Townsend’s Scotland a growing force but World Cup will be a reality check

If this autumn represented the point in the World Cup cycle when coaches’ thoughts moved firmly towards France 2023, Scotland are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

For all the evident progress this year – ending painfully long barren spells at Twickenham and in Paris, a third successive win over Australia – the reality of the next two years is stark.

Unless Scotland can find the sustained quality to make victory over either South Africa or Ireland – their Pool B opponents in France – a realistic proposition, they are likely to be heading for a second consecutive exit at the group stage.

This is where Gregor Townsend and his coaches may reflect that despite three wins – against Tonga, Australia and Japan – from four over the past month, it was still something of a missed opportunity.

Scotland led the Springboks at half-time but couldn’t live with the world champions when it counted, the Boks’ physical dominance ultimately forcing them to lose their discipline and shape.

The news from across the Irish Sea offered little comfort either. Ireland, who thumped Scotland in their 2019 pool encounter with similarly direct fare, showed in beating New Zealand that they are hitting their stride with a more expansive approach under Andy Farrell.

For all that, there remains a sense that Scotland are maturing nicely, now capable of closing out tight matches with a recognisable core of leading players entering their prime years. They finished this series against Japan with 12 of the same side which beat France in Paris in March and, defensively, they remain a growing force under Steve Tandy’s direction.

Although they failed to put together a compelling 80-minute performance, their attack still produced 18 tries in four matches and 12 new players were exposed to Test rugby, adding greater depth in most areas.

The likes of Duhan van der Merwe, Chris Harris and Ali Price, three of the eight Scots who toured with the Lions last summer, all appear to have an extra layer of confidence. The box-office totems of Finn Russell and captain Stuart Hogg also continue to inspire, the latter now his country’s record try-scorer after his 25th in Saturday’s 29-20 victory.

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Could Hogg lead the Scots to a Six Nations title? They have traditionally thrived in the years that followed a high representation on Lions tours. The 1990 triumph came on the back of nine Scots featuring in Australia in 1989, while Townsend – one of five Scots on the 1997 jaunt to South Africa – was the architect of their final Five Nations triumph 20 months later.

England’s opening visit to Murrayfield on 5 February does not hold the same fears of the not-too-distant past for those of a Tartan persuasion. Scotland have won two and drawn one of their last four meetings with Eddie Jones’s side. France also visit Edinburgh, while trips to Cardiff and Dublin are no longer the home bankers of the past decade. The World Cup can wait from a Scottish perspective. Bring on the Six Nations.