Expectation on Scotland grows after encouraging Six Nations

Gregor Townsend's side won plaudits for some their displays in the Six Nations but face a tough World Cup group.

Expectation on Scotland grows after encouraging Six Nations SNS Group

As the dust settles on another engrossing spring of international rugby, the official standings show Scotland third place in the Six Nations and the fifth ranked team in the world.

These are high water marks for the Scots in the modern era and yet a sense pervades, inside and out the camp, that chances were missed to make it even better.

Above them are the world’s top two teams in the rankings – last year’s Grand Slam winners, France, and this year’s unbeatable European side, Ireland.

Those are the games in which Scotland came unstuck, and that is where this group now focuses its inquest.

Head coach Gregor Townsend was keen to analyse his team’s championship game by game.

Townsend said: “Maybe the most important games were against France and Ireland.

“The way we played against France in adversity was so encouraging for the team to know that we can come back against a top quality side and play some great rugby.

“It was frustrating too because we had enough chances to score another two or three tries.

“The Ireland game is very important for us because we play them again in a few months’ time in the last pool game of the world cup.

“For a half we played probably our best 40 minutes of the Six Nations and we have to do that for 80 minutes against the top teams, especially a team like Ireland.

“The disappointing side was that second half when I think the game was there to be won and they grabbed it.

“The other three games – Twickenham was brilliant, Wales was when things clicked in attack and Italy was a great finish.”

World Rugby’s approach to the draw for the World Cup can best be described as quirky. Held more than two years out, at the time Scotland were ninth in the rankings and so were placed in pot three of the seedings.

That meant they were put into a pool alongside Ireland and South Africa. Not only are these nations now the first and third ranked sides in the world – they are also teams that Scotland have found fiendishly tough to beat.

It is six years since Scotland last recorded victory over Ireland – one win in their last 13 meetings.

Their last win over South Africa was achieved in 2010. It is one win in 15 against the Springboks.

The question on every Scotland fan’s lips since that draw is how does Townsend shape a side to cope with the physicality, the set piece dominance of the Boks; and the relentless, clinical machine of Andy Farrell’s Irish.

Edinburgh Rugby lock Sam Skinner, who won his 25th cap against Italy, hinted that the preparations for those crucial ties have already begun.

“We know the game plan to beat South Africa,” said Skinner. “It is different to the plan against Ireland, they have different strengths.

“We know the game plan and we know that we can do it, but it is about actually showing everyone that we can.

“There will be full belief going into our opening match against South Africa. Other sides have shown how you beat them, and how you don’t.

“Obviously we have struggled against them in the past so while we believe we can win, we have to prove it.”

A squad of 35 can go to the World Cup in France and while many of those involved in the Six Nations can, fitness permitting, be assured of their place on the plane to Scotland’s HQ near Nice on the south coast, form will dictate for the rest.

There are the stars of this Scotland team – Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Duhan van der Merwe, Jamie Ritchie, Pierre Schoeman, Zander Fagerson – upon whom a great deal of the team’s hopes rest.

A clutch of players have either broken through or made a return to form that puts them firmly in the driving seat for a place – Sione Tuipulotu, Huw Jones, Ben White, Richie Gray, Blair Kinghorn.

And others will hope they can find their best game for the rest of the club season and into the summer – Chris Harris, Sam Johnson, Darcy Graham, Adam Hastings, Rory Darge, Ewan Ashman.

Ali Price has been an automatic pick for most of Townsend’s six years in charge but found himself usurped by Ben White at the start of this year’s championship.

“I’m please with how I have dealt with it,” said the British and Irish Lions scrum half. “It is never easy but all I can do is work hard because playing in this team is something I will never take for granted.

“I think Ben had a brilliant Six Nations, he has played incredibly well and if you have depth and competition like that it can only be good.

“We are all well aware that if you aren’t performing then you will be out the side because the other guys are pushing.”

This summer, over an initial training camp in June, followed by a second camp in late July and through four warm-up matches, the players will be competing not just for places in the team, but for those coveted 35 spots in the world cup squad.

“Squads win championships,” added Skinner. “We need four of five players competing for every position and we actually have that which is awesome.

“I think you could argue that’s not something that Scotland are necessarily used to but we have a squad which is just so strong.

“That is brilliant, but it means that we have to deliver. That pressure is on us now.”

There lies the evolution in this Scotland squad.

The nation has always hoped and dreamed that they can do something special but 2023 is the year where – in very tough circumstances – they are expected to make good on their promise.

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