If not now, when? That seems to have been the question following the Scotland rugby team around for the last half-decade or so as a talented squad looks to finally mount a genuine Six Nations title challenge for the very first time.
Despite having never finished in the top two since the Five Nations became Six a quarter of a century ago, the recent vintage under Gregor Townsend have felt on the brink of doing something special. These are no longer the dark old days of the late Noughties and early 2010s when Scotland would invariably scrap it out for the wooden spoon with Italy year after year. Recently, they often win their first game or two (one of those normally against England) to raise hopes, only to falter and be out of the running by the time Super Saturday rolls around.
Every February, it feels like this could or even should be Scotland’s year and this month has been no different. They’re the one team with continuity – Italy have a new coach, while the other four opponents have lost either their talismanic fly half or otherworldly scrum half since the World Cup. But Scotland... Townsend and his coaching staff remain in place, the magical Finn Russell is still pulling the strings from No 10, Duhan van der Merwe continues to run in tries for fun... if not now, when?
And for 42 minutes of their Six Nations opener against Wales, that hype was fully justified. As Van der Merwe glided past Tomos Williams to dot down for a stunning solo try that made the score a scarcely believable 27-0, Scotland were home and hosed with a first win in Cardiff for 22 years in the bag. Until it wasn’t.
Wales corrected their myriad issues, came roaring back and fell an agonising, solitary point short of the biggest comeback in Six Nations history. Scotland switched off and were, frankly, fortunate not to see the whole house of cards come crumbling down around them.
“We had a really good first half and a brilliant start to the second, then a bit of complacency crept in,” admitted Russell in the aftermath of the 27-26 triumph.
That rare piece of brutal post-match honesty from their captain will have served his team well. And, as Russell went on to explain, the way they saw out the final 12 minutes when a tidal wave of Welsh pressure appeared set to wash them away can only be taken as a positive.
“I am probably a little bit disappointed with the second half but overall it is a great start to the tournament for us,” he added. “I’ve played in games with Scotland like that when we have lost, and that was the most pleasing thing, that we managed to find a way to win even though momentum, the crowd, everything was against us towards the end.”
In fact, the Cardiff collapse was a blessing in disguise for Scotland and probably the best thing that could have happened for their Six Nations hopes.
They got the Cardiff monkey off their back – something that even the impressive recent vintages couldn’t manage – and while a 20-point victory would have been great for confidence, that propensity for complacency to slip in would’ve been a huge danger when France head to Murrayfield this Saturday. There is no chance of complacency now.
As lock Grant Gilchrist said this week: “Having that little slant of disappointment is no bad thing. It brought us in on Monday eager to learn how to get better in the second half and put a full performance together, rather than coming in talking about staying grounded or any of these things. I feel it’s not a bad place to be, to feel a little bit disappointed despite winning in Cardiff for the first time in 22 years.”
A wounded France, coming off a Marseille humiliation at the hands of Ireland, will bring a ruthless intensity from minute one but, as Gilchrist intimates, Scotland are now a wounded animal themselves after that second-half meltdown and will have no problem matching the French energy. Combine that laser focus with the knowledge that the first half of rugby at the Principality Stadium was possibly as good a 40 minutes as they’ve produced in the Townsend era and it’s a heady mix.
The talent is there, the mentality now just needs to follow. No matter how inexperienced and green this current Welsh side is, accomplishing something that hasn’t been done since 2002 was never going to be easy. The Scots have made history by clearing that hurdle, so why not make more by sustaining a title tilt?
Unlike Wales in Cardiff, France hold no fear for this Scotland team. Three of the last four Six Nations fixtures at Murrayfield between the sides, plus 2019 and 2023 World Cup warm-up matches at the stadium, have been won by the Scots. This has been an elite Les Bleus unit under Fabien Galthie but Edinburgh has remained a tough nut to crack.
France looked vulnerable without Antoine Dupont dictating play from scrum half. Maxime Lucu is a fine No 9, as proven by his performances with Bordeaux in Europe this season but he offers none of Dupont’s threat around the base of the ruck, allowing the opposition defence to cheat up and stifle French attacks. Nolann Le Garrec mitigated that issue somewhat when he came off the bench against Ireland and may well do so again at Murrayfield but an unproven, albeit talented, 21-year-old replacement won’t cause Scotland sleepless nights.
This is still an excellent French team of course, whose play over the past few years has earnt them the benefit of the doubt that round one was simply a post-World Cup aberration against the best side in Europe, rather than the new norm. But Scotland know how to beat them and will have a capacity crowd full of renewed belief roaring them on.
The Cardiff scare may just be the making of this Scottish group. Down Les Bleus and, after a rest week, a rebuilding England side that has beaten Scotland just once in the last six attempts heads to Murrayfield...
If not now, when?