Introducing Scotland: Can Gregor Townsend’s side take the next step?

Stuart Hogg celebrates winning 25/2/2017
It is 22 years since Scotland last triumphed in Rugby’s Greatest Championship and the current squad developed by Gregor Townsend might just be the best they’ve had since the Five Nations became Six.

It is 22 years since Scotland last triumphed in Rugby’s Greatest Championship and the current squad developed by Gregor Townsend might just be the best they’ve had since the Five Nations became Six.

England and France will start as favourites this year but Scotland will pose a test, as long as their big hitters deliver in the next seven weeks.

In Stuart Hogg, Scotland have one of the best full-backs in the Championship, while the impact of Finn Russell’s return at fly-half cannot be overstated.

Add in a pair of high-class wingers, a back row that specialises in turnovers and an improving scrum, and Scotland are a team on the up.

Not only is Stuart Hogg Scotland’s captain, he is also arguably their best player and, for Scotland to do well, they will need their flying full-back to be at his mesmeric best.

Still just 28, Hogg will win his 81st Scotland cap in Round 1 and he’s been a near-constant for nine years.

A two-time Player of the Championship, Hogg’s highlights reel is something to behold. He has lightning feet, electric pace and a rugby brain as creative as any in the game, while he often saves his best for the Guinness Six Nations.

Opposition teams will know what happens if they kick too deep and allow him time and space to return. It’s perhaps a stretch to say that Scotland will go as their captain goes, but he is vital to the cause.

This will be Gregor Townsend’s fourth Guinness Six Nations in charge of Scotland and he will be hoping to improve on their best finish of third from 2018.

He is already a Scotland legend from his time as a player, where he won 82 caps for his country and scored a try in every game as they won the Five Nations title in 1999.

All you need to know about 2021 Guinness Six Nations Fantasy Rugby

They won three times in Townsend’s first Championship in charge – including a memorable Calcutta Cup success against England – before finishing a disappointing fifth in 2019.

Last season, they won three games again en route to a fourth-placed finish, including a superb home win against Grand Slam-chasing France and a first away win at Wales in 18 years.

The final table is perhaps a little harsh on Scotland after they won three games but still finished in the bottom half.

However, there is plenty of cause for optimism ahead of the 2021 Championship – if only they can start a bit quicker.

In Round 1, Scotland could have won away to Ireland but a series of handling errors in the 22 cost them dearly – and don’t ask Stuart Hogg about that drop over the try-line.

England then won at BT Murrayfield in Round 2 in appalling weather conditions to leave Scotland with a bit of soul-searching to do in the first rest week, but Townsend’s men recovered brilliantly.

In Round 3, they shut out Italy in Rome to get their first win of the Championship – with Hogg making up for his Ireland error with a spectacular try – before unbeaten France were soundly beaten in Edinburgh two weeks later.

But perhaps the sweetest moment came in Llanelli in the re-arranged Round 5 as Scotland won away to Wales for the first time since 2002.

With the likes of Hogg and Finn Russell in the ranks, Townsend’s men have every reason to be optimistic, while their strong end to the 2020 campaign will only boost confidence.

The talent is there to do very well but, as ever, it comes down to how well they start, and how well they travel. Round 1, therefore, will teach us a lot as Scotland blend those two Achilles heels straight away with a trip to rivals England on Saturday.

If they win there for the first time since 1983, then Scotland might just be contenders.

England v Scotland, Twickenham, February 6, Kick-off: 16.45

Scotland v Wales, Edinburgh, February 13, Kick-off: 16.45

France v Scotland, Paris, February 28, Kick-off: 15.00

Scotland v Ireland, Edinburgh, March 14, Kick-off: 15.00

Scotland v Italy, Edinburgh, March 20, Kick-off: 14.15