Twenty years on from Scotland’s last championship title, of which he played a potent on-field part, Gregor Townsend believes he has a squad to repeat the feat in this year’s Six Nations.
Townsend scored a try in every match of Scotland’s Five Nations triumph of 1999 and, despite a raft of injuries and the ominous form of Ireland, Wales and England, the national coach was preaching positivity as he named his initial pool of 39 for the world’s oldest and most fabled international tournament.
“Every team will have injury challenges, but every team will be going into the tournament believing they can win. That’s the only reason we take part – to win the next game and then win the trophy at the end of the tournament,” said Townsend.
“We believe in our squad. We’ve seen how they’ve taken on the best in the world over the past few years, and on some of those occasions we had a lot of injuries. I think we have a squad with a lot of experience and players playing with confidence and in good form.”
Scotland start against Italy on February 2 followed by world No. 2 Ireland’s visit to BT Murrayfield the following Saturday, which Townsend agreed was a fantastic opportunity to launch themselves as championship contenders.
“Six Nations is about momentum and you’ve got to do well in the first two rounds of games to have a chance of winning the tournament, but also to give players confidence to go into that third game knowing you still have a realistic opportunity of picking up the trophy,” continued the coach.
“To have both games at home is an advantage on paper, we love playing at home, the crowd have been fantastic, the fact that there is no travel between our first two games is a boost, but we’ve got to make sure we get that opportunity to deliver what we believe we are capable, which is two victories in our first two games.”
Townsend is under no illusions, however, that this year is shaping to be a brutally competitive dogfight, with the other three Home Nations filling the three places behind New Zealand in the world rankings.
“It has been competitive over the last few years, you’ve got teams finding it difficult to win away from home because the teams they are up against are so good,” said Townsend. “You look at the fixtures this year – England v Ireland in the first game – other very exciting fixtures which you can’t call who is going to win, So, it is a great tournament for supporters.
“We see it from a playing and coaching point of view, and it is very difficult, whether that be Italy and the quality they are showing especially through [Benetton] Treviso, plus the quality of their coaching, right through to those teams who are ranked top four in the world just now.
“Maybe a World Cup year creates more of a focus on how important this tournament will be for teams to perform well and go to the World Cup with confidence.”
Townsend has named three uncapped hookers in Jake Kerr of Leicester, Edinburgh’s David Cherry, pictured inset, and Warriors’ Grant Stewart, with centres Chris Dean of Edinburgh and Sam Johnson of Glasgow, Newcastle flanker Gary Graham and Glasgow prop D’Arcy Rae also hoping for a first cap when the action begins.
Townsend’s Scotland have been forging a reputation for expansive, attacking play and, while the need for a solid forwards foundation goes without saying, it will be behind the scrum that determines whether they have the weapons needed to be true contenders this year.
That backline won’t, at present, contain the 31-times capped Glasgow centre Alex Dunbar, whose injury-prone career continues to frustrate.
“Obviously he’s not been selected. Partly down to a lack of game time since November,” said Townsend.
Huw Jones remains an enigmatic figure who has delivered dazzling displays for Scotland but has struggled to make an impact at Glasgow. “It would be better if Huw was playing regularly but he missed a couple of weeks with a rib injury,” said Townsend of the centre, who was the two-try hero of last year’s Calcutta Cup triumph as Scotland went on to finish third in the championship. “There’s always going to be players who don’t play as much because we have competition at our clubs. Sam Johnson and Nick Grigg who are in our squad, Peter Horne as well who is competing well there. You can only pick two centres so not everybody is going to get that opportunity every week to play.”
Adam Hastings, Glasgow’s 22-year-old stand-off, is given a vote of confidence after a bumpy few weeks, with the Scotland coach perhaps seeing a bit of his past self in the youngster.
“I think any 10 is going to have times when things don’t work,” said Townsend. “That can be down to making errors, to the way the team’s going, trying to force things because the team isn’t playing as well. Adam’s played a lot this year, had some experiences which have been great at the beginning of the season when his running game, support play and work rate were outstanding.
“Now teams have tried to negate his strengths and put him under pressure. These have been valuable experiences for him to work out how to help the team to go forward and help the team win. I think in his long-term career those games will serve him very well.
“We were very pleased how Adam performed in the summer. How he responded to a disappointing team performance against USA to perform really well the next week [in Argentina]. We were pleased with what he did during November and those things still apply. I’m sure he will come in looking to all the experiences he’s had this year.”