There is something of a feeling surrounding this Scotland side of if not now, when?
Led by Stuart Hogg, Scotland have quietly become one of the most consistent sides in the Guinness Six Nations but could 2022 be the year that consistency leads to glory?
While a third-place finish remains Scotland’s best in the Six Nations era – they were of course the final winners of the Five Nations – final positions do not tell the whole story.
After all, Gregor Townsend’s side have won three matches in four of the last five campaigns, a feat that only Ireland can match or better.
Remarkably, three of those three-win campaigns have resulted in fourth-place finishes, an indication of how close the competition has become in recent years, and perhaps also a reflection of Scotland’s struggles to pick up try bonus points.
It is not that Scotland fail to score tries, their 18 last year trailed only champions Wales, but five try-bonus points over five campaigns shows that reaching the four-try threshold on a regular basis has not come easy.
But could 2022 be the year that changes? While their attack was not perfect in the Autumn Nations Series, there were certainly flashes and with more time in the role, skills coach AB Zondagh, one of the architects of Toulouse’s double-winning campaign last season, should have a greater impact on the attack.
The talent is certainly not lacking. In skipper Hogg, now the country’s all-time record try-scorer, and fly-half Finn Russell, who certainly has a case for being the best playmaking ten in the northern hemisphere, there are two men capable of opening up even the tightest of defences.
Add in serial try-scorer Duhan van der Merwe, the emerging talent of Cameron Redpath and the ever-lively Ali Price, and the backline has the making of a group that can play at tempo and rack up the points.
That all bar the injured Redpath were part of Scotland’s eight-strong British & Irish Lions contingent is more proof of the progress being made under Townsend. You have to go back to 1993 for the last time that many Scots toured with the Lions, and they were not simply tourists, five started at least one Test, two more made a matchday 23.
Lions recognition was justified after the historic 2021 Championship, wins at Twickenham and in Paris ending 38 and 22-year hoodoos respectively. If not for the one-point loss at home to Wales, Scotland could have won the whole thing.
While the attack has the potential to be devastating, Scotland’s defence has already reached world class status, with coach Steve Tandy’s work earning him a Lions call under Warren Gatland.
Chris Harris is the lynchpin in midfield, going from a somewhat surprise international call-up to a Lions Test starter. Only Wales really stretched the Scotland defence beyond breaking point in 2021, and it will be a foundation once more in 2022.
Of course, how those backs perform is only relevant if the forwards can hold up their end of the bargain. Recent seasons have certainly seen an uptick on that front.
Zander Fagerson, Rory Sutherland and 2021 Guinness Player of the Championship Hamish Watson all made it onto the Lions Tour, the former two a nod to Scotland’s fearsome scrum that has come on leaps and bounds under Pieter de Villiers.
In Watson and Ritchie, Scotland have two of the most active flankers in the Championship, a menace at the breakdown and threats with ball in hand. Rising star Rory Darge is already pushing hard to join them in that back row.
Add in Jonny Gray, back up to speed after missing the autumn, and Scott Cummings, perhaps the most consistent performer of Townsend’s tenure, in the second row, and there is a great deal of stability about the pack.
That is perhaps the strength of the entire team. Where England head to BT Murrayfield without their captain or vice-captain, Scotland’s first-choice XV features at least ten sure-fire starters, if not more.
The team has grown together and is hitting its peak. A Calcutta Cup clash to open will not be easy – England did knock off South Africa the last time we saw them. But Scotland have only lost one of their last four meetings with Eddie Jones’ men and should enter the game with no fear.
Win that, and a trip to Cardiff in Round 2 becomes even more exciting. Scotland’s record in the Welsh capital is not great – their win in Wales in 2020 came in Llanelli – but Twickenham and the Stade de France went some way to consigning the away struggles to history.
A trip to Italy, where Scotland are unbeaten since 2012, follows before hosting France in Round 4. Under Fabien Galthié, Les Bleus are a team on the rise, but they are yet to beat Scotland in the Guinness Six Nations under his watch – the sole defeat coming in the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup.
It is a fool’s errand to guess where Scotland might sit after four rounds, and a trip to Dublin on Super Saturday will be daunting, especially after what Andy Farrell’s team achieved in the Autumn Nations Series.
But with the stability in the side and no reason to fear any of their opponents, Scotland have every reason to not only hope that they will have their fate in their hands by Round 5, but maybe even to expect it.