Six Nations 2020: 'Scotland are a team that needs to get brutal'
It's not hard to imagine Gregor Townsend spending the months since a dismal World Cup roaming the highways and byways of world rugby in search of a Scottish qualified beast or two to up the nasty quotient in his Six Nations pack.
If, in the deepest corners of Afrikanerland, he managed to locate a loosehead bruiser with a reputation for cruelty and a granny from Kirkintilloch then he's kept it quiet so far. We live in hope that Hamish van den Berg, the hitman of Potchefstroom, will be unveiled as a Scotland player any time now alongside his freaky 8ft ball-carrying cousin, Murdo 'I run through walls' du Plessis, but we shouldn't hold our breath.
This time last year Townsend sprung a few surprises when he named his Six Nations training squad. On Wednesday he's doing it all over again, only this time probably without the surprises.
There won't be a battalion of new faces but there needs to be a whole lot of new thinking. Townsend will have enough talent to be competitive in all five games, but his squad has lacked the mentality to turn close matches into victories. Part of this is technical - the defence has been weak for an age - and part of it is psychological. This is a team that needs to get brutal, but we've been saying that for an age as well.
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Unless you have belligerence by the bucketload then you're sunk. The hope is that Zander Fagerson, hugely talented and in form, realises now that he can be a totemic prop if only he believes in his own wrecking ball potential.
The same goes for Magnus Bradbury, who can learn a lot from the intensity either side of him at Edinburgh in the shape of Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson. In the second half against England at Twickenham, and fleetingly during the World Cup, Bradbury got angry and when Bradbury gets angry he becomes involved and influential. He can't flit around the periphery of Test matches any longer.
Townsend has lost Matt Taylor, his defence coach, and has replaced him with Steve Tandy, the former Ospreys coach who spent last year with the Waratahs in Australia. On a short-term deal he's also added Pieter de Villiers, the South African who won two Grand Slams and two Six Nations championships propping for France and five French championships as one of the mainstays of a celebrated Stade Francais side.
De Villiers, a tough old boy, will be scrum coach, He's an operator, but he can't magic up looseheads from thin air. Scotland's shortage in that department remains alarming. He's got Allan Dell, whose London Irish team have won three games from 13 this season, Gordon Reid, who's been playing for the Ayshire Bulls, and Jamie Bhatti and Rory Sutherland, second and third choice at Edinburgh. One or two of those guys are going to go up against Tadhg Furlong in week one and Kyle Sinckler in week two.
Mercifully, Townsend doesn't have the same amount of injuries now as he had a year ago. In 2019, he went into the opening day, against Italy, without Sean Maitland, Fraser Brown, Jonny Gray and Watson, then faced Ireland without Watson, WP Nel, Fagerson and Ryan Wilson before losing Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell for the trip to France. Hogg didn't kick a ball beyond the 17th minute of the second game against Ireland.
After winning one game in the Six Nations and then failing to reach the knockout phase at the World Cup in Japan, Townsend needs victories, but first of all he needs luck. So far, so good on that front. As bills of health go, his is pretty clean.
He has a few decisions to make in the composition of his squad, but not that many. It's hard to see a bolter here. He'll have to decide whether to include Sam Skinner or not. Skinner will play an A team game for Exeter on Monday, his first match since the misfortune that befell him just before the World Cup. He's got a call to make on Richie Gray as well.
Gray suffered a concussion while playing for Toulouse on 8 December hasn't played since. Apparently, he's up for international rugby again having not been bothered to make himself available for the World Cup. That slight will have annoyed Townsend and Wednesday is when we find out if the coach has forgiven him or not.
Blade Thomson is another one who's not featured much in recent weeks and though he didn't create much of a stir in Japan he's still needed. We haven't seen the best of him in blue. There's a feeling that's he's got a lot more to offer.
The rest of the landscape looks relatively injury-free. Townsend has lost three senior players to retirement - Greig Laidlaw, John Barclay and Tommy Seymour - but the probability is that none of them would have made the Test side even if they hadn't bowed out.
Can Tandy rectify 'defensive crisis'?
There is that desperate shortage at loosehead and not enough - or any - true, ball-carrying monsters in the back-row - are you listening, Magnus? - but on paper the squad will look like a group capable of turning over some bigger opposition.
It nearly always looks that way at this time of year. Once February comes, things tend to change. Only England scored more tries than Scotland in last year's championship but only Italy conceded more. In Townsend's 10 Six Nations games as coach 31 tries have been shipped at an average of 25 points per game.
This is where Tandy comes in. Given that Scotland's defence leaks like a sieve, he's massively important. Of all the decisions that Townsend has made over the last week the trust he's placed in Tandy is the biggest of the lot. There's a limit to what the Welshman can do in such a narrow coaching window, but he needs to make a start on revolutionising Scotland's defence or there's no hope.
Scotland's attack is dangerous enough. It can trouble any team. It's in their chronic inability to keep the score down at the other end where the crisis lays. And crisis is not too strong a word. Tandy has his work cut out. So much is riding on him finding a solution to Scotland's glaring deficiencies in defence.
The team needs a captain and there's uncertainty there. Stuart McInally was the leader going to the World Cup but lost his place to Brown, who deserves to hold on to the jersey on the balance of form. If Townsend sees it that way then he needs a new captain, but who?
Somebody who is guaranteed their place, but again you ask, who? Hogg, Russell, Jonny Gray - all three are probably better off without the burden. Grant Gilchrist could do it but might find his own place in jeopardy if Skinner and Richie Gray hit their stride. Watson or Ritchie - interesting options for sure that would reflect a new era. Brown would have to be a big part of the conversation as well.
Without a stand-out candidate, Townsend might just revert to McInally - if he wants to take it on again - in the hope that he finds his best stuff after a bruising World Cup. The same goes for many others, including the coach himself.
The year ahead is going to be savage with a Six Nations, a summer tour to South Africa and New Zealand and New Zealand to play again in the autumn. This is going to be tough and thrilling, same as it ever was.