Hooker Ross Ford believes Scotland can look back on the autumn series with pride but they must not rest on laurels heading into the Six Nations.
The Edinburgh forward won his 102nd cap in Saturday’s rousing six-try 43-16 win over Georgia in Kilmarnock, which followed up a victory over Argentina and narrow loss to Australia.
“It’s a really good group of players,” said Ford. “If you look at the backs we have now, if we can get some good set-piece ball you can see what they can do.
“They’re dangerous and can finish things off. It’s always about being consistent and that first game is always an important one. We need to make sure we always improve and don’t sit back, relax and think we’ve done a good job.
“Don’t get me wrong. We enjoy the wins and we’re a tight group but we’ve got to be honest. We’ve been in this position before and we’ve not started the Six Nations well. I think this autumn we are further down the track but we’ve got to come back pre-Six Nations and move on further.”
Georgia’s desire to gain access to the Six Nations was one of the themes in the build-up to Saturday’s final autumn Test at Rugby Park but the after-match was dominated by Scotland’s burning aspiration to make a real impact on next year’s competition.
The series may be finished, with a satisfying two wins out of three, but Scotland coach Vern Cotter views the final phase of his time in charge of the national team as a work in progress, with the real work very much ahead.
“We have been very open about how the fact that this is not just an autumn series and then Six Nations. This is eight games taking us through until the season finishes,” said Cotter. “We’ve tried not to make the same mistakes and improve the whole way through.
“Having extra depth in the squad helps as there are injuries at this level. There has been a shift and I think it is pretty obvious to see.”
Georgia were hugely competitive for big parts of Saturday’s game but utterly outclassed in other periods and the gulf in quality in wide areas was starkly exposed. The visiting coach Milton Haig was rightly proud of his players’ efforts and said the only way his team could bridge the gap is to gain more fixtures with tier one nations.
They actually led this entertaining Test when Vasil Lobzhanidze exploited a defensive lapse by wing Tommy Seymour to scamper in the right-hand corner. There was swift redemption for Seymour as he won the kick race to get the touch over the line and it soon became clear that the Scottish forwards were keen to make a point against their much-vaunted opposing eight.
The home side bombarded the Georgians with a fearsome frontal assault and struck a body blow when they won a penalty try.
When Sean Maitland crashed over the home side had taken full control and Stuart Hogg’s mesmeric kick and take, with a perfect bounce into his arms courtesy of skill and the rugby gods, had the Scots threatening a big, big score.
When Hamish Watson got his first try for Scotland early in the second half and Greig Laidlaw added his 13th point with his typically unerring boot the Georgians looked down and out on the canvas but, as the benches started to steadily empty, the visitors showed admirable steel and dominated large parts of the second period.
Lobzhanidze bagged a second try from a huge Georgian scrum, before Hogg finished off a brilliant counter-attack started by debutant replacement scrum-half Ali Price’s quick thinking at a tap penalty and linked nicely by sub wing Rory Hughes.
The focus now switches to that Six Nations opener at home to Ireland on February 4 and, assessing this series as a whole, Cotter said: “We need to improve. I thought against Australia we did it all right but then Argentina really put heat on us.
“That is a compliment as teams see we are a good attacking team now and they try to break us down and slow it up. We have had to work extra hard.
“[Contact consultant] Richie Gray has been helping us with that and he is doing a great job. We need to have a real focus on that with our Pro12 teams. Ireland have been focusing on that for a number of years and you saw that against the All Blacks.
“It is something we need to improve and is one of our focal points.”