When Gregor Townsend signed a contract extension in 2018, he declared Scotland were entering a “crucial and exciting time”.
Townsend added that he expected “improvements across the board” after being handed a new deal just over a year after replacing Vern Cotter as head coach.
Yet on the eve of their Six Nations opener against Ireland in Dublin, Scotland fans could be forgiven feeling more than a modicum of apprehension over what is to come in the next six weeks.
There was no shortage of excitement at Twickenham when Townsend’s men conjured up a stunning second-half fightback to hold fierce rivals England to an incredible 38-38 Calcutta Cup draw last March.
A glance at the Six Nations table offered a reality check ahead of the Rugby World Cup, though, given Scotland finished second-bottom – their only victory coming against perennial wooden spoon recipients Italy.
There was much more misery to come when a defeat in a do-or-die clash with hosts Japan sent Scotland crashing out of the World Cup with a whimper after failing to make the quarter-finals.
Townsend was backed to stay on despite that early exit and defiantly stated “there’s a lot more in this team”.
Final preparations in place
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) January 31, 2020
That team was already shorn of talismanic captain and scrum-half Greig Laidlaw following his international retirement, so there would be even more onus on Finn Russell to be at his mercurial best.
But as the squad stepped up their preparations for their showdown at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday, Russell was pulling the strings for Racing 92 in a Top 14 victory at Castres last weekend.
Disciplined for a breach of team protocol following an incident at the team hotel, it is not clear whether the brilliant fly-half will play any part in the Six Nations.
Townsend, also without injured in-form wing Darcy Graham, has put his faith in Adam Hastings to fill Russell’s huge shoes against an Ireland side that beat Scotland 27-3 in the World Cup just over just over four months ago.
There was plenty of positive talk from the former Glasgow Warriors boss this week despite turmoil even before the first ball is kicked.
“I don’t know if we have a point to prove. What I can say is that the team have prepared really well, the intensity levels and communication in training have been excellent.” he said.
“Things have gone well, but we know mindset has a big part to play in high-level sport.”
While expectations may be limited, Scotland must show the fight Townsend has called for without the soft centre that has been exploited all too often during his reign.
Scotland have proven they can be great entertainers in the Townsend era, but they must make the case for the defence or the 46-year-old’s tenure could be cut short.
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