ONE well-known, and famously provocative, London-based journalist boldly predicted last weekend that Scotland would finish fifth in this year’s Six Nations, prompting a predictable backlash on social media from Bravehearts infuriated that their team’s potential has once again been denigrated. 

The truth is that Scotland probably do have the best chance in the Six Nations era of being title contenders – but it is just as likely that they finish second from bottom. Their form during the Autumn – which convincing wins over Tonga, Australia and Japan next to one defeat to the world champion South Africans – was encouraging but must be viewed in the context of the performances produced by their championship rivals.

England hammered Tonga then beat Australia and South Africa. As well as getting the better of Argentina and Georgia, France also defeated New Zealand in one of the great performances by any nation in any era. Ireland also beat New Zealand and hammered both Japan and Argentina. Even Wales managed to bounce back from a tough series opener when a depleted side lost heavily against New Zealand, to run South Africa close then beat Fiji and Australia.

Like Scotland, all four of those teams will approach 2022 feeling that they have managed to grow their player base at the same time as developing squad cohesion through playing three or four tough matches on back-to-back weekends – so we can’t look at any one of those upcoming matches and say with sincere certainty that it is an absolute banker for Gregor Townsend’s team.

The National:

If Scotland beat England for the third time in five years in this afternoon’s opener then they are up and running, but as scrum-half and vice-captain Ali Price pointed out earlier this week, “that counts for nothing if we [they] don’t back it up”. 

Next up is Wales a week today, who are struggling under the weight of a huge injury toll which has claimed seven of their British and Irish Lions, so the Scots will fancy that, especially having ended their 18-year losing streak the last time they visited that neck of the woods. However, an empty Parc y Scarlets in late October is a very different proposition to the Principality Stadium in early February, packed to the rafters for a Six Nations match for the first time in two years, and with the home side either fighting for their lives or flying high depending on how their opening weekend clash against Ireland in Dublin has gone. 

There has been a fair bit of chat during the lead-up to this tournament about how a full-house at Murrayfield will really make a difference for the home team, but you can’t have it both ways – Scotland’s recent away wins are commendable but they were achieved in near silence when it was much easier to stay calm and concentrate. Let's see them do it with a wall of sound coming from the stands.

After Cardiff there is a rest week, followed by a visit to Murrayfield by France, the tournament favourites, who have the best front-line quality, the most depth and serious form coming into this championship. Scotland’s record of three wins from the last four matches against Les Bleus tells us it can be done, but that performance by Fabien Galthie’s side against the All Black in November suggests that they have now moved on to a new level.

Italy away shouldn’t be a major problem. Scotland are now past those dark days of battling against the Azzurri to avoid the wooden spoon. 

Before we know it, we’ll have reached the final weekend, and the quest for a first win in Dublin since 2010. There’s a lot of rugby to be played, but it will pass like the blink of an eye.

Head coach Townsend promised after the Autumn that he would cast his net further and wider than he has done before when picking the players who would compete in this Six Nations (and he has always been an ambitious fisherman when it comes to squad selection). He has been as good as his word.

London Irish scrum-half Ben White and Saracens back-row Andy Christie were the two widest leftfield picks. White, aged 23, captained England at Under-20s level and played for the senior England side in a non-cap match against the Barbarians in 2019. Christie represented Scotland at under-17s level.

The three other uncapped players in the squad are 23-year-old winger Kyle Rowe (who also plays for London Irish, having come through the Scottish system with Queen Victoria School in Dunblane, Falkirk, Glasgow Hawks, Ayr, Ayrshire Bulls and Scotland 7s before heading south last summer having failed to land a full-time contract up here) ,21-year-old flanker Rory Darge (from North Berwick and now of Glasgow Warriors, who doesn’t need introduced to anyone who has been paying the remotest attention to professional rugby in Scotland during the last season) and 26-year-old scrum-half Ben Vellacott (who joined Edinburgh from Wasps last summer, having played for Scotland at Under-20).

All five of the new faces could feature at some point during the championship – especially the two scrum-halves as Price is the only capped No 9 in the training squad – but it feels like match-day selection could be pretty consistent as Townsend focusses in on the 2023 World Cup in France, when he will want to have a much firmer idea of his best team and fundamental game-plan than in Japan back in 2019.

The big question which remains to be answered relates to who is Finn Russell’s back-up at No 10. Adam Hastings has been left out of the training squad despite playing well for Gloucester. The logic appears to be to give Blair Kinghorn, Stuart Hogg and Rory Hutchinson training and perhaps playing time at first receiver. But you’d imaged that Hastings will be given a speedy recall if the main man picks up an injury or suspension mid-campaign.


