SCOTLAND’s account at the end of the Autumn Nations Series is definitely in credit. They beat the two teams they were expected to beat, Tonga and Japan, they added a win over the Wallabies, who are ranked third in the world, and lost only to world champions South Africa.

There were some ragged passages of play in the second half against the Springboks, who physically pressurise their opponents more punitively than any other team in world rugby. But there were also some moments of magic in attack as Scotland strove to keep the contest at a high tempo.

Saturday’s 29-20 win against Japan was only settled in the last few minutes, but Gregor Townsend’s team outscored their opponents four tries to one, with Duhan van der Merwe, Darcy Graham and Stuart McInally all scoring in addition to Stuart Hogg’s record-breaking 25th touchdown. And, as that try count suggests, the defence was solid almost from first to last, suffering just the one lapse at a lineout guddle.

As Townsend always says, no team improves in isolation, and the weekend’s wins by England over South Africa, Wales against Australia and France against the All Blacks will give pause for thought to any Scotland supporter tempted to get too carried away by the evident progress of the past four weekends. Even so, on balance the head coach found far more to be encouraged by than concerned about over the four games, laying particular emphasis on the fact that, with 12 players having won their first caps, the depth of the squad available to him continues to grow. 

“What pleased me most was the reaction of players when they’ve been given opportunities,” Townsend said. “Players look like they’ve grown when they’ve put a Scotland jersey on. 

“Right from the Tonga game, when it was Luke Crosbie, Jamie Hodgson, Rufus McLean, others who played that day, right through to the guys coming off the bench against Japan. It’s really pleasing that the environment they come into, the Test-match arena, brings the best out of them. 

“And that’s absolutely given us more depth, with players competing for starting positions.  That may not come in the Six Nations. That’s down to them. It may not come in the summer tour or in the build-up to the World Cup. But we’ve got more players putting their hands up and making it more difficult to select a team. 

“On the field, we’ve shown that we still have the ability to score tries out of nothing - in the South Africa game and Tonga game in particular. But we’ve also developed the power side of our game. We didn’t show it enough against South Africa, but against Japan, our scrum and maul were very good. Our work at the breakdown was also very good against Japan – and it had to improve, because it wasn’t good enough against South Africa.” 

Of the dozen new caps, some may have to wait patiently for another chance, while others - Pierre Schoeman above all - seem sure to be in more squads in the near future, so smoothly did they step up to a high level. There will certainly be more competition for a place in the matchday 23 than at any time in the recent past, especially as some senior players are set to return from either omission or injury.

“We’re going to cast our net more widely in the Six Nations, for guys who missed selection this time,” Townsend continued. “Guys like Sean Maitland and WP Nel - we’re very aware that they can play at the highest level. 

“This wasn’t a tournament where we needed to involve them: we wanted to look at other players. But if their form is consistent, as it has been already this season, they’ll come into the mix for our strongest team.” 

So too, surely, will Jonny Gray, who is due back in the Exeter Chiefs team very shortly after completing his recovery from shoulder surgery. Two more injured players, Fraser Brown and Cameron Redpath, are also set to return to action in the coming weeks.

Yet, while the individual prowess of such players is clearly important, Townsend also sets great store on the collective state of the camp: the morale and togetherness of the squad, the harmony within the coaching group, the overall sense that there is a real unity of purpose. And in that respect, too, the coach is sure that progress continues to be made.

“The connection we have with our players, the connection our leaders have with the rest of the team, is stronger than ever. I really love working with this group of players. I love working with the coaches.  We’ve got some quality people in our coaching group – and really, really good coaches. The players know that too, so it’s a great environment to be a head coach in. 

“At times you don’t have to do that much, because you know things are getting taken care of by the assistant coaches, the players – or both together. We’ve just got to make sure that we keep the standards high.

“Spending the four weeks together, the players learning off each other, learning from us as coaches, the players showing more leadership - all of these things are improving. But we know the tests to come in the Six Nations are tougher than ever. The northern-hemisphere teams are playing at a really high level. We know it’s going to be another very competitive tournament, a really tough tournament for us.”