It has been described as the best Scotland squad since 1999 and there is an unfamiliar surge of optimism heading into this year’s Six Nations but backs coach Jason O’Halloran reckons the team is still two years away from fulfilling its potential.
The Kiwi is blessed with the best collection of attacking backs since that Five Nations-winning group from 18 years ago and there is likely to be some difficult meetings this week, particularly in selecting the centre pairing to face Ireland at BT Murrayfield on Saturday.
Jim Telfer is on record as saying Vern Cotter’s current crop is the most accomplished since the team that won the last-ever Five Nations but O’Halloran cautioned: “Ultimately this team will be at its best in a couple of years’ time when you get more guys around that 50-cap mark and we continue to grow our leadership.
“It’s a flattering comment but it doesn’t give us any points when we start against Ireland. But what it does give us is combinations and a bit more confidence, which you need in big games. But it doesn’t give us a five point start against Ireland or anything like that so it’s of no tangible benefit.”
With a 60 per cent win rate in 2016, there is tangible confidence ahead of this year’s tournament but that is tempered by the fact that the first game is against a team they have struggled to beat in the years that have followed that gilded couple of months in 1999.
“It is without a doubt as tough an opening match as you could have,” said O’Halloran. “I mean Ireland away would probably have been the most difficult potentially along with England away which will come up later in the campaign.
“But look, Ireland are an outstanding team, beating the All Blacks [last November] as comfortably as they did in Chicago just tells you what a complete football team they are and they’ve got an outstanding coaching group as well.”
Cotter brought O’Halloran on board from Manawatu after the World Cup and the progress of the Scottish backline clearly caught the eye of the Lions management group, who offered the Kiwi a spot on this summer’s tour back to his homeland.
O’Halloran is moving to Glasgow Warriors in the summer as part of the coaching changes that come into effect when Cotter departs for Montpellier and Gregor Townsend takes the Scotland job.
The backs coach declined the Lions’ invite, opting to get up and running with his new role at Scotstoun, with Warriors new coach Dave Rennie not due to arrive in Glasgow until his Super rugby commitments with Waikato come to an end.
It is a decision which raised eyebrows, but O’Halloran explained: “I was flattered to be asked but, ultimately, I had a responsibility to Glasgow.
“Dave’s not going to be here for the early part of the pre-season. So, rather than leave Humph [forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys] in charge of the backs, I thought it was important that I be there.
“I wasn’t under any pressure not to go with the Lions. It was completely in my hands. If I had pushed to go, I’m sure the SRU would have supported me all the way. But with a lot of the Glasgow squad away with Gregor in Australia, I felt it was important that the next group of players come through.”
O’Halloran admits a sense of disappointment that his time working with Scotland will be cut short at the end of this Six Nations but insisted his overriding feeling was one of excitement at working with players day to day and reuniting with Rennie, who he played for and coached alongside at Manawatu.
“A bit, I suppose,” he said when asked if he will be sad to leave the Test arena. “But it’s remedied by the fact that, at Glasgow, we will have a big say in how the national team improves. Because I think a lot of the skills that need improving in this Scotland squad, really the development gets done with the Pro12 sides, on a day-to-day basis.
“The international season is about player monitoring, fitness and game planning. There’s not a lot of time to work on individual skills.
“If Scotland go on and become as good as I think they can be in the next 24 months, it’s important that Duncan Hodge at Edinburgh or myself at Glasgow, we improve the skills of our players.
“I’m looking forward to helping Scotland’s players grow over that time.”
Right now, however, it’s all about preparing for Saturday’s huge clash with the Irish. Midfield competition is fierce and O’Halloran said Stormers centre Huw Jones is fully recovered from his injury but hinted it could be too soon for Duncan Taylor of Saracens.
“I think we’ve still to decide on Duncan’s availability but Huw is ready to play,” said O’Halloran. “Midfield and the loose forwards are the areas where selection is toughest.”