Gregor Townsend names the Scotland squad for his first Six Nations Championship as head coach on Tuesday.
After autumn fixtures that yielded a win over Samoa, a savaging of Australia and a near miss against the All Blacks, he is expected to select a group around 40-strong.
In his six Tests in charge, Townsend has granted eight players their international debuts, three of whom ply their trade in England’s top flight.
Here, BBC Scotland assesses the form and fitness of the exiled Scots bidding for Six Nations selection.
Scotland’s pool of props has been brutally drained by injuries and suspension.
Venerable loose-head Al Dickinson hasn’t played a competitive game in over a year, and at 34, his Test days are probably over. British and Irish Lion Allan Dell last featured in October and is not expected back from a groin injury until late February, while Darryl Marfo, the shooting star of the autumn Tests, will likely miss at least two rounds of the championship with a back complaint.
Townsend’s first-choice tight-heads, WP Nel and Zander Fagerson, are out. His next option, Simon Berghan, is banned for the opening fixture in Cardiff, and won’t have played since December by the time France roll into Edinburgh for round two.
Domestically, that leaves Glasgow’s Jamie Bhatti (three caps, no starts) and Alex Allan (four caps, one start), and Edinburgh’s Rory Sutherland (three caps, one start) as loose-head options plus inexperienced tight-heads Murray McCallum (Edinburgh) and D’Arcy Rae (Glasgow).
What else is out there? Not masses of talent, but enough to allow Townsend to breathe a little easier.
Without Nel or Fagerson, Newcastle’s Jon Welsh, last seen in Scotland colours at the 2015 World Cup, becomes the favourite to start at tight-head in Cardiff.
The 31-year-old is a fine scrummager, but has never been the most mobile or dynamic of prop forwards. Today’s tight-heads must do more than anchor the set-piece, particularly amid the furious off-loading fare already becoming synonymous with Scotland under Townsend.
Welsh is reckoned to have shifted 10kg since moving south from Glasgow. With that lighter frame, he has started all 13 of Falcons’ Premiership outings this term, playing an average of 65 minutes in each.
He put in 16 tackles, missing one, last Sunday as Falcons beat defending champions, Exeter Chiefs. That figure, though, is double his average tally per game for the season, and even exercising a degree of leniency for his nine scrum infringements, he has conceded a mountain of penalties – 18 in total.
Moray Low of Exeter Chiefs was most recently capped in November 2016. Leicester’s Kyle Traynor last played for Scotland five years and four head coaches ago. Neither has racked up a vast body of game-time in the Premiership or European Champions Cup this season (61 minutes for Low, 129 for Traynor), nor produced particularly compelling form.
Loose-head Gordon Reid is a much stronger candidate. The former Glasgow Warrior carries well, and started three championship fixtures in 2017.
Head injuries sidelined the 30-year-old for three months from the start of this season, and he has only recently earned a starting berth in a London Irish side toiling at the foot of the Premiership.
Here, Townsend’s domestic options are bountiful, despite hand injuries to Tim Swinson and Scott Cummings, with Glasgow’s Jonny Gray and Edinburgh duo Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist all in good form.
Richie Gray completed his return from a back problem that required surgery, and now has two full matches of bruising Top 14 rugby under his belt.
The towering Toulouse lock is expected to be recalled, with his athleticism, work-rate and line-out menace – he made three steals in those two games – powerful weaponry to add to the Scottish pack.
Scarlets’ John Barclay is set to retain the captaincy he has held with distinction since injury to Greig Laidlaw in last year’s championship.
What of Blair Cowan? The Kiwi hasn’t been seen since the Six Nations of 2016, owing largely to the emergence of Hamish Watson as a world-class open-side flanker, and Cowan’s London Irish dropping to the English second tier.
After regaining their top-flight status, Irish will do very well to beat the drop again this season, but at the time of writing, Cowan has won more turnovers than any other Premiership player this term. He is also near the top of the charts for tackles made, and – the Scotland camp will note – off-loads completed.
Ryan Wilson, recovering from an ankle injury, could be fit for the Cardiff curtain-raiser, but would Townsend benefit from having the battle-ready Kiwi, with nearly 1,000 minutes of attritional Premiership rugby to his name, to call upon?
At number eight, Josh Strauss is expected to remain out in the cold, where he has been since the June loss to Fiji. The 31-year-old was not included in Townsend’s autumn squad despite playing regularly for Sale Sharks, and a further omission would call into question his international future.
