Scotland in recent history have been one of the teams firmly in the “could do better” category, with them having the calibre of players needed to get results, but never really translating that promise into performances.
However, the tide has definitely turned for them in the last year or so, with their displays being filled with more moments of confidence and a firm belief in what they are looking to do, and positive results have forced more and more people to sit up and take notice of them as a team not to underestimate.
At the time of writing, they are the third-highest European nation in the world rankings, with them sitting fifth behind Ireland, South Africa, France and New Zealand, and that provides a clear demonstration of just how good they have been in recent times.
The tenure of Gregor Townsend has been a slow-burner, and the former Scotland scrum-half has had to face criticism from all four corners at times for the way that his team have not lived up to expectations.
That has led to speculation over his future on plenty of occasions, with some believing that a fresh approach would be good to help the team find their rhythm and to start to show want they can really do. Before this year’s Six Nations, there were a number of rumours that his time was up, with his contract expiring after the Rugby World Cup and no news of talks being instigated around extending it.
However, a positive tournament meant that there were soon demands to see him stay in charge, and the new contract that he has signed until 2026 is a just reward after the hard work that he has done and is a display of how much faith those at boardroom level have in him to keep leading the team forwards.
So much of what Scotland do well comes through their ability to control the game from the middle of the field, and Finn Russell is undoubtedly a key player in that regard. With him on the pitch, Scotland always have an ability to distribute the ball into any area of the pitch, both through hands and from the boot, and to open up their opponents where they are weakest.
However, the other thing that is typical of Scotland’s attacking play is physicality around turnovers and an ability to play the ball quickly, with Hamish Watson and captain Jamie Ritchie both essential in that aspect of their play. That is where the team dynamic comes into play, as there is always a great deal of understanding between teammates in the Scottish ranks, and it is always clear to see how well they know their roles and what is expected from each member of the team at every situation on the field.
Scotland’s defending has got a lot better in recent years, and there is certainly a lot more fight and desire to not concede easy points now than they have had in recent years.
However, it is still a problem area that they need to keep working on, as there are occasions when they have made mistakes which have proven costly, as it has allowed their opponents to put them onto the back foot and to break them down.
They do have the players in their squad to be a tough nut to crack, with centre Chris Harris one name who always stands out when the team doesn’t have possession, but defending well comes to down to how well the team works together, and that could be worth bearing in mind when the World Cup gets underway.
Whilst the aforementioned Russell is always a standout name in the Scottish ranks, the two players that really need to be picked out here who could make an enormous difference to the team’s chances are centres Sione Tuipolotu and Huw Jones.
Since reuniting at Glasgow Warriors last season, they have formed a strong partnership at club level which has been translated onto the international stage by Townsend, and their form for Scotland in the Six Nations earlier this year undoubtedly solved one of the key problems that Scotland have had over the last few years, in that they never had the right combination of players at 12 and 13 to ensure that they can execute their game plan with maximum efficiency.
However, with Tuipolotu and Jones now arguably the first choices at 12 and 13, they have a mix of physicality and agility to ensure that they can not only secure possession but also break through opposing defensive lines. Combine that with the wide threat of players like Darcy Graham, Kyle Steyn and Duhan van der Merwe, as well as the control from players like Russell and fellow standoff Ben Healy, and Scotland could cause their opponents some really big problems.
Unfortunately for Scotland, progression to the knockout stages doesn’t look overly hopeful, not through any fault of their own but purely through them being drawn against two of the best sides in the world in title holders South Africa and current world no.1s Ireland, and the expectation is that both of those will make it out of the pool.
However, Townsend’s side should not feel that their chances of extending their stay at the tournament are impossible, because they unquestionably have what it takes to challenge at this level and it would be a surprise to see them not trouble those two teams at one time or another. The matches against both Romania and Tonga should be wins for Scotland on paper, so a third-placed finish in the pool is a distinct possibility and would not be a disastrous result.