Andy Henderson could have been forgiven for thinking Test rugby was a stroll in the park when he made his Scotland debut against Ireland at Murrayfield in the autumn of 2001.

In advance of the contest, which had been rescheduled due to the foot-and-mouth epidemic, the visitors were odds-on favourites with the bookmakers. But, when the action commenced, a marauding Scottish pack, superbly marshalled by such warriors as Tom Smith, Gordon Bulloch and Jason White, knocked the stuffing out of their rivals, and Scotland recorded an emphatic 32-10 success.

Henderson, then 21, who subsequently accumulated 53 caps and still relishes his involvement in the game at GHA, nabbed one of his country's four tries; the others came from Smith, Budge Pountney and John Leslie. Yet, if that was a scintillating afternoon for the SRU's finest, their Celtic adversaries have enjoyed ample revenge in the intervening period. Indeed, of the 13 Six Nations contests between the sides, Ireland have won 11 and will aim to continue that sequence this weekend.

Loading article content

"That 2001 match was a bit strange, because it was very early in the season, and I recall that a lot of the Ireland lads had been on that summer's Lions tour [to Australia], so they were fancied by most people to challenge for the championship," says Henderson. "But our pack put in a terrific shift, guys won individual battles all over the pitch and we dominated the whole contest.

"My try was a bit fortunate, but there was nothing lucky about the result, because the Irish were pretty much blown away and the victory margin would have been even bigger but for Girvan Dempsey scoring in injury time. It was very satisfying to be involved, the more so because it was unexpected, and the crowd's response at the finish was just incredible."

Henderson isn't inclined to indulge in tub-thumping rhetoric, but he was sufficiently impressed by the fashion in which his compatriots surged past Italy earlier this month to be quietly confident they can replicate that display against opponents who will be missing some influential figures, including Cian Healy, Gordon D'Arcy, Simon Zebo Stephen Ferris and, probably, Jonathan Sexton for Sunday's tussle.

"I reckon a lot of folk believed the Scotland-Italy clash might be a wooden-spoon decider, but the tournament has been very unpredictable and the Scots have a good opportunity to end what has been a fairly barren run in Edinburgh," says Henderson.

"You look at somebody such as Stuart Hogg and it makes you feel excited about the team's attacking threat and they have to go out with the attitude that they can create chances, given the pace they have out wide. It was a bit similar with us, with Glenn Metcalfe starting at 15 and Mossy [Chris Paterson] on the wing, and I am convinced that Hogg has the talent to get into the Lions squad [again in Australia].

"There was a bit of gloom around after the England game, but I think the Scots have a great opportunity to build momentum with these three consecutive home matches. You can't underestimate Ireland, who still have some world-class performers in the ranks, but there is definitely a sense that England are the best in the championship, France are seriously under-achieving, and there isn't that much to choose among the three other home nations.

"So, in these circumstances, home advantage can be a big plus. You saw how the crowd lifted the Scots whenever the Italians attempted to fight back and it demonstrated how quickly the fans can get caught up in the excitement."

Hogg's star is on the rise, along with such luminaries as Sean Maitland, Tim Visser, Robert Harley and the ubiquitous Richie Gray. Nor, according to Henderson, will these youngsters be intimidated by anything that BOD's chosen people might fling at them. On the contrary, and considering the anti-climactic nature of Ireland's defeat to England, there is a suspicion that they are no longer the force of old.

"Two wins out of the next three fixtures is a realistic target and the Scots should have decent expectations, on the evidence of what we have witnessed so far," said Henderson. "I am not getting carried away but I wouldn't be surprised if Scotland finished in the top half of the Six Nations table, which would be a significant sign of progress. Things didn't click for the Irish in Dublin but, there again, they were very impressive in building up a 20-point lead in Cardiff, so you never write them off. But momentum is massive in sport and if the Scots can put early points on the board and whip up the crowd, I am optimistic about their prospects."

There have been too many false dawns for anybody to assume anything with the Scots. Yet Henderson isn't some Micawberish kilt-wearer but a rational fellow who dares to dream. We'll find out soon enough if Hogg and his confreres can unleash another space odyssey to equal that of 2001.