Scotland broke new ground in the 2023 Guinness Six Nations and finished in the top three for the first time in five years but there remains a sense of ‘what might have been’ around Gregor Townsend’s side.
Consecutive victories over England and Wales represented the first time Scotland have won their first two matches in the Six Nations era but they came up just short against this year’s leading lights, Grant Gilchrist’s red card and a slow start proving costly in Paris before Ireland turned the screw in the second half at BT Murrayfield.
There remain plenty of positives for Townsend to take, however, as he reflects on a campaign which saw Scotland finish as ‘the best of the rest’ behind the world’s top two ranked sides.
Star performer – Huw Jones
There are no shortage of contenders here but it is hard to look past Jones, who shone on his return to the Championship.
It took him just 15 minutes to mark his first Guinness Six Nations game since 2021 with a try, the centre crossing early in the win at Twickenham as Scotland retained the Calcutta Cup, and he went on to score four times in all across the competition – only Damian Penaud was more prolific.
Jones and Glasgow Warriors teammate Sione Tuipulotu took their telepathic club link-up seamlessly on to the international stage and both were on the same wavelength as Scotland’s creative lynchpin Finn Russell.
That midfield synergy helped lay the foundations for a dangerous Scotland attack, while also creating space for the devastating Duhan van der Merwe out wide, and Townsend’s side scored 17 tries across the five matches – up from 11 a year earlier.
Breakthrough player – Jack Dempsey
This was the Australian-born No.8’s first taste of Guinness Six Nations rugby and he took to it like a duck to water.
After appearing off the bench in Scotland’s first three matches, the 28-year-old was handed starting berths in Rounds 4 and 5.
He carried 70m against Ireland – only James Ryan topped that tally across forwards on either side – and went on to win the Player of the Match award after an excellent display in the victory over Italy.
Townsend’s future beyond the World Cup remains uncertain for now but whatever the outcome of the upcoming talks, Scotland have reason to believe there are bright times on the horizon.
They are in the group of death in France, needing to beat at least one of South Africa and Ireland to advance into the knockout phases, but will travel with confidence of pulling that feat off – particularly if Russell is at his magical best.
Closing the gap on France and Ireland in the Championship remains a big ask but for now at least, the feelgood factor is back at BT Murrayfield.
As an individual moment, it would have to be Duhan van der Merwe’s incredible solo try at Twickenham which will be talked about for generations, while his second try to clinch the Calcutta Cup was almost more impressive from a team perspective.
More broadly, however, this prize would probably go to the second-half display against Wales the following week.
Scotland’s players and coaches had fielded questions throughout the week about their ability – or lack of – to back up a big performance and the game was on a knife edge at half-time.
But four tries in the second half turned the nervous air into an Edinburgh eruption as Townsend’s side made it two from two in style.
Scotland’s cutting edge was noticeable across their 2023 campaign.
They averaged more than four points per visit to the opposition 22 against England and Wales in the opening two rounds, a remarkable return, and that tally was an impressive 2.9 when Italy visited BT Murrayfield in Round 5.
They were not alone in finding Ireland a tougher nut to crack but Scotland are now a side with an array of try-scoring options and a backline which is the envy of plenty.
Given Scotland’s challenge is now finding a way to topple France and Ireland, discipline would be an obvious place to start.
Grant Gilchrist’s early red card gave Townsend’s side a mountain to climb in Paris and they could have been punished more heavily had Mohamed Haouas not also seen red shortly afterwards.
The second-half performance against Italy also showed the best and worst of Scotland. The hosts had to survive intense Azzurri pressure and looked on the brink of slipping to a defeat which would have put a very different complexion on their campaign.
But Blair Kinghorn finished a coast-to-coast try to belatedly settle nerves and ensure Scotland finished on a high.
Third was arguably the best Scotland could have hoped for in 2023, given the remarkable strength of Ireland and France at this moment in time.
The fact they managed to achieve it and the manner in which they did so, playing some hugely entertaining rugby and making the most of their wealth of attacking talents, deserves plenty of plaudits.
Scotland are certainly an intriguing prospect going into the World Cup and beyond.