we can beat Wales and put together a plan. It is tricky when you travel in the Six Nations but there is no fear in what is a young team. I would be very surprised if anyone was overawed by any of the occasions in the Six Nations.
“There is expectation on us after the autumn and that is exciting. With that comes the added pressure of teams picking up their games against us. If they took us lightly in the past, I do not think they will do so now.”
Thirteen of Barclay’s club team-mates could be involved in the match – for Wales. The 31-year-old flanker is in his fifth and final season at the Scarlets, who won the Pro 12 last summer and this month became the first Welsh region for six years to qualify for the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup.
"I have really enjoyed my time there and will leave with fond memories and firm friendships," says Barclay, who is linking up with Richard Cockerill at Edinburgh next season. "I live in a small village and if I go out for a coffee, I will get spoken to about rugby every single time: people have been saying how well we [Scotland] did in the autumn, but I know the passion and drive the Welsh have to be successful. The Scarlets players will have gone into the Wales camp full of energy and enthusiasm, important qualities going into a Test match. We know we have to keep the crowd quiet.
“I know the Wales players well, their traits, strengths and weaknesses, or at least what I perceive them to be. My having a bit of knowledge is not going to help us when we get out there and there are 70,000 Welsh supporters shouting at us. Everyone is saying how well we did in the autumn, but England did a pretty good job, as did Ireland. Wales are always formidable at home and we know that it is going to be really tough.”
Barclay was 15 and still in school when Scotland last won in Cardiff. He is the only survivor in the current squad from the team that started against Ireland at Croke Park in 2010, the last time they defeated any of the old Five Nations teams away.
They have improved their home record in the past two championships under Vern Cotter, who was replaced by Gregor Townsend last summer, defeating all their rivals except England, but with three matches on the road in this year's tournament, they need to travel in greater comfort.
“Everyone was delighted at the way Vern left, walking around Murrayfield at the end of last year’s Six Nations,” says Barclay. “Coaches are normally ushered out of the back door. It said a lot about what he achieved and the esteem in which he was held. He did a super job, making us mentally and physically stronger and adapting our style of play. He put us in a great position.
“Gregor has kept a lot of the good things Vern did but also changed a lot. His training philosophy is different and he has tweaked things tactically. We want the ball-in-play time to be high and the law tweaks help sides achieve that. No one wants to be involved in a slow, boring dirge of a game. Scotland are not doing anything ground-breaking: our style suits the players we have.”
When Barclay’s move to Edinburgh was announced this season, he seemed to be enhancing his prospects of making Scotland’s World Cup squad. “That was not mentioned in the conversations I had with Richard Cockerill,” says Barclay. “He just wanted people to play for Edinburgh. It was a very tough decision: my mind went back and forth a lot. If I had stayed in Wales it would probably have been for a long time, potentially going into coaching. My wife and I felt it was the right time to go home.
“Of course I want to play in the World Cup having missed the last one, but being part of a side that has won the league, is on course for this season’s play-offs and is in the last eight of the European Cup is hardly ruling yourself out.”