Don’t laugh. Scotland should have secured a spot in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals in 2015, where they would have faced an Argentina outfit who they have now beaten in seven of their last eight meetings. A showdown with New Zealand at Twickenham was a distinct possibility and that proves Gregor Townsend’s men are not also-rans this time around.
A miraculous string of injuries crippled the Scots during the spring as they finished fifth, without which they would surely have pushed for a higher placing. Most of those fitness problems have gone away now, though the men in navy blue could be derailed in Japan if they reoccur.
On the admittedly-large assumption that Scotland avoid losing any key personnel between now and the start of the knockout stages on October 19th, they have a genuine chance of venturing deep into the later rounds.
For starters, the pack is looking rather beastly. Stuart McInally was the standout hooker of the Six Nations with his ferocious ball-carrying, deceptive turn of speed and devastating skills at the breakdown, whilst Willem Nel is simply an immovable object at scrum-time. Gordon Reid and Allan Dell are both reliable operators at loosehead, with Zander Fagerson an ever-improving force at three.
The second and backrows are an issue, in spite of the stellar first-choice options for Townsend. Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray can be as fearless and combative as they like, it still won’t solve the conundrum of who should replace them were either to limp off with an injury. Hamish Watson and John Barclay are in the same boat; both exquisite rugby players who would challenge for a place in nearly any side, yet once again there is a lack of cover.
This is evidently a problem that is true for most areas of the pitch. Behind the virtuoso Finn Russell is an equally-thrilling prospect in Adam Hastings, but no one would even try to claim that the latter could ever make up for the loss of his senior. Russell is sensational on his day, a game-deciding fly-half who can make something from nothing. If – and that’s an enormous if – he is in the mood this autumn, expect fireworks from Scotland.
Sam Johnson’s direct, uncompromising approach to rugby served his country superbly as the squad began to drop like flies, and his centre partner Duncan Taylor is a classy individual with a winner’s mindset, as demonstrated by his immense success with Saracens.
However, who should come on for either man? Chris Harris just doesn’t cut it, though Pete Horne is an intelligent and skilful replacement to help see out tight contests. Nevertheless, the 29-year-old is far from peak form at present and is no doubt someone who performs best when brimming with confidence. A lack of it, unfortunately, often leads to dismal displays.
At least the back three has strong competition for places and a number of able alternatives. Stuart Hogg needs no introduction, Tommy Seymour has grown into one of the finest wingers in the world when it comes to aerial battles, and Sean Maitland is another to benefit from Saracens’ ceaseless thirst for glory.
Darcy Graham and Blair Kinghorn may be a bit short on experience, yet they sparkled in an unexpectedly-prominent role at the start of the year in the absence of Hogg and co.
As for scrum-half, we all know exactly what Greig Laidlaw offers. Metronomic kicking as he keeps the scoreboard ticking over and a calm demeanour for when the pressure starts to build. Two blossoming nines are waiting to take his spot in the Scotland lineup, with George Horne and the elder Ali Price a pair of unpredictable pocket-rockets capable of winning or losing a match. That haphazard form could prove to be a blessing in disguise or the end of the road for Townsend’s men.
What should be patently clear is that the Tartan Army have a wonderfully-talented collection of players, but also a wonderfully-thin selection pool. Familiarity is an enormous advantage, as 12 of the side play for Glasgow Warriors and 10 for Edinburgh.
If they can keep a full complement available, second position in Group A should be theirs, even if the hosts are in their pool and will have an enamoured crowd behind them. Perhaps, second isn’t actually ambitious enough. Ireland have hit a tough patch in the last 12 months and are yet to show that their struggles are behind them.
It’s bound to be a captivating match-up on September 22nd and the Scots will have full belief they can heap more misery on Joe Schmidt, which would act as a launchpad for even greater things further down the line.
By Ed Alexander
Here is Scotland’s inevitable route to ultimate glory: