There will be nothing normal about the 2021 Six Nations Championship. With no fans inside stadiums for the beginning of the tournament this weekend, it will be up to the players to create their own momentum and magic.
If they manage it and can provide a sprinkling of pyrotechnics and champagne rugby for supporters stuck at home, it will be an improvement on the dismal fare which was served up during the Autumn Nations Cup. Yet even the prelude to the competition has been as much about Covid cases, injuries and elite performers being rusty as dwelling on which of the half dozen participants will emerge at the top of the table next month.
Scotland, though, must adopt the mindset that silence will be golden at Twickenham on Saturday evening. In the past, generations of the SRU’s finest have told me about their dislike of Twickenham and how they regarded the atmosphere as much more intimidating than at other venues, but that won’t be the case this time around.
If anything, on the evidence of England’s displays in the autumn, the hosts might find it tougher to rouse themselves for the Calcutta Cup than when their arena is packed to the rafters with thousands of fans belting out “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Jerusalem”.
The Scots have already been written off in some quarters. A clutch of Sunday newspaper pundits predicted that the imminent Six Nations would be dominated by England and France, with Gregor Townsend’s men unlikely to finish higher than fourth. Some of the “experts” cited Glasgow and Edinburgh’s poor form as evidence for the prosecution.
But that is a specious argument. Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray are both in prime nick at Exeter, while Finn Russell continues to set pulses racing in France. These are key individuals, alongside Darcy Graham, Hamish Watson, Scott Cummings and Richie Gray and if these combative characters can all hit the heights at the same time, there is no reason why their team can’t win at least three of their five fixtures.
Indeed, considering that Italy are staring at another wooden spoon with their coach Franco Smith admitting he is planning for the future by picking a young, untested squad and Wales are in the midst of one of their worst losing sequences since the early 1990s when they were knocked out of the World Cup by Western Samoa, I would be surprised if Scotland didn’t notch up a brace of victories in these home contests.
Their third match at Murrayfield – against Ireland – is another they can target with realistic expectations of success. Of course it will not be easy, and there have been too many defeats in recent memory against the men from the Emerald Isle, but Jonny Sexton can’t carry on for ever and he has been the beating heart of his team for so long.
But it all comes down to how the Scots emerge from the starting blocks. Their opening three tussles are against England, Wales and France in Paris and if they can finally exorcise their Twickenham hoodoo for the first time in the 21st century, it could be the catalyst for their most auspicious tournament since the 1990s.
Two years ago, they famously rallied from a 31-0 deficit to earn a 38-38 draw, inspired by the mercurial Russell, who should be wrapped up in cotton wool between games. For once, Scotland will not fear being ground into the dust by the English pack and if they can gain parity at the breakdown, there is a mesmerising pace and panache in their back division which should be capable of exposing cracks in Eddie Jones’ side.
The latter was certainly not impressed with some of his star performers after the autumn snooze fest when they struggled to overcome a second or third-string French collective in London. Their pedestrian tactics and conspicuous dearth of va va voom was almost the definition of “anti rugby” and some in their ranks have lamented the absence of crowds and the struggle of playing in a bubble.
Jones has also been badly affected by losing players to injury, while his Saracens core group will be undercooked when they take the field this weekend. They will justifiably be favourites for any number of reasons: their record at Twickenham, the depth of their resources, their status as champions and the Scots’ historic travails in Richmond.
Yet there is little sense of them being the force they were two or three seasons ago and Townsend is meeting them at the right time. I still believe he and his charges will be faced with an enormous challenge when they travel to Paris at the end of February, but there is not the same fear and foreboding about tackling the Auld Enemy.
It’s all about the result. A tight one-point triumph is as good as a high-scoring thriller. It’s unlikely there will be any repeat of that madcap try-littered encounter from 2019, and the contest could he as cagey as Alcatraz, but Scotland have plenty of flair players and they need to trust their instincts and play to their strengths.
What a tonic they can provide even in these turbulent, unprecedented times.