Scotland: The Year Ahead

‘Potential’ is a word that has been rightly ascribed to Scotland on numerous occasions during Gregor Townsend’s reign – even if it has yet to fully materialise on the pitch.

‘Potential’ is a word that has been rightly ascribed to Scotland on numerous occasions during Gregor Townsend’s reign – even if it has yet to fully materialise on the pitch.

There have been glimpses of what they can do – such as their stunning second-half comeback in the Calcutta Cup – but they have been far too fleeting up to this point.

One win from five in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations and a group-stage exit at the Rugby World Cup has certainly given Townsend plenty of food for thought over the festive period.

But he will feel confident that with the talent at his disposal, plus a blockbuster schedule next year, Scotland are on the cusp of doing something special sooner rather than later.

It is all too easy to make sweeping changes when things don’t quite go your way so it is only right that Scotland have resisted doing anything rash in the aftermath of the World Cup.

Defeat to Japan in their final pool game in Yokohama ended their campaign prematurely when many had backed them to progress alongside fellow Guinness Six Nations rivals Ireland.

But Townsend has already put many of the building blocks in place for future success and has total belief in the new breed of players coming through the Scotland ranks.

It is certainly no wonder Townsend stressed he has “the best job in the world” following his team’s World Cup exit, especially when you consider the embarrassment of riches at his disposal.

Alongside the experienced heads of Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray, he has the likes of Darcy Graham, Blair Kinghorn and Adam Hastings to rely on in the coming years.

There have also been some impressive results along the way, including that memorable fightback against England to retain the Calcutta Cup with a 38-38 draw at Twickenham in March.

Attention now turns to the start of next year’s Championship, which begins with a trip to Dublin to face Ireland in February, as Townsend and Co look to right the wrongs from their last campaign.

“The Six Nations is such a big tournament, it’s just round the corner and we have to represent our country the best we can,” said Townsend. “We’re planning to have a successful Six Nations.”

While Townsend will be keen to focus on blooding more youngsters into the Scotland side, he has already made it clear he will only give players a chance if they are deserving.

That would appear to be the case for talented Glasgow Warriors star Grant Stewart, who looks likely to have a breakout year for the national side in 2020 after making his debut earlier this year.

After narrowly missing out on a place in the Rugby World Cup squad, the Carluke-born hooker will be looking to displace the likes of George Turner and start to make his mark internationally.

But he will have stiff competition from Leicester Tigers’ Jake Kerr and Edinburgh’s Dave Cherry, with all three presenting a fascinating conundrum for Townsend to solve.

Elsewhere, despite having been a part of the Scotland set-up for a couple of years now, Darcy Graham is still only 22 years old and continues to cause defenders nightmares on the wing.

After gaining experience with his nation and more maturity with his club, Edinburgh, Graham will be keen to stamp his authority over a position in Scotland’s back three.

If he can capitalise on his promise, shown by the damage he caused to Russia during the World Cup in Japan, Graham can become a key player for Scotland for years to come.

Then there’s the supremely talented Jamie Ritchie and Scott Cummings, two players who Townsend singled out for particular praise for the way they stepped up in Japan.

“It is really encouraging to see Jamie Ritchie who was really outstanding against Japan, after an outstanding game against Samoa off the back of surgery two weeks before,” he said.

“It’s encouraging when you see players such as Scott Cummings who did well to make our initial squad of 44 end up playing every game in the tournament and the warm-ups.”

With such a wealth of exciting prospects coming through, it’s no wonder Townsend feels optimistic about what Scotland can achieve in the future – starting with the 2020 Championship.

The first test for Scotland will be putting their World Cup disappointment behind them as they attempt to better their fifth-place finish in last year’s Guinness Six Nations.

First up for Townsend’s men is a trip to the Aviva Stadium in Dublin to face Ireland, who made it to the World Cup quarter-finals and finished third in the 2019 Championship standings.

A good start to their Six Nations challenge is a must as they look to build momentum for a mouth-watering Calcutta Cup rematch against England at BT Murrayfield in Round Two.

They will then travel to Italy and reigning Grand Slam champions either side of welcoming France to Edinburgh in Round Four – a fixture schedule that promises plenty of box office action.

Following the Championship, Scotland will face newly-crowned world champions South Africa in two fascinating back-to-back Tests to begin their 2020 summer tour.

If playing the Springboks twice on July 4 and 11 wasn’t imposing enough, they will also play a third and final Test against 2011 and 2015 world champions New Zealand in Dunedin.

It will be the first time in years that Scotland have played the leading southern hemisphere sides on their own soil, last facing South Africa on tour in 2014 and the All Blacks some 20 years ago.

Scotland will also welcome New Zealand to BT Murrayfield to close the year out in style with an Autumn Test series that will also include games against Japan and Argentina.

By the time Scotland face Japan in a rematch of their World Cup fixture, Townsend will know whether his troops are capable of the consistency that has so far eluded them.

It is a fixture schedule that will test just how much they have learned from their 2019 season and give a whole host of up-and-coming players the chance to lay down a marker.