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Neil Drysdale: Scotland have the chance to challenge for the Six Nations if they cut out the silly mistakes

Yes, he did it again. Finn Russell celebrates with the Calcutta Cup.
Yes, he did it again. Finn Russell celebrates with the Calcutta Cup.

Until recently, the odds on Scotland tasting victory at Twickenham were about the same as Aberdeen winning anywhere on the road.

Every two years, the SRU’s finest would journey to London, enter Swing Low territory, suffer an attack of the vapours and be sent home to think again.

This lasted from 1985 to 2019, with a couple of draws along the way, and the perceived wisdom was that, no matter the quality of the coach, the players or their current form, Twickers might as well have posted a sign: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” at the stadium entrance for those with Saltires and a wee nip to warm up the dreich winter chill.

Matters have changed, though.

In recent Six Nations campaigns, Gregor Townsend’s team have gained the upper hand on their traditional rivals and demonstrated they no longer dread the visit to the Home Counties stockbroker belt. They drew 38-38 there in 2019, triumphed 11-6 (albeit in an empty arena) in 2021 and prevailed over the Auld Enemy at Murrayfield in 2018 and 2022 by 25-13 and 20-17 respectively.

Scotland’s Stuart Hogg will be one of the pivotal players in the 2023 Six Nations.

In anybody’s terms, they have exorcised the demons which used to bedevil them in the Calcutta Cup. And, with England in transition, following the belated sacking of Eddie Jones, they should regard themselves as favourites when their tournament commences at Twickenham on Saturday evening.

They don’t need to make grand speeches or indulge in brainless baiting of their rivals. They just need to get it right on the pitch.

Predictions can make fools of us all, but I honestly think Scotland are in a good position to challenge for this year’s title.

Everybody else seems to be talking up Ireland or France, and there’s no doubt both will be formidable opponents in the weeks ahead, but Townsend’s squad is packed with experience, plenty of pace out wide, a maestro conductor in Finn Russell and the fixture list has been kind to them.

Gregor Townsend won’t discuss his future until after the Six Nations.

After all, England haven’t taken the field since their underwhelming 2022, which culminated in a series of lacklustre performances during the autumn internationals.

Scotland, on the other hand, for all they were frustratingly unable to close out some nerve-shredding contests against New Zealand and Argentina, showed more than enough to be confident of silencing the bloody sweet charioteers this weekend.

It probably helps that the Anglocentric media have been focusing almost exclusively on how Steve Borthwick will respond to picking up the reins from Jones. Small forests have been felled for columns pondering the issue of whether Owen Farrell or Marcus Smith will start at No 10 for England, but Finn Russell is superior to both of them and yet little effort has been spent on even mentioning the Scots as championship contenders.

But they are if they can reduce the penalty count which has cost them dearly in too many recent contests and exhibit the killer instinct required when they open up defences.

We know they possess that ability in abundance, but too often, chances are being squandered in 2-1 or 3-2 overlap situations.

Yet, as they highlighted in their last outing against Argentina, this Scotland side in full flight is a beautiful thing to behold.

Scotland team lift Calcutta Cup at Six Nationsl
Scotland have only lost one of their last five meetings with England. Pic: Malcolm Mackenzie/Shutterstock

Not everybody is taking them lightly, nor dismissing their Six Nations prospects. Former England prop Jason Leonard is among those who reckon the Scots are once again being unfairly marginalised while the press homes in on Borthwick’s boys and how they can reverse their slide into mediocrity since the last World Cup.

He said: “We never seem comfortable playing against the Scots and they have a knack of posing us questions with their style of challenge, which, bluntly, we’ve failed to cope with.

“It’s chaos v structure, and England are struggling with that Scottish chaos.

“The media doesn’t help in this either – the coverage tends to all be about England and doesn’t seem to be talking much about Scotland. We are not really giving them the credit or respect that they deserve and that fuels their fire.

“Make no mistake, they are not scared of coming to Twickenham anymore. A few years ago, you would say Scotland at home was pretty much seen as a foregone conclusion, but nowadays I don’t think that’s the case – and I don’t think the players or fans of either side think that anymore.”

He’s right. And while Townsend’s men don’t require any motivation in advance of tackling the English in any sport, here’s some petrol to fan the flames anyway.

The website Planet Rugby’s preview of the imminent competition features the headline: “Scotland to just avoid Wooden Spoon after another disappointing campaign”.

Granted, these pieces are designed to whip up controversy, yet this one is particularly perverse.

Wherever you look, from Russell and Stuart Hogg, Duhan van der Merwe and Jamie Ritchie to Jonny Gray and Hamish Watson, Zander Fagerson and Pierre Schoeman, there’s a compelling mixture of silk and steel in this line-up.

Hamish Watson, centre, is desperate to emulate the class of 1999 in the Six Nations.

They have three home games, with the opportunity for Townsend to finally gain the upper hand over struggling Wales at Murrayfield on February 11, and, so often, this tournament is about generating momentum and keeping it going.

If they maintain their domination over England, it could be a memorable season. And it will provide magical moments in the build-up to the World Cup.