Gregor Townsend and Scotland have proven they are a match for anybody in the Guinness Six Nations.
Over the last two Championships, every nation that has come to BT Murrayfield has been defeated and optimism heading into a Rugby World Cup year is high.
But injuries have played their part in this latest squad selection – and Townsend has had to name seven uncapped players in his 39-man squad to prepare for their opener against Italy.
What can we glean then from Townsend’s choices?
COME IN NO.2
While the likes of John Barclay, Richie Gray and Matt Scott are obvious misses for Townsend – it is in the hooker position that the head coach has his worst headache.
With both Fraser Brown and George Turner injured, there will be a heavy reliance on Stuart McInally.
The good news is that the Edinburgh man is more than up to that challenge.
He is one of the in-form hookers in world rugby and has been at the forefront of Edinburgh’s impressive season so far.
But the bad news is that behind him there is no proven international quality.
Townsend could not bring himself to call up the experienced Ross Ford once more, so instead has gone for the youth and speed of an uncapped trio in Jake Kerr, Dave Cherry and Grant Stewart.
One of them will make their debut next month at BT Murrayfield, in all likelihood off the bench, which one it will be remains to be seen.
While much of the focus is on the absentees – Townsend named 19 players in all that were not selected due to injury – the depth is growing in the squad.
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) January 16, 2019
How else can you explain why Townsend is able to leave out players of the class of Duncan Weir, Henry Pyrgos, Gordon Reid and Alex Dunbar?
Weir has been in superb form for Worcester Warriors, Pyrgos has been the heartbeat for Edinburgh’s revival and Dunbar and Reid are Scotland staples of recent years.
But one look at the competition for places and you start to understand why they have missed out. Adam Hastings is the coming man at No.10 behind Finn Russell and Pete Horne provides cover so Weir misses out.
Greig Laidlaw is skipper while Ali Price and George Horne are livewires at No.9 so Pyrgos cannot squeeze in.
In the centres Dunbar pays the price for failing to string together enough games in a position where the likes of Horne, Huw Jones, Sam Johnson and Nick Grigg have jumped him in the pecking order for club and country.
And while loosehead prop has often been a problem position for Townsend, he can rest easier now with Alex Allan, Jamie Bhatti and Allan Dell all in contention ahead of Reid.
In addition to the three new hookers, there are four more uncapped players named in this Scotland squad.
Gary Graham’s switch of allegiance back to Scotland continues in the back row and his debut awaits after missing out in the autumn.
Also up front, Glasgow tighthead D’Arcy Rae gets the nod to challenge WP Nel and Simon Berghan for minutes.
Then in the backs there are two new centres in Chris Dean and the afore-mentioned Johnson.
Australian-born Johnson has been earmarked for some time now and continues to catch the eye despite Glasgow’s recent domestic slump.
While Dean has been energetic and electric in equal measure for Edinburgh as they climb the standings and stand on the verge of a European quarter-final.
But for all the excitement of the new names, experience abounds even without skipper Barclay who appears likely to miss the entire Championship.
Laidlaw is named as captain and will be the metronome at No.9 for a side that could also have Jonny Gray and Tommy Seymour pass their half century of caps during the Championship.
Stuart Hogg’s class is without question while Finn Russell and Ryan Wilson have both marked themselves out as leaders of men whose experience is growing by the day.
And they will need all that nous if they are to try and turn around their disappointing away record.
Barring a late Laidlaw penalty, Scotland would have lost in Rome last year and when you consider they have not won in London since 1983, Paris since 1999, Cardiff since 2002 and Dublin since 2010, clearly there is still room for improvement.
OPTIMISM IS RIFE
But if there was ever a time for Scotland to launch themselves into a Championship race – surely this is the year?
Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh are both well-placed to make the European quarter-finals – the first time in the country’s history.
Both are also in play-off contention in the Guinness PRO14 and the attacking riches in the backfield remains a joy to behold.
Hogg’s class is permanent but Edinburgh duo Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham have been making a mockery of defences all season long and will certainly challenge for wing spots if not the No.23 jersey.
But that is without forgetting the class of Sean Maitland and Seymour – British & Irish Lions both.
And with speedsters like Price and Horne picking holes as defences tire and Huw Jones running ruthless lines, expect Scotland’s attack to continue to shine in 2019.