By John Jones
Though it may seem a lifetime ago, it’s only been 10 months since Scotland produced one of the most remarkable second half displays in Six Nations history.
31-0 down to England at half-time in the final match of the tournament, staring a fourth consecutive defeat in the face, Gregor Townsend’s team looked down and out.
Nobody could have predicted that 40 minutes later, the Scots would be retaining the Calcutta Cup after scoring six unanswered tries and coming within minutes of winning, only for George Ford to make it 38-38 at the death.
In a second half implosion, England were very poor. But Scotland were very, very good.
The speed, the precision and the desire that had been missing all tournament was now there in abundance, with their finishing also of the highest calibre.
Though it was brief, and ultimately not enough, such a sensational performance would have given even the most dour Scot a small glimmer of hope for the year ahead.
Back to the present, and this hope may very well have turned to despair for many fans.
Finn Russell, the principal architect of last March’s spectacular revival, is gone – leaving the squad after allegedly breaching ‘team protocol’ during a drinking session.
Whether the fly-half’s absence will exceed Scotland’s opening weekend clash against Ireland remains to be seen, but he will undoubtedly be sorely missed in Dublin.
Russell has been in fine form for Racing 92 this season, and is nothing short of talismanic for the national side. Often the creative heartbeat for club and country, his exit was the last thing Scotland needed after a disappointing World Cup showing.
Gregor Townsend’s side were woeful in their opening game in Japan as they were humbled by a slick Ireland team in a game permeated by Scottish handling errors and a lack of ideas going forward.
Though they recorded thrashings against Group A whipping boys Samoa and Russia, the Scots failed to qualify for the knockout stages after being defeated by the hosts in a gripping encounter.
This, combined with the test retirements of mainstays Greg Laidlaw, John Barclay and Tommy Seymour, weakened Scotland’s Six Nations hopes even before Russell’s departure made them all the more bleak.
There are a few potential bright sparks, however. Russell’s exclusion, for all its negatives, has opened the door for fellow fly-half Adam Hastings to shine.
Hastings – the son of Scotland legend Gavin – has been in great form for Glasgow Warriors at club level, but has not yet been given many opportunities on the international stage.
There is no doubting the 23-year old’s game management and attacking prowess, but it will be very interesting to see if he can keep his composure after being thrust into the starting line-up.
Marcus Bradbury was another who shone in last year’s comeback at Twickenham, and will likely form a part of the Scottish backrow, while George Horne will be hoping his impressive form since bagging a hattrick against Russia in the World Cup will be enough to grant him the number nine shirt.
These young guns will have to be at their best, however, as the Scots face an upward battle from the start, taking on Ireland away and England at Murrayfield in the first two weeks of fixtures.
Townsend will be desperate to begin the campaign with victory in Dublin, but his side haven’t won there for a decade, and have lost three on the bounce to the men in green, including the trouncing in Yokohama in September.
Utilising powerful ball-carriers like Bradbury will be key to ensuring there is no repeat of such a drubbing, and may also help the Scots to go one step further against England the following week.
It will undoubtedly be tough. In times of relative stability, Scotland have always been able to dip into their healthy pot of pride and desire to get them over the line in close encounters.
Now, with their talisman gone, their recent form disappointing and their competition harder than ever, it could be a very bumpy campaign for the Scots.