After a disappointing Autumn Nations Cup then there is pressure on the Scottish men’s team to achieve success in the Six Nations.
There can be no question that the past few months for Scottish rugby have been questionable. With a mixture of cancellations caused by Covid-19 and icy conditions, recent months have not been successful for clubs Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh, nor were they successful for the men’s national team as they suffered defeats to France and Ireland in the Autumn Nations Cup. Which, of course, begs a familiar question: can Scotland translate their Autumn Nations woes into a Six Nations surge?
This time last year, when Scottish clubs were – as now – underperforming in the Pro14 tournament, most Scottish rugby fans were not optimistic for a successful Six Nations. However, Scotland’s fourth-place finish and a surprising win against Wales blew away all expectations. Could we see this Six Nations form replicated or will we see a repeat of the frustrating performances we saw in the Autumn Nations Cup?
Looking at the training squad, there are some notable omissions which have caused a stir. Duncan Weir, Sam Skinner, Stuart McInally, Fraser Brown, Ben Toolis and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne have been left out due to either injury or bad luck. Adam Hastings, who suffered a shoulder injury last year, will not be included in the opening few rounds, but Finn Russell’s return one year on from his feud with head coach Gregor Townsend, is a reassuring presence we can all rely on. Townsend has also brought some new blood into the squad, including youngsters such as Glasgow’s Jamie Dobie and fellow winger Rufus McLean who were called up to participate in training. However, the focus is on the four uncapped players, Cameron Redpath, Dave Cherry, Alex Craig and Ewan Ashma, that were included in the main squad. The spotlight shines particularly brightly on Redpath. A former England Under-20 player, Redpath is currently serving his first senior contract with Bath Rugby. If he is given a chance this tournament, Redpath could join forces with Russell on the pitch and bring an edge and presence to match other nations. On a positive note, we will witness the long-awaited return of Richie Grey, elder brother of Jonny. Having been omitted from the international rugby scene for some time, Scotland fans might breathe a sigh of relief at seeing a familiar face who has caused havoc in the past.
Looking back at Scotland’s recent performances at club level, they have been certainly lacklustre. A notable example was when Glasgow was overpowered and out-muscled by Exeter Chiefs in December. Then, during the first derby between Edinburgh and Glasgow, the first 40 minutes saw no points being added to the scoreboard by either side. This was, indeed, a wake-up call for Scotland. So, where do the Scots start their winning streak? Townsend’s men will meet England in their opening game of the tournament at Twickenham. Ouch. Undoubtedly one of the best teams in the world, this is sure to be one hell of a spectacle. Cast your mind back to 2019, which gifted us one of the greatest comebacks in rugby union history when Scotland came from 31-7 down to lead 38-31 before England snatched an equalising try at the death. Despite it being a cruel draw to end the 2019 Championship, Scotland still retained the Calcutta Cup, the trophy which Scotland and England contest during their annual Six Nations game, and it remains one of the most memorable matches to date. Since then Scotland has relinquished the Calcutta Cup following a 13-6 defeat in brutal weather conditions back in February 2020, but Townsend’s men will be hungry to recapture the Cup on Saturday.
Like every opening fixture, this first game will make or break Scotland’s Grand Slam hopes. After their imperfect Autumn Nations, Scotland will have to produce a miracle of a performance to beat England. There are no guarantees in sport, so anything can happen.