The Six Nations circus has rolled out of town for another year and a campaign that began with talk of Scottish triumph ended with questions over the future of the head coach and captain.
That a championship which kicked off with Scotland vanquishing England for a second year in a row, among talk of this being the best group assembled at Murrayfield since the dawn of the professional era, could slide so deeply into despair seems almost surreal after seven weeks of intense test rugby.
Things quickly went wrong with defeats away to Wales and at home to eventual Grand Slam winners France.
The ship was steadied in Rome with a bonus point win – though the concession of three tries to the perennial Wooden Spooners was cause for some angst.
But the final week seemed to lurch from bad to worse when it emerged six players were spoken to by management following a reported night out in Edinburgh.
With Finn Russell benched for Blair Kinghorn, Scotland were blown away 26-5 by Ireland in Dublin, leaving Gregor Townsend and Stuart Hogg to field questions about discipline, culture and authority.
How hopes soared
When we cast our minds back to late January, it is worth reminding ourselves of why confidence around Scotland was soaring.
The 2021 Six Nations saw long-awaited victories away to England and France, leading to the largest Scottish contingent on the British and Irish Lions tour for two decades.
In the autumn, an in-form Australia side was dispatched at Murrayfield, where only reigning world champions South Africa got the better of Townsend’s group.
Depth was being grown with Pierre Schoeman, Jamie Hodgson, Sione Tuipulotu and Rufus McLean all making an impact on their debut test series.
It was legitimate to describe this as the strongest squad Townsend had ever assembled and therefore genuine title contenders.
The opening win over England was far from a perfect performance as the visitors enjoyed long spells of possession, but the Scottish defence was resolute – a hallmark of last year’s strong displays.
Losing vice-captain Jamie Ritchie to injury was a blow, but the feeling was that this team could absorb the hit and come away with a win in the Cardiff cauldron.
Instead, the 80 minutes could only be described as a misfire as Scotland struggled to build momentum and were dealt a fatal blow when Russell was sin-binned inside the final quarter.
The defeat to a Wales team that was not expected to get near retaining their title was a psychological blow to Scottish fans, who wondered aloud whether it had also affected the team’s confidence.
France’s visit in the middle weekend showed exactly why Fabien Galthie’s side were steaming towards a perfect tournament as their heady mix of power and flair took Scotland apart.
The Scots rued a missed chance to lead before half-time as a slightly underthrown pass from Chris Harris squirmed out of Hogg’s grasp with the try line begging and the hosts never again threatened to run Les Bleus close.
Questions were being asked of Russell’s form at fly-half, but the Racing 92 pivot started again away to Italy, where the Azzurri threw some impressive attacking play at Scotland, but were undone by mistakes which were ruthlessly punished.
There seemed to be a little swagger back in the step of the Thistle but, unknown outside the group until later, an off-field incident was to shroud their final week of the championship.
It was around an hour after Hamish Watson took media questions in the session usually featuring the team captain that a report revealed that six players – Hogg, Russell, Ali Price, Tuipulotu, Darcy Graham and Sam Johnson – had left the team hotel after returning from Rome to head to a bar in Edinburgh.
The report stated that the group were ordered to return to camp and a Scottish Rugby statement confirmed that six players had been dealt with.
After the loss in Ireland, there was a tense media session with Hogg and Townsend. Neither would confirm any details of the night in question, other than to say that there had been apologies and resolutions reached behind closed doors.
The following day, Townsend again spoke to the media in a session to evaluate the Six Nations and look ahead to the summer tour of South America.
Asked to address questions of squad culture, the head coach said the players had answered those by the way they had trained and played. He said Hogg’s captaincy was not being discussed now, but that all aspects of the team would be reviewed in time. And he firmly told reporters that he was not considering his position.
Tough questions but no easy answers
In every respect, it is a spring that leaves more questions than answers.
- Have the ‘Edinburgh Six’ revealed, or exacerbated, a rift inside the camp?
- Was confidence dented on the field by the defeat in Cardiff, or was this simply a case of a team losing form at the exact moment they could least afford to?
- Is this Scotland team, which since being knocked out of the 2019 World Cup at the pool stage has reinvented itself as a defensive colossus, losing its hard edge?
- Can they recover all the good things they have earned in the past two-and-a-half years in time for the World Cup in France next year?
Three tests against Argentina – with the possibility of another development match against Chile – are in store this summer, followed by clashes with the southern hemisphere giants in the autumn at Murrayfield.
Townsend believes a team can answer questions about culture by what it does on the field. They now have at least six tests against top-class sides to steady the ship before the 2023 Six Nations.
It will be a year in which the national team must win back the trust of the supporters, who desperately want to believe it can still break the mould.