Scotland were handed the toughest possible draw at the 2023 Rugby World Cup and came away aware of the ground they still have to make up to the world’s best.
To reach the quarter-finals, the Scots knew they would need to beat either defending champions South Africa or Grand Slam winners Ireland.
They managed neither, finishing third in their pool with Gregor Townsend accepting responsibility for those defeats.
Now, with the vast majority of the squad still reaching their prime, the objective for Scotland and Townsend will be to put that right in the 2024 Guinness Six Nations.
World Cup performance
An opening fixture against South Africa in Marseille always looked like a huge challenge, and despite a strong opening 40 minutes, Scotland ended up losing 18-3.
The frustrating aspect was that the Scots held up well in the scrum in the first 40 minutes, even earning back-to-back penalties, but their lineout faltered at crucial moments. When the Springboks crossed twice in the space of three minutes early in the second half, they effectively killed the contest.
By the time they next played, Scotland had seen their main pool rivals open up sizable advantages in the table, but a seven-try 45-17 win over Tonga got the Scots up and running.
They followed that with a thumping 84-0 win over Romania, Darcy Graham helping himself to four tries to set up a chance at qualification.
To do so, they needed to beat Ireland by eight points in their final game. An early try conceded to James Lowe was not the dream start, and the game got away from Scotland after an extended period of possession in the Ireland 22 ended with no points. They eventually went down 36-14 with Ireland wrapping up the bonus point and the win by half-time.
With five tries including the four against Romania, Darcy Graham reminded everyone of just what a dangerous finisher he can be.
His performance against Romania matched Gavin Hastings’ efforts back in 1995 against Ivory Coast, the only Scots to score four tries in a men’s World Cup match.
Elsewhere, Blair Kinghorn impressed after stepping into the full-back jersey, while Jack Dempsey made the No.8 position his own.
The most notable absentee for Scotland in 2024 will be Stuart Hogg, although they have already got experience of playing without their record try-scorer after he retired from rugby ahead of the World Cup.
Stuart McInally is another former skipper to have called time on his playing career. He missed out on selection initially before being called up, only for injury to deny him a 50th cap before he turns to a second career as a pilot.
Townsend took a close look at a number of prospects during the Summer Nations Series, with the likes of centre Stafford McDowall and second row Cameron Henderson earning debuts.
They should get more chances to impress during the Guinness Six Nations, while Murphy Walker could come back into contention in the battle to back up Zander Fagerson.
Of those who are uncapped, it is always tough to predict, but if he returns from the knee injury that currently has him sidelined, Ben Muncaster could be another back-rower to add into the mix.
Guinness Six Nations prospects
We will get a good idea of where Scotland stand very quickly in this Guinness Six Nations, with an opening clash against Wales in Cardiff.
While Townsend’s men earned a record win over Wales a year ago, they last won in Cardiff all the way back in 2002 – although they did win in Llanelli in 2020 in a rearranged game during the pandemic.
Should they get an opening win against the Welsh, Scotland would then take a huge amount of confidence into a pair of home games against France and England.
Their record against England, in particular, has been outstanding in recent times, with four wins and a draw in the last six Calcutta Cup meetings.
In Round 4, Scotland will head to Rome to take on Italy before a trip to Dublin where they will hope to avenge that pool defeat to Ireland on Super Saturday.
2024 Guinness Six Nations fixtures
February 3: Wales v Scotland, Principality Stadium, Kick-off 4:45pm February 10: Scotland v France, Scottish Gas Murrayfield, Kick-off 2:15pm February 24: Scotland v England, Scottish Gas Murrayfield, Kick-off 4:45pm March 9: Italy v Scotland, Stadio Olimpico, Kick-off 3:15pm (local time) March 16: Ireland v Scotland, Aviva Stadium, Kick-off 4:45pm