Scotland: Fresh hope, but familiar challenges for Vern Cotter's side

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Highlights: Scotland 43-16 Georgia

For Scotland, the autumn Tests nearly always end in optimism for the season ahead.

Like fortune tellers reading the tea leaves, we analyse what's gone on and conclude that next year could be the one when it all happens: the breakthrough that everybody is so desperate to see.

This time around is little different. There were encouraging signs in a painful defeat against Australia, a clinical edge - eventually - in a tight endgame against Argentina and a six-try victory over Georgia, a side that many of us expected would scrummage and scrap their way to a much closer scoreline than 43-16.

Scotland's attacking game is improving, no question. Their ability to make things happen out of nothing is on the rise and the arrival of Huw Jones has been a boost.

That Scottish midfield is showing serious depth now - Jones, Alex Dunbar, Duncan Taylor, Mark Bennett, Peter Horne, Matt Scott. That's as good as it has been, possibly forever.

The Australia game showed that Scotland have the artillery to find space and the wit to score against the elite. It was the one that got away after the one that got away in the World Cup last year, but if they can learn the lessons then, come the Six Nations, it will have been worth the angst.

Greig Laidlaw
Captain Greig Laidlaw kicked a match-winning penalty against Argentina

Against Argentina, in a brutal and second-rate game, Scotland dug it out, which says something about their mental strength. On Saturday against the Georgians, they put the game to bed in little over 30 minutes after a terrible beginning.

'Paper-thin' squad

It is easy to see Scotland's upside, but just as easy to see their weaknesses. Their front-liners are strong and many of them have their best years ahead of them, but this is a paper-thin squad in terms of true Six Nations class.

There has been added depth this autumn in the front row. Alasdair Dickinson and WP Nel remain the first-choice props but Allan Dell and Zander Fagerson have done themselves a power of good.

Allan Dell
Loose-head prop Allan Dell started all three of Scotland's autumn fixtures - his first three Test caps

Hamish Watson has been terrific and even if John Hardie was fit and well, Watson would surely be deemed the starting open-side flanker now. Magnus Bradbury was given a deserved crack against Argentina and did well in parts.

Coach Vern Cotter spoke about the work the young Edinburgh back-row needs to do in his intensity at the breakdown. He needs to have far more impact at ruck-time - the same can be said of Scotland as a whole - but he will come again.

Beyond Dell, Fagerson, Jones and, perhaps, Rory Hughes on the wing, Scotland haven't really deepened the player pool a whole lot.

Every international coach likes to have three options per position but Scotland are struggling even for two in some areas. There is no replacement for Stuart Hogg - you could move Sean Maitland there but you would still be weaker at 15 and also now weaker on the wing.

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Autumn internationals: Stuart Hogg scores individual 'X factor' try for Scotland

There's no serious understudy to Finn Russell either. Ruaridh Jackson, Duncan Weir and Greig Tonks have all been given a shot at 10 over the last year-and-a-bit but none have made a big claim.

If anything happens to Greig Laidlaw, Scotland are in trouble at nine also. Henry Pyrgos is a fine player on his day, but he did not get it done when given the chance in Japan.

Ali Price is now on the scene but the Georgia game showed how reluctant Cotter is to live without his captain. He kept Price on the bench for the full 80 minutes against Australia and Argentina, which was understandable.

He also kept him there long after the Georgians were beaten on Saturday. Price did superbly for Scotland's final try but the fact that he only appeared for his debut with six minutes left to play told you much about how Cotter feels about his options at scrum-half.

Three wins the target

Scotland begin the Six Nations against Ireland at Murrayfield. Ireland have beaten New Zealand, Australia and South Africa this year. They beat the Wallabies on Saturday despite significant injury setbacks during the game. It was their squad depth that got them through.

Rory Best and Ireland celebrate beating Australia
Joe Schmidt's Ireland beat Australia on Saturday

Joe Schmidt, Ireland's coach, has given debuts to 18 players this year and a good portion of those are really banging on the door for the matchday 23.

Schmidt is very close to that magic number of three players per position in all but a few areas. After an indifferent 2016 Six Nations, Ireland are ready to launch a major bid for the title again next year.

It is not the ideal opening match for Scotland. If the Six Nations is all about momentum, then you do not want to play one of the big guns first-up.

Scotland are away to France after that. They have never won a Six Nations game in Paris, but you cannot look at what France have been doing over the last year and think that Scotland do not have a chance.

If everybody stays fit and in form, Cotter's team must have a big chance. They beat France comfortably last season in Edinburgh. The French played 10 Tests in 2016 and lost six of them. Sure, one of the losses was with a second-string team against Argentina, but Scotland's best would be good enough to go very close.

It is critical that Scotland enter the championship with a clean bill of health. You cannot keep players wrapped in cotton wool these days, so a few prayers will have to suffice not just for Hogg, Russell, Laidlaw, Dickinson and Nel, but for the Gray brothers, Richie and Jonny, and John Barclay too.

Jonny Gray tackle statistics
Jonny Gray made 43 tackles, and missed none, in Scotland's three autumn internationals

The Grays have been immense in this autumn series. Their work-rate is outstanding and the impact of their effort is huge.

Warren Gatland has an array of second-row forwards at his disposal for next summer's British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, and it is hard to know where the Grays fit into the picture. These are the games that will decide it, though.

The next one is against Wales at Murrayfield. That's a must-win if Scotland are to better last season's total of two victories. It's also a must-win in Lions selection terms.

Cotter's team can expect no more than two or three Lions places if they do not turn over at least one of the big shots. The more damage they do, the more they get on the plane to New Zealand.

Scotland have lost their last nine matches against the Welsh - and 13 of the last 14. It's a jaw-dropping record of failure, but it can stop next year. Wales are without Gatland, they are away from home and are showing increasing signs of vulnerability.

Scotland's Six Nations fixtures
Scotland begin their 2017 Six Nations Championship against Ireland at Murrayfield

True, they are at their best in tournament play, and they have just beaten South Africa - who Scotland would have beaten too. However, it is a big chance for Cotter's players to finally put the Welsh monkey back in its cage. They are good enough if they believe they are good enough.

What can Scotland expect at Twickenham? More of the same, alas. They finish with Italy - another must-win and a will-win.

The target for Cotter, in his farewell season, has to be three wins. There are reasons to believe that it is possible, but only if everybody gets through the next two months unscathed. In an increasingly punishing sport, that is more of a hope than an expectation.

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