“I’ve spoken to former players, and this is without doubt the best ever Scotland team to take the field.”
The words of Grand Slam winning legend John Jeffrey rang in the Scotland squad’s ears at Monday’s Rugby World Cup 2023 welcoming ceremony in Nice.
Jeffrey, the former Scottish Rugby chairman and now vice chair of World Rugby, cut through the optimistic whispers growing in volume around this team and got straight to the point – after two decades in the wilderness the nation finally has a team equipped to live with the big beasts of the international stage.
Scotland have occupied their highest world ranking of fifth for the whole calendar year, comfortably above Six Nations rivals England and Wales who were both beaten by the men in dark blue back in the spring.
So why are few people giving Scotland a chance of making it out of Pool B at the tournament in France, let alone making a charge to the latter stages?
The answer lies in the quirky decision of tournament organisers to hold the draw for the pools all the way back in December 2020.
Covid had curtailed competitive matches so rankings were based on results even further back, just a few weeks after Scotland were knocked out of the 2019 World Cup by Japan.
Placed in the third pot of seeds the draw produced a nightmare scenario – Scotland would face the reining champions South Africa and an Ireland side that now occupies the rank of number one team in the world.
Scotland have managed to defeat almost every tier one test side during Gregor Townsend’s six year tenure as head coach. Except for South Africa, Ireland and New Zealand.
The Springboks possess a direct physicality that few teams can contain. They relish steamrolling rivals in the scrum and maul, and are masters of slowing down the ball in defence – Kryptonite to a Scots side that revels in fast paced attack.
Ireland have risen to become the undisputed kings of the men’s international game. They marry explosive carrying from the forwards with a fiendishly effective backline.
To make the quarter finals Scotland have to beat one or both of the big dogs, plus take care of Tonga and Romania.
It is nearly seven years since Scotland defeated Ireland, and 13 years since the Springboks were downed at Murrayfield – so, what chance so much recent history can be rewritten over the coming weeks in France?
Heed John Jeffrey’s words. The team wearing the thistle on their chest this autumn are fit, on form, cohesive and bursting with world class talent.
Pierre Schoeman has carved a reputation as one of the top props in the world. Behind him Grant Gilchrist and Richie Gray bring their years of second row nous to the engine room. Captain Jamie Ritchie leads a back row with an embarrassment of talent.
The midfield pairing of Huw Jones and Sione Tuipulotu – watch out for the ‘Huwipulotu’ tweets – are being spoken about as one of the most balanced and complementary backline partnerships in the sport. Wings Duhan Van Der Merwe and Darcy Graham have contributed a combined 395 points in 61 Scotland caps.
All that may still not be enough. To break the truly great sides you need magic, and Finn Russell is the wizard who can conjure up winning moments.
For years unfairly labelled a mercurial talent who was just as capable of throwing a match away, Russell arrives at his third World Cup playing the best rugby of his life.
Public friction between the fly half and his head coach is repaired. Russell, who recently became a father for the first time, has been handed the keys to allow Scotland to attack in his image.
The 30-year-old is relishing the responsibility on and off the park.
The stage seems set for Russell, who won the hearts of the French rugby public during his five years playing at Paris club Racing 92, to return to the host nation and put on a show to remember.
Playing conditions will be tough but Scotland believe they are ready to deliver in the soaring temperatures. They spent two training camps in Nice over the summer and have been working hard on their Stade Nicois training field in the heat of the day ever since arriving on the Cote d’Azur earlier this week.
They cannot afford to wilt in furnace of Marseille’s Stade Velodrome on Sunday. The Springboks will bring fire of their own and at times Scotland will have to match it. When given the chance to play the match on their own terms the Scots will need cool under pressure.
They’ll need the perfect game plan, honed over a term of ups and downs experienced by Gregor Townsend in charge of this team. And they’ll need that sorcery of Finn Russell to send dark blue jerseys crashing over the try line.
There have been false dawns and there have been excruciating let-downs in the past. These players know it is time for them to deliver.
If they can prove the world wrong and qualify at the expense of one of the tournament favourites, John Jeffery may only have scratched the surface in his assessment of this team.