By Tadhg Peavoy
Scotland have been steadily improving of late. Of that there can be no question. A third-place finish in the Six Nations table last season marked the Scots’ best championship since 2006, when they also came home in the same position.
For the majority of the last 14 seasons, the Scottish have moped around the bottom third of the table, with little more than the odd victory, delivered through the platform of a wonderful forward display, to shout about.
However, of late there has been a genuine spark about them. Narrow defeats to Australia (last autumn) and South Africa (last summer) gave plenty of cause for optimism.
Their main problem remains tries. They are playing better quality rugby, but five-pointers remain elusive.
Cumulatively, they’ve only scored two tries in their last three matches against South Africa (two matches) and Australia. Against Samoa (last summer) they scored just one, and they managed three in a 30-29 victory over Italy (also last summer).
Therein lies the key for Scotland. Add try-scoring ability to their tried-and-trusted nous up front and they genuinely will threaten most sides. Of course, that is far easier said than done.
Scotland’s pack is littered with talent in the shape of John Beattie, captain Kelly Brown, Geoff Cross, David Denton, Richie Gray, Jim Hamilton and Alasdair Strokosch.
The packs across the championship are strong, however, and for Scott Johnson’s side to do damage the Scottish backline will be required to gel consistently throughout.
Chris Cusiter’s vision, snipe and pass at scrum-half is top drawer, and gives the Scots an excellent fulcrum in their distribution out wide. While Greig Laidlaw offers another fine option from nine, with a world-class kicking game to boot. They have an embarrassment of riches in this area.
But it is beyond 1-9 where Scotland have failed to display an adequate ability to break teams down - or indeed break the line – and most attacks usually end with a dominant opposition defence securing a turnover or forcing a Scotland infringement.
With Max Evans, Stuart Hogg, Sean Lamont and Sean Maitland, Scotland have backs with ability, but the gameplan in the past has not managed to allow them to mesh effectively.
Scotland have a very difficult start to their campaign. An away trip to Ireland, followed by a home clash with England, is as tough as it comes really. And I would predict two defeats for the Scots by that stage.
Next up it’s Italy away: a must win for Scotland. If they can secure that victory, they have France at home, followed by Wales away, knowing a minimum of two wins is probably necessary to contest for third in the table.
Barring a transformed backline that can score at will, it's hard to see them carving open defences to claim three victories. Their third place last year came with only two wins, as they finished above Italy on points difference.
Scotland’s best performance of last year attack-wise came against Italy in the summer when they prevailed 30-29.
Their attack was off-the-cuff and their ability to keep the ball alive was superb. This was backed up by a supreme forward effort, which itself garnered a penalty try score.
Head coach Johnson will use that victory as a template on how Scotland can claim victories going forward.
However, claiming a creative victory over Italy in a summer Test match is a very different proposition to five competitive matches over the course of the spring.
In the cold light of day, one would have to imagine, two victories would be good return for Scotland – one of those against Italy.
Ireland fans will welcome the prospect of facing Scotland on the opening weekend. The Scots have just one win in their last five outings in Dublin, giving the home side a distinct mental edge. It’s hard to see an upset there, and with a defeat in their opening game, and England next up, it could well prove to be a challenging Six Nations for the most northern of the Celtic nations.
Scotland squad for the 2014 RBS 6 Nations:
Forwards: John Beattie (Montpellier), Kelly Brown (Saracens), Geoff Cross, David Denton, Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford (all Edinburgh Rugby), Chris Fusaro (Glasgow Warriors), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby), Ryan Grant, Jonny Gray (both Glasgow Warriors), Richie Gray (Castres), Jim Hamilton (Montpellier), Robert Harley (Glasgow Warriors), Scott Lawson (Newcastle Falcons), Kieran Low (London Irish), Moray Low, Pat MacArthur (both Glasgow Warriors), Ross Rennie (Edinburgh Rugby) Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan), Tim Swinson and Ryan Wilson (both Glasgow Warriors).
Backs: Chris Cusiter (Glasgow Warriors), Nick De Luca (Edinburgh Rugby), Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors), Max Evans (Castres), Dougie Fife (Edinburgh Rugby), Stuart Hogg, Ruaridh Jackson, Sean Lamont (all Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh Rugby), Sean Maitland (Glasgow Warriors), Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Greig Tonks (Edinburgh Rugby) and Duncan Weir (Glasgow Warriors).