Strauss has his flaws – he doesn’t offer the same self-sacrificial grit in the breakdown as Barclay or Watson. He isn’t as involved as frequently over the course of a game as Wilson. He doesn’t force buckets of turnovers, nor post incredible tackle stats.
But the Six Nations is brutal, and Scotland lack a ball-carrying fulcrum with the heft or power of France’s Louis Picamoles or England’s Billy Vunipola. For all Strauss’s shortcomings, the South African’s capacity to bludgeon his way over the gain line in the close-quarter skirmishes could be a precious fillip.
He has beaten 19 defenders in this season’s Premiership – only six forwards in the league have bettered that tally.
If Townsend seeks ballast, he may bring an end to the injury-enforced 19-month exile of Dave Denton.
The 6ft 5in brute is not an especially dexterous off-loader, but he is emerging as a force again at Alan Solomons’ Worcester.
Denton has started Warriors’ last six matches, making 65 carries for 167m, and putting in 59 tackles across those games.
Leicester’s Luke Hamilton was a surprise inclusion in the autumn squad and could be that big-striding foil for Barclay and Watson. He averages 14 tackles per start this season.
And Mitch Eadie, capped at Under-20 level, is a long shot for inclusion, with his Northampton Saints side floundering.
At scrum-half lies Townsend’s greatest conundrum: what to do with Greig Laidlaw?
The little Borders general will not be match-fit, even should he return as scheduled from a broken fibula in the nick of time for the championship.
Laidlaw has captained Scotland more often than anyone else. The 31-year-old was an absolute pre-requisite to any serious Vern Cotter team.
But it’s been almost a year since his last Test appearance, and Scotland have done pretty well without him.
Ali Price has not so much claimed the scrum-half slot as placed it under lock and key. George Horne must be capped sooner or later, Henry Pyrgos is seasoned and classy, while Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Nathan Fowles have played well for an improving Edinburgh side.
Cotter had Scotland playing fast, but Townsend has them moving faster. Can Laidlaw drive that pace of play?
Even if speed is not his forte, Laidlaw has kicked match-winning goals, propelled Scotland forth in times of adversity.
He has savvy, leadership and game-management in abundance, and Townsend may decide that it’s worth keeping him around a while yet.
If Scotland are leading by three points with 15 minutes to play, Laidlaw could be just the man to steer them home.
There is also the thorny issue of Ben Vellacott’s future, the Scotland age-grade scrum-half who is English-born, schooled and raised, and beginning to shine in Gloucester’s senior team.
The 22-year-old is a searing threat with ball in hand, and suits Townsend’s quick-fire mantra, but he is now being eyed up by Eddie Jones’ England, and likely to opt for rose over thistle.
Gloucester’s Matt Scott is working back to fitness having missed most of the season with an ankle injury.
Duncan Taylor of Saracens is out this weekend after suffering a head injury against Wasps – no prognosis has been given, but it is not the 28-year-old’s first concussion this year.
Both are fine rugby players, and as recently as five years ago, might have been nailed-on starters. But Scotland have such an immense group of centres now that neither can be absolutely sure of selection.
Taylor, fitness depending, has the stronger case, and his ability to cover at full-back may count in his favour with Stuart Hogg not yet match-fit.
Saracens’ Sean Maitland offers nous and versatility, and will surely feature, as will Byron McGuigan, who scored two tries on his debut against Australia in November and has racked up eight tries in 10 Premiership games for Sale.
Chris Harris, a left-field autumn call-up, has played in all but two of Newcastle’s Premiership and European fixtures this season, beating 25 defenders on league duty and topping the charts for off-loads.
Harlequins wing Tim Visser was a surprise omission from the November squad. His ruthlessness as a finisher is not in doubt, with six tries from nine Premiership appearances this term. But his defence has often been questioned for a man of such formidable physical proportions, and he has missed 13 of 40 attempted tackles this season.
Tackle statistics need some context – a winger, for example, might be asked to make a lot of technically difficult tackles against quick, elusive opponents – but it is nonetheless an alarming figure.
Townsend called upon Greig Tonks for the summer tour, but while the London Irish full-back brings robust defence and an extra goal-kicking option, Blair Kinghorn’s sparkling season at Edinburgh, and Ruaridh Jackson’s dependability at Glasgow, may well have pushed him down the pecking order.
|Scotland’s Six Nations fixtures|
|Sat, 3 Feb: Wales (A) 14:15 KO|
|Sun, 11 Feb: France (H) 15:00|
|Sat, 24 Feb: England (H) 16:45|
|Sat, 10 Mar: Ireland (A) 14:15|
|Sat, 17 Mar: Italy (A) 12:30|