So, the Six Nations.
The most wonderful time of the year. Unless you really, really love Christmas.
Italy have their squad out, Wales announce theirs later today and Gregor Townsend has also announced the group of players he hopes will continue the upward trend of recent years in this tournament. Any rampant optimism should be tempered by the knowledge that the upward trend has taken us from perennial wooden spoon contenders to challenging for third – and ending up fourth. We have not yet been seen as, or indeed played like, tournament contenders.
That may have changed in an autumn series where we found our way out of a hole against Samoa, came closest to toppling the All Blacks, and dished out a glorious spanking to 14-man Australia. Suddenly, there were whispers.
But we’ve been here before.
Usually Scotland fans are buzzing with dreams of Grand Slams and trophy wins up until about the first ten minutes of the opening fixture when realism tends to kick in. To win the opener against Ireland last year was something new, although the team later came unstuck away to France and England.
This year, we’re already a little gloomy given injuries that have been well documented on these pages which at least means the rollercoaster will not be as extreme should the wheels come off the cart. But we were also gloomy ahead of the autumn when the situation was similar and the team played to Townsend’s gameplan well despite the loss of big names.
The 40-man squad Townsend has announced is a little different to the one we guessed at earlier in the month but the core is the same. He had an extra 4 players, for starters. He’s clearly not as ruthless as the team at SRBlog Towers…
There are no unheard-of bolters from the exiles, but a surprise recall for Newcastle’s Scott Lawson as cover at hooker is probably the “no one saw that coming” pick. He hasn’t featured in a Scotland shirt since 2014. Jon Welsh and Gordon Reid also return to the fold, as does David Denton while Ryan Wilson can’t be too seriously injured.
The old stagers won’t be enough, so Murray McCallum and D’arcy Rae join Berghan (who misses the first game through suspension) and Bhatti in the front row ranks. John Barclay will lead the team.
Perhaps unexpected is the quick assimilation of Mark Bennett into the squad following his return from injury. Players currently battling fitness issues like Stuart Hogg and Duncan Taylor have been included; class is permanent and all that.
Newcastle’s Chris Harris who picked up his first cap in the autumn also returns. Arguably the form back in Scotland at the moment, Blair Kinghorn deserves his call-up on form, but other names we looked at including Matt Scott, George Horne and Ben Vellacott are omitted – there are 4 scrum-halves in Greig Laidlaw, Price, Pyrgos and Fowles who are included.
Even with a squad this size there are a few names who may feel unlucky to miss out: Josh Strauss and Jamie Ritchie remain out of the picture, and Rory Sutherland is a relatively experienced prop not picked presumably to continue his injury comeback with Edinburgh. As suspected, Tim Visser will also have to watch from the couch while Sam Hidalgo-Clyne once again loses out to Nathan Fowles.
In addition to the squad, three players who are very much for the future have been invited to train with the group: Luke Crosbie, Darcy Graham and Adam Hastings.
If they get the players all fit and pin sharp, there are the makings of a very strong team and a backline that will worry any other side in the tournament.
The front row problems will, however, keep Scotland fans honest until that first game in Cardiff on the 3rd of February.
SCOTLAND SQUAD FOR 2018 NATWEST 6 NATIONS
Mark Bennett (Edinburgh Rugby) – 20 caps
Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors) – 28 caps
Nick Grigg (Glasgow Warriors) – 1 cap
Chris Harris (Newcastle Falcons) – 1 cap
Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors) – 55 caps
Pete Horne (Glasgow Warriors) – 28 caps
Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow Warriors) – 32 caps
Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors) – 11 caps
Lee Jones (Glasgow Warriors) – 7 caps
Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh Rugby) – uncapped
Greig Laidlaw (ASM Clermont Auvergne) – 58 caps
Sean Maitland (Saracens) – 29 caps
Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks) – 2 caps
Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors) – 11 caps
Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors) – 27 caps
Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors) – 32 caps
Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors) – 39 caps
Duncan Taylor (Saracens) – 21 caps
Nathan Fowles (Edinburgh Rugby) – uncapped
John Barclay CAPTAIN (Scarlets) – 66 caps
Simon Berghan (Edinburgh Rugby) – 5 caps
Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow Warriors) – 3 caps
Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh Rugby) – 2 caps
David Denton (Worcester Warriors) – 35 caps
Cornell Du Preez (Edinburgh Rugby) – 5 caps
Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby) – 18 caps
Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors) – 38 caps
Richie Gray (Toulouse) – 64 caps
Luke Hamilton (Leicester Tigers) – 1 cap
Rob Harley (Glasgow Warriors) – 20 caps
Scott Lawson (Newcastle Falcons) – 46 caps
Murray McCallum (Edinburgh Rugby) – uncapped
Stuart McInally (Edinburgh Rugby) – 12 caps
Gordon Reid (London Irish) – 27 caps
D’arcy Rae (Glasgow Warriors) – uncapped
Ben Toolis (Edinburgh Rugby) – 7 caps
George Turner (Glasgow Warriors) – 2 caps
Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby) – 15 caps
Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons) – 11 caps
Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors) – 32 caps