THERE is nothing automatic about momentum. Scotland cannot merely assume that, because they played with some promise during last year’s Rugby World Cup, they will keep up the improvement in this year’s Six Nations Championship.
But Stuart Hogg, for one, is confident that, as the countdown to the 2016 tournament begins in earnest today with Vern Cotter naming his initial squad, the national team is in a good place. The last campaign, Hogg believes, is a warning to the players that form in the autumn does not simply carry over to the following year. But provided they heed that warning and continue to apply themselves properly, the Glasgow Warriors full-back thinks they have what it takes to be contending at the right end of the table rather than scrapping it out with Italy to avoid the Wooden Spoon – the only thing they won in the 2015 championship.
“Looking back a couple of years, we played well in the Autumn Internationals,” he said. “I think we won two out of three games” – they did, beating Argentina and Tonga in late 2014 – “and almost beat the All Blacks. But we didn’t get a win in the Six Nations.
It's not just going to happen. But it's an exciting time for us. We have a massive few weeks ahead.”
Scotland began to get better during last year’s World Cup warm-up matches, losing narrowly to France and Ireland but beating Italy home and away. But the real improvement came during the World Cup itself, as they reached the last eight and were within a couple of minutes of defeating Australia.
Had they defeated the Wallabies, Hogg thinks they would have then gone one better in the semi-final against the Pumas. “I would have backed us to get to the World Cup final. We put in an incredible performance against Australia.
“I think that every player who played in that game has gone back to club rugby and played well. It was coming throughout the tournament and I would have backed us to beat Argentina and get to the World Cup final.
“There’s a lot of hard work to be done along the way, but the boys are up for that. Our focus is on winning the Six Nations.
“We've been enjoying our rugby for Scotland. We just need to pick up where we left off in the World Cup.”
The compulsively cautious Cotter is unlikely to offer such a gung-ho assessment as that, and, if asked to predict his team’s chances in the annual tournament, will probably decline to look further ahead than the opening two games – at home to England then away to Wales. Nonetheless, the coach has continuity on his side, and of the squad of around 32 he will name today, the vast majority will have seen duty in the World Cup.
Although ostensibly selected for the forthcoming training camp in St Andrews, the squad will in essence be the group of players that Cotter expects to take him through the Six Nations. It will not be a definitive list, however, and some of those listed as “not considered due to injury” today will recover in time to make appearances later in the tournament.
The Warriors camp remained hopeful at the weekend that Mark Bennett, the centre, would be given a positive prognosis on his injured shoulder. Fraser Brown, the Glasgow hooker, is also due to have a scan on an ankle knock. Those two missed out on their team’s 19-15 defeat by Northampton on Sunday, as did Tommy Seymour – although the winger, who had knee and hamstring strains, was reportedly close to being passed fit.
Alasdair Dickinson, the Edinburgh prop who has been out of action with a calf injury, is expected to be back playing this weekend and should therefore be available to take on England. So should his front-row colleague Ross Ford, who has a rib injury.
Despite being without those two, not to mention WP Nel, John Hardie and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Edinburgh beat Agen on Friday night to keep their Challenge Cup hopes alive. Glasgow are out of the running in the Champions Cup, but their key players such as Hogg are at least showing signs of a return to form – even if the full-back himself believes such a return is overdue.
“It has taken a while,” he said after his team’s defeat at Franklin’s Gardens. “It has been a bit frustrating, but form comes and goes. I've been happy with my performances over the past couple of weeks, but I would take a win over anything. It's pleasing personally, but it's really all about the team.”
The PRO12 champions are steadily getting back into shape too late to have an impact in Europe this season, but their modest improvement might just have come at exactly the right time for Scotland.