Pessimism can sometimes seem to come a little too naturally to Scottish rugby fans, a certain fatalism worn almost as a badge of honour after too many days of disappointment and dejection, of squandered opportunities and wondering what might have been.
It perhaps feels somewhat appropriate, then, for Gregor Townsend to have assembled perhaps the finest side in the nation’s long rugby history and still know a second successive World Cup pool stage effort is on the cards if the tournament goes to form. Plenty has already been written about the lopsided draw but it feels particularly cruel to the Scots, inarguably among the top five sides in the world but drawn together with two of the four top favourites in the pool.
Townsend’s band of history makers have risen to new heights over these last four years, turning Calcutta Cup hope almost into expectation and building further through these last few months. Top to bottom, the likely 23 that will begin the tournament against South Africa in Marseille contains few clear weaknesses.
And yet it may not matter: Ireland are enjoying their own heady days at an all-time high and have a top level that Scotland have, thus far, proved unable to match, while the Springboks power game the obvious kryptonite for a side that, for all its development, still lacks forward might. An improved Tonga are also capable of doing damage.
Not that Scotland will simply curse their luck and ready themselves for another watching brief on quarter-final weekend. The fast, firm tracks likely to greet them during the pool stages should suit a side of Scottish swordsmen capable of carving even the staunchest defences to pieces, particularly if they can overcome a habit of stuttering out of the blocks.
“My hopes are obviously very high and my expectations of this team are very high because I know they can reach them,” Townsend said after Scotland arrived at their tournament base camp in Nice. “We are focused on getting our best performance out against South Africa.
“We’ve been talking about that for weeks and months. It’s one reason why we went strong in three of our four (warm-up) games. A lot of what we’re doing in terms of our game plan was set for South Africa, so it’s a great opportunity to see how they go.
“We know there’s some real tests ahead of us in the next few weeks but this team is ready to go.”
In Finn Russell, Townsend has an abstract artist to illustrate things, while Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham provide a thunder and lightning combination on the wings. The installation of Huw Jones at outside centre during this year’s Six Nations is further evidence of the backing the coach gives his side to play with freedom – Chris Harris had put barely a foot wrong defensively for three years, earning himself a starting Lions shirt, but has lost out to the extra attacking potential that Jones offers outside of Sione Tuipulotu.
Up front, Pierre Schoeman will relish an opportunity to test himself in the tight against Tadhg Furlong, Frans Malherbe and co., while Richie Gray is a rejuvenated figure in the second row. Townsend’s group of back row forwards make up for a lack of size with intelligence, intensity and dynamism.
Townsend signed a new contract through to 2026 earlier this year after speculation he may be set for pastures new post-World Cup. The timing, in some ways, felt curious, given the toughness of the task facing his side in France and the likelihood of back-to-back group stage exits, but it spoke to a belief that he remains the best man to take this side forward. Can he oversee another famous triumph at the World Cup? A premature departure may yet come but write this Scottish side off at your peril.
Coach: Gregor Townsend
Captain: Jamie Ritchie
Key player: Finn Russell - Russell has clashed with Townsend in the past but the two now appear totally on the same page. A couple of waves of the magic man’s wand from fly half might be needed.
Rising star: Rory Darge - Scotland possess a competitive, versatile back row group, but Darge appears to have usurped Hamish Watson on the openside and offers open field agility and breakdown savvy.
Big question: Can Scotland’s pack, outmatched on paper, find a way against Ireland and South Africa?
Forwards: Ewan Ashman, Jamie Bhatti, Dave Cherry, Luke Crosbie, Scott Cummings, Rory Darge, Jack Dempsey, Matt Fagerson, Zander Fagerson, Grant Gilchrist, Richie Gray, WP Nel, Jamie Ritchie (capt.), Pierre Schoeman, Javan Sebastian, Sam Skinner, Rory Sutherland, George Turner, Hamish Watson
Backs: Darcy Graham, Chris Harris, George Horne, Ben Healy, Huw Jones, Blair Kinghorn, Ali Price , Cameron Redpath, Finn Russell, Ollie Smith, Kyle Steyn, Sione Tuipulotu, Duhan van der Merwe, Ben White
Fixtures (all times BST):
Sunday 10 September: South Africa vs Scotland, Pool B (Marseille, 4.45pm)
Sunday 24 September: Scotland vs Tonga, Pool B (Nice, 4.45pm)
Saturday 30 September: Scotland vs Romania, Pool B (Lille, 8pm)
Saturday 7 October: Ireland vs Scotland, Pool B (Paris, 8pm)