PREVIEW: SIX NATIONS - SCOTLAND
SPOTLIGHT ON TEAMS: Scotland's agonising defeat in the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-final brought them to a crossroads.
Rather than brooding over their exit and letting a cloud hang over, the Scots decided to see it as a catalyst to try and achieve success. Under the tutelage of Vern Cotter consistent improvements were made, last season's Six Nations saw wins over Ireland, Wales and Italy, but there were also setbacks in defeats to France and England – a 61-21 thrashing at Twickenham being the low point of 2017.
Gregor Townsend took the reigns after the Six Nations and since then Scotland have registered two wins over Australia, 24-19 in Sydney during the summer, along with an impressive 53-24 success at Murrayfield in the autumn. Their swashbuckling style certainly earned the respect of the All Blacks, who were lucky to escape with a 22-17 win in the November series.
Now their attentions turn to the Six Nations again, can Scotland finally be genuine contenders? They were the last winners of the Five Nations, in 1999, but since 2000 their highest finish in the Six Nations is third, which they've done just three times, most recently in 2013.
Scrumhalf – Ali Price flourished in the absence of the injured Greig Laidlaw. His distribution is crisp allowing Finn Russell time and space to get his backline firing. Laidlaw's experience and kicking game offer an alternative, particularly when trying to dictate a tight contest. The former captain's accuracy from the tee is also a key attribute.
Centre – Scotland have an abundance of talent to choose from in the centre, the Glasgow duo of Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones are likely to start, but options include clubmate Pete Horne, along with Edinburgh's Mark Bennett, Gloucester's Matt Scott and Saracens' Duncan Taylor.
Front row – Scotland's front row has been decimated by injuries and it's an area where opposing teams will surely target. At tighthead Zandar Ferguson will miss the entire tournament, while South Africa-born WP Nel could return for the later rounds. Simon Berghan is also suspended for the Wales game. Gregor Townsend has drafted in two uncapped tightheads – 21-year-old Murray McCallum, of Edinburgh, and Glasgow's D'Arcy Rae.
At loosehead the situation isn't much better. Darryl Marfo was one of breakout stars in the autumn, starting all three Tests, but he'll miss the first two matches at least with a back complaint. Allan Dell, who featured in all of Scotland's Six Nations matches last season is also injured, as is Al Dickinson. It has opened the door to Jamie Bhatti, Gordon Reid and the recalled Jon Welsh.
The problems don't end there, hookers Fraser Brown, Ross Ford and George Turner are all out. Stuart McInally has never started a Six Nations match, but he has flourished this season under the guidance of former England international Richard Cockerill at Edinburgh. Backing him up will be his 34-year old clubmate Neil Cochrane or Newcastle's Scott Lawson, the 36-year-old has not played a Test since 2014.
Stuart Hogg – Scotland's full back has scored 10 tries in his 29 Six Nations appearances. He's been the Six Nations player of the tournament for the last two seasons. The 25-year-old made an impressive return from a two-month layoff, taking just a minute to score a try for Glasgow in their 28-21 Champions Cup win over Exeter. Hogg didn't show any signs of rustiness and he is Scotland's most potent attacking threat.
Finn Russell – The fact that Russell has been signed by Racing 92 to replace Dan Carter shows how highly rated the Scot is. Scotland lack depth at flyhalf, so it's vital he stays fit if Scotland are to contend.
John Barclay – Part of a vibrant Scarlets team which won the Pro 12 last season and have just reached the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup. The move to Wales revived Barclay's career and he's returning to Scotland to play his club rugby next season, with Edinburgh. He took over as Scotland captain from Laidlaw during the last Six Nations and has helped steer Scotland to some notable wins in 2017. He leads by example, an abrasive hard-working flanker.
Jamie Bhatti – He represented Scotland at U17, U18, U19 and U20's, but despite this it is the 23-year-old's first season as a professional. He worked as a slaughter man and considered giving up rugby when he applied for a job with the police. Instead he's become Glasgow's first choice loosehead this season and made his debut for Scotland during the autumn making three substitute appearances. The front row injury crisis should give him another opportunity to feature.
Scotland begin at the Principality Stadium, they've not won in Cardiff since 2002, but broke a nine-year losing streak against the Welsh last season with a 29-13 success and will be confident they can register another victory. Two matches at BT Murrayfield follow, France is very winnable, but it's been ten years since Scotland's last beat England and it's unlikely that run will end. Few manage victories at the Aviva Stadium these days either and Ireland away is one of their sterner tests. Should Scotland manage to take the scalp of England or Ireland, they will be very much Six Nations contenders going into their final match against Italy in Rome, possibly knowing a high-scoring victory is needed to win the trophy and end a 19-year wait.