Backs (17)

Mark Bennett - Age: 28, Position: Centre, Caps: 22, Club: Edinburgh Rugby

Darcy Graham - Age: 24, Position: Wing, Caps: 22, Club: Edinburgh Rugby

Chris Harris - Age: 31, Position: Centre, Caps: 31, Club: Gloucester

Stuart Hogg (c) - Age: 29, Position: Full-back, Caps: 88, Club: Exeter Chiefs

Rory Hutchinson - Age: 26, Position: Centre, Caps: 5, Club: Northampton Saints

Sam Johnson - Age: 28, Position: Centre, Caps: 21, Club: Glasgow Warriors

Blair Kinghorn - Age: 25, Position: Stand-off, Caps: 28, Club: Edinburgh Rugby

Rufus McLean - Age: 21, Position: Wing, Caps: 2, Club: Glasgow Warriors

Ali Price - Age: 28, Position: Scrum-half, Caps: 46, Club: Glasgow Warriors

Cameron Redpath - Age: 22, Position: Centre, Caps: 1, Club: Bath

Kyle Rowe - Age: 23, Position: Wing, Caps: Uncapped, Club: London Irish

Finn Russell - Age: 29, Position: Stand-off, Caps: 58, Club: Racing 92

Kyle Steyn - Age: 28, Position: Wing, Caps: 3, Club: Glasgow Warriors

Sione Tuipulotu - Age: 24, Position: Centre, Caps: 1, Club: Glasgow Warriors

Duhan van der Merwe - Age: 26, Position: Wing, Caps: 13, Club: Worcester Warriors

Ben Vellacott - Age: 26, Position: Scrum-half, Caps: Uncapped, Club: Edinburgh Rugby

Ben White - Age: 23, Position: Scrum-half, Caps: Uncapped, Club: London Irish

Forwards (21)

Ewan Ashman - Age: 21, Position: Hooker, Caps: 2, Club: Sale Sharks

Allan Dell - Age: 29, Position: Prop, Caps: 32, Club: London Irish

Magnus Bradbury - Age: 26, Position: Back row, Caps: 14, Club: Edinburgh Rugby

Andy Christie - Age: 22, Position: Back row, Caps: Uncapped, Club: Saracens

Scott Cummings - Age: 25, Position: Lock, Caps: 21, Club: Glasgow Warriors

Rory Darge - Age: 21, Position: Back row, Caps: Uncapped, Club: Glasgow Warriors

Matt Fagerson - Age: 23, Position: Back row, Caps: 17, Club: Glasgow Warriors

Zander Fagerson - Age: 26, Position: Prop, Caps: 42, Club: Glasgow Warriors

Grant Gilchrist - Age: 31, Position: Lock, Caps: 48, Club: Edinburgh Rugby

Jonny Gray - Age: 27, Position: Lock, Caps: 64, Club: Exeter Chiefs

Nick Haining - Age: 31, Position: Back row, Caps: 10, Club: Edinburgh Rugby

Jamie Hodgson - Age: 23, Position: Lock, Caps: 3, Club: Edinburgh Rugby

Stuart McInally - Age: 31, Position: Hooker, Caps: 43, Club: Edinburgh Rugby

WP Nel - Age: 35, Position: Prop, Caps: 43, Club: Edinburgh Rugby

Jamie Ritchie - Age: 25, Position: Back row, Caps: 31, Club: Edinburgh Rugby

Pierre Schoeman - Age: 27, Position: Prop, Caps: 4, Club: Edinburgh Rugby

Javan Sebastian - Age: 27, Position: Prop, Caps: 1, Club: Scarlets

Sam Skinner - Age: 27, Position: Lock, Caps: 15, Club: Exeter Chiefs

Rory Sutherland - Age: 27, Position: Prop, Caps: 16, Club: Worcester Warriors

George Turner - Age: 29, Position: Hooker, Caps: 20, Club: Glasgow Warriors

Hamish Watson - Age: 30, Position: Back row, Caps: 45, Club: Edinburgh Rugby


Round 1

Sat 4 February, Scotland v England (4.45pm, BT Murrayfield)

Round 2

Sat 12 February, Wales v Scotland (2.14pm, Principality Stadium)

Round 3

Sat 26 February, Scotland v France (2.15pm, BT Murrayfield)

Round 4

Sat 12 March, Italy v Scotland (2.15pm, Stadio Olympico)

Round 5

Sat 19 March, Ireland v Scotland (4.45pm, Aviva Stadium)