Entering a Six Nations where change, rather than continuity, is generally the order of the day, it may just be advantage Scotland. Since the conclusion of the World Cup only a few months ago, Italy have a new coach in Gonzalo Quesada, France have lost the best player in the world, Antoine Dupont, to rugby sevens, the captains of Ireland (Johnny Sexton) and England (Owen Farrell) have departed the stage and Wales are missing half of their backline thanks to retirement, moves abroad or, in the case of Louis Rees-Zammit, a shocking switch of sport to pursue an NFL dream.
But Scotland? Barring the odd fringe player retiring and a couple of injuries that every team will encounter, their squad and head coaching situation is pretty much intact from France 2023. If ever there was a time to finally end a dismal record that has seen them fail to finish in the top two since the Five Nations became Six at the turn of the millennium, almost a quarter of a century ago...
They do have new co-captains as talented back row Rory Darge and talismanic fly half Finn Russell replace Jamie Ritchie, who is battling form and fitness issues, but that should act as a catalyst rather than a hindrance.
The first Six Nations after a World Cup always feels like the start of a new era, as a fresh four-year cycle commences, and Scotland will be desperate to banish memories of a tournament that saw them crash out at the group stage. Having played international rugby for a decade now, Russell is too much of a veteran to treat this as a full reset but he is keen to steer younger team-mates through any sort of post-World Cup lull.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to the Scotland stuff after the disappointment of the World Cup that we had,” explained Russell, speaking at the premiere of the new Netflix documentary Six Nations: Full Contact last week. “We didn’t reach the goal of getting out of the group, but we’ll put all that behind us and get back into the Six Nations.
“There’s always changes in the Six Nations – a year can make a big difference in rugby, so I think we just have to prepare as best we can and then go as hard as we can at the start.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a fresh start, I’ve been around long enough, so it’s not a fresh start for me. But for some of the boys, maybe, if it was their first World Cup or first experience playing for Scotland in a big competition.
“It’s my third World Cup and my third time going through this process, so I’m going to try and help the boys out if it is their first time, or try and drive the team and get us in the right place going into the Six Nations.”
The last three editions of the Six Nations have followed a similar, frustrating pattern for Gregor Townsend’s men. Beat the auld enemy England in round one to claim the Calcutta Cup and set up hopes of a legitimate charge of the trophy, only to fade as the rounds go on before finishing third or fourth in the final standings.
The swashbuckling style of play is always fun to watch and they’ve come a long way since the dark days of the mid-2010s that saw them claim two wooden spoons in four years, even if the final step of becoming genuine title contenders has proved elusive.
Any sets of backs featuring a mercurial talent like Russell at 10, speed demons like Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe in the back three, a dynamic scrum half like Ben White and a mesmerising centre partnership like ‘Huwipulotu’ – in-form Glasgow Warriors duo Huw Jones and Sione Tuipulotu – is going to score plenty points. And Russell wants them to lean into that, rather than worrying about tightening up in other departments.
“For us with Scotland, we’ve got a great backline,” he added. “The forwards do the job as well but I think our main threat is through the backs, so the quicker we can get the ball out there and go after teams the better.
“Obviously, there has got to be a balance of kicking and running it but we are trying to take our chances quicker rather than leave it for two or three phases, which means probably going wider earlier than we used to.
“If you look at England, they got to the semi-final of the World Cup by kicking it and playing that sort of game but you’ve got to construct a gameplan around the players you’ve got and what is going to work best.”
A Six Nations campaign beginning with a game against a depleted Wales before facing Dupont-less France at Murrayfield ahead of the first rest week offers a genuine opportunity for a fast start and, while almost every other nation faces a question mark of some description at fly half, Russell’s comfort in Townsend’s system gives Scotland an early advantage.
The 31-year-old has been in great form since joining Bath from Racing 92 after the World Cup. He has helped his new club into the hunt for a Gallagher Premiership play-off spot and reach the last 16 of the European Champions Cup with just a solitary defeat, away to a rampant Toulouse.
But now, full attention turns to the Six Nations and Scotland’s talisman is ready to play.
“It’s always an exciting time. It’s a massive tournament for every nation going into it, so I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s been good fun at Bath obviously but I’m looking forward to getting back to the Scotland stuff. It should be good.”