Home ground: Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Interim Head Coach: Scott Johnson
Scotland’s biggest (and possibly only) strength can be found in the talented youngsters that are starting to come through. Richie Gray is still 24 and has shown many times for Castres this season that he can still produce barnstorming runs and intelligent support play, but he is slowly starting to get overshadowed by his younger brother Jonny. 19-year-old Jonny has just been made Scotland A captain and is in the exact same mould as Richie, but he is also great at the breakdown.
New face Chris Fusaro is a superb open-side but it remains to be seen whether Johnson will actually pick him, as he has favoured Kelly Brown at seven in the past. Matt Scott is the best back to come out of Scotland since Stuart Hogg even though he is older; he is a playmaker but can also break the line and supports line breaks well. We already know what Hogg can produce; his counter-attacking is amongst the best in Britain and he has a howitzer of a right boot.
The fact that Scotland have a world-class kicker in Greig Laidlaw helps immensely, but many fans feel that Chris Cusiter offers more of an attacking threat and should start.
Where to start? Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir have proved that they are not test-level 10s and it is unlikely that Johnson will choose to start Greig Tonks; there is the option of playing Matt Scott but he is unproven on the international scene at fly-half.
The Autumn Internationals highlighted Scotland’s problems at set-pieces and it is highly likely that against teams like England, Ireland and Italy that this will continue. The front-row aren’t technically good enough and we don’t have a player like Geoff Parling or Paul O’Connell that can boss the lineout.
Scotland’s scoring impotence has improved in recent seasons but the loss of Tim Visser to injury is a huge upset and whoever his replacement is, it is unlikely that they will show the same prowess in crossing the white line.
Player to watch: Johnnie Beattie
Beattie’s performances in last year’s Six Nations and the change in him since moving to Montpellier means people were left bewildered when Scott Johnson seemed to favour Dave Denton at eight in the autumn. He is a player that was born with natural talent but has had problems with injuries and indifferent relationships with past national coaches.
His capability to tackle and disrupt at the breakdown means he can play anywhere across the back-row but it is at 8 where he excels. His intelligence and ability when picking up at the base of the scrum and breaking through the defence means that opposition back-row have to be uncharacteristically wary of a Scotland set-piece.
Last season: 3rd
Last season’s tournament was the best that Scotland have had for many a year but victories over Italy and Ireland were probably overshadowed by the latter’s and France’s poor performances. The team played with more fluency, were more patient in attack and defended well compared to previous campaigns and they will need to keep this up. Seven tries in five matches might be considered good for Scotland but if they have any hope of beating more than just Italy this year, they need to score a lot more.
To predict how well Scotland will do, you have to look at how the other countries will fare. France look to have the best team they’ve had for the past few seasons but will they be their schizophrenic selves? I don’t think so. England have the best pack and their consistency in attack should help them beat most teams. Ireland seem to be playing better under Joe Schmidt but it is too early to tell. Wales have a whole host of injuries and could falter but many thought that last year and look what happened then. Italy will probably be a case of same old, same old, but they at least now have a talented fly-half in the shape of former Scottish youngster Tommy Allan (I’m not annoyed at all. Honestly).
By Calum Gillon (@C_Gillon)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images