With Ireland up first in the RBS 6 Nations, Scotland will be taking on familiar foes, as Edinburgh, Munster, Leinster, Connacht, Ulster and Glasgow Warriors’ finest don international colours.
Scotland head coach Vern Cotter has admitted it will take an almighty attacking effort to blow over a side that beat New Zealand and Australia in the autumn, completing a calendar hat-trick over the Southern Hemisphere giants.
What’s more, Scotland are targeting a first win over Wales in a decade, travel to Twickenham where they are winless since 1983 and Stade de France where their last victory came in 1999.
But thanks to the form of Glasgow and Edinburgh in the Guinness PRO12, and in Europe, as well as a promising autumn and a massively competitive squad including the likes of Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray and Finn Russell, their prospects look bright.
Here we assess their chances heading into this year’s RBS 6 Nations and pick out players that have the opportunity to shine.
Glasgow Warriors could not have finished their European Rugby Champions Cup pool stage on a brighter note if they planned it.
To go to Welford Road and win is one thing – only Munster had done so in the history of Europe’s premier club competition and that was in 2006 – but to win by 43-0 was a different kettle of fish.
That said, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing at Glasgow, they lost three games on the bounce against Munster, Scarlets and Ospreys over November and December.
But home and away wins against Racing 92 in the Champions Cup inspired a fine upturn in fortunes and they now sit inside the Guinness PRO12 top four.
Dunbar: “It was a great day down in Leicester, with the smiles on the boys faces and the buzz around the club”
— Glasgow Warriors 🏉 (@GlasgowWarriors) January 30, 2017
What’s more, in Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray and Finn Russell they possess three of Europe’s in-form players and a host of stars who will be critical for Scotland.
Hogg, barring injury, is sewn into the 15 shirt, with Russell – man of the match in three of Glasgow’s last four European games – similarly well set.
Jonny Gray brings lineout expertise and an enormous engine, while Tim Swinson and Ryan Wilson are in the form of their lives.
Mark Bennett too is back to his best following the Olympics and Alex Dunbar is a barrelling, jackalling threat at 12, while Tommy Seymour has been at his potent best this term – leading the way in the Guinness PRO12 with eight tries.
Edinburgh have endured a mixed bag this year after the departure of Alan Solomons as director of rugby.
Solomons was replaced by former Scotland fly-half Duncan Hodge, who has had a liberating effect on Edinburgh’s European Rugby Challenge Cup form, though they have struggled in the Guinness PRO12.
Edinburgh are the only side this season to beat Harlequins at Twickenham Stoop, while they also downed the two-time Challenge Cup winners at BT Murrayfield in arguably the game of the season so far.
— Edinburgh Rugby (@EdinburghRugby) January 27, 2017
Blair Kinghorn, Chris Dean, Damien Hoyland, Grant Gilchrist, Allan Dell, Hamish Watson and Simon Berghan represent a young core of Scottish qualified players.
Though their contribution to the national side is numerically less than their near neighbours Glasgow, in the likes of Ford and Hamish Watson, they possess players crucial to Vern Cotter’s vision for Scotland.
Ford’s set-piece reliability, a steady stream of quick ball for the lightning Scottish backs to exploit and his accuracy will be vital when they open up against Ireland and lineout expert Devin Toner.
Watson – like Edinburgh colleague John Hardie – is exactly the sort of link player that allows Cotter’s Scotland to go wide early, while he punches above his weight in the tackle.
Cotter has picked out the Irish game as pivotal for the Scots, knowing that a win over Ireland could build the momentum crucial to breaking their run of losses at the Stade de France in Round 2.
But facing a side including in-form CJ Stander, Simon Zebo, Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw is full of peril, meaning Cotter is keen to take the game away from them before they have a chance.
“We have talked about how tough the Ireland game is going to be first up and that’s credit to them,” the New Zealander said.
“You can’t go out there defending to try and win games of rugby because you will just become unstuck.
“You have to go on the offence and we have the players to do that.
“If we are disciplined and playing in the right areas of the field then the result is more likely to be on our side.”
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) January 31, 2017
Ones to watch:
It’s hard to look any further than Finn Russell.
The fly-half ended last year by turning in two phenomenal performances up against Dan Carter and Racing 92, but endured a difficult afternoon against Munster as the Irish powerhouses snuck a victory at Scotstoun.
But he rebounded with 13 points, three offloads, three clean breaks, three defenders beaten and 82 metres against Leicester Tigers – impressing even further with his control of the game.
While Russell has been a mainstay of the Scotland side since 2014, if he transfers the form he has shown for Glasgow in the Guinness PRO12 and Champions Cup to the international scene, this RBS 6 Nations could be a step toward a British & Irish Lions jersey.
From Edinburgh, Hamish Watson had a superb autumn, Ross Ford is an ever-present in the front row, while Cornell du Preez and Simon Berghan could win first caps.
— PRO12RUGBY (@PRO12rugby) January 25, 2017
But it is another front-rower, Allan Dell, who could add to his growing reputation at this year’s RBS 6 Nations.
Dell’s explosive ball-carrying has been a key component of Edinburgh at their best this year and his try against Harlequins in the Challenge Cup is an example of how quick he is.
His close relationship with Ford at hooker means they can punch above their weight in the scrum, while Zander Fagerson is another tyro alongside them.
If Scotland can get front foot ball then Dell is a frightening prospect to tackle and can add an extra option to Wilson, Watson, John Barclay and Josh Strauss in the back row.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017, 27th May, Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Ticket Information: Fans can still avail of an exclusive number of €30 tickets. Book via www.ticketmaster.ie. Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final