Six Nations 2018: Scotland’s warrior poets can come of age
Can Townsend’s side continue their progression and upset tournament’s big two?
Stuart Hogg is pivotal to Scotland’s Six Nations hopes. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
John Barclay is a vital cog in Scotland’s pack. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Gregor Townsend is set to embark on his first Six Nations campaign as Scotland coach. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
You Bet: Winner 11/1, Grand Slam 25/1
Last Year: Fourth
They’ve been knocking on the door for a while, but now Scotland’s warrior poets are finally starting to turn their mercurial talent into something of real substance. After taking over in 2014 Vern Cotter’s project saw the Scots emerge from the nadir of a Six Nations whitewash in 2015 to push Australia to brink in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals later that year. Progression continued, culminating in a four place finish in last year’s Six Nations – but only by virtue of a having a worse points difference than Ireland and France.
Cotter passed the reigns to Gregor Townsend – the man responsible for the Glasgow Warriors’ emergence as a domestic force – in May last year. Since then Scotland have done what they could never quite manage under Cotter and taken the scalp of a southern hemisphere heavyweight – beating Australia 24-19 in Sydney before routing the Wallabies 53-24 at Murrayfield last November. They also came a Beauden Barrett tackle away from stunning the All Blacks, losing 22-17 to the world champions in Edinburgh.
And so, providing they don’t plateau, Scotland have every right to believe they can upset one of the tournament’s big two and stake a claim as legitimate Championship contenders. If not, they certainly appear in far better shape than France and Wales to chase Ireland and England home. First up, they travel to Cardiff – and given Warren Gatland’s extensive injury list, the Millennium Stadium will hold no fear.
However, Townsend has injury problems of his own – particularly in the frontrow. WP Nel’s absence last season due to a neck injury saw Xander Fagerson flourish at tighthead, but the 21-year-old Glasgow prop has been ruled out for the duration after dropping weights on his foot in the gym. With Nel unlikely to feature until the back end of the tournament there is a dearth of resources to shore up one of the side’s vulnerabilities – the scrum.
But, providing the set-piece holds up, Scotland have the backline to threaten anybody. Finn Russell missed out on Lions selection but continues to mature at outhalf, and he has a wealth of attacking talent outside him. Stuart Hogg remains the side’s superstar and will be the best fullback on display during the tournament. Centre Huw Jones has been a brilliant addition – he scored tries against Australia, Samoa and the All Blacks last November - and could be joined in midfield by Mark Bennett, who recently returned to action for Edinburgh after nearly a year out with a knee injury.
With a trip to Italy not coming until the final round of fixtures Scotland have to hit the ground running – but if they can win in Cardiff on the opening weekend before beating France in round two, they will be champing at the bit for the visit of England on February 24th. A coming of age tournament could be in store. PM
The Coach: Gregor Townsend is an innovative coach who encourages his teams to play an expansive, attacking game with an emphasis on retaining possession.
The Captain: John Barclay will lead a very athletic, mobile pack with a strong presence at the breakdown. He’s an experienced international and can play across the backrow.
One to Watch: Stuart Hogg, the Six Nations Championship Player of the Year in 2016 and 2017, gives Scotland a different dimension in attack; one of the world’s best. J O’S
Round one: Saturday February 3rd, Wales v Scotland
Round two: Sunday February 11th, Scotland v France
Round three: Saturday February 24th, Scotland v England
Round four: Saturday March 10th, Ireland v Scotland
Round five: Saturday March 17th, Italy v Scotland
Prediction: They have England and France at home in successive games and if they win their opening game away to Wales, they’d have momentum. Fourth.