NO sooner had they got the monkey off their back by beating Wales in Wales for the first time in 18 years, then the world turned again, and focus swung towards the Nations Cup, which kicks off for Scotland with a trip to Italy on November 14.

Saturday’s 14-10 victory – the fourth on the bounce for Gregor Townsend’s team – has raised hopes that Scotland can be contenders in that tournament, which is a one-off competition played over four consecutive weekends as part of the push to get top-level rugby back up and running.

As well as Italy, Scotland take on France and Fiji at home in the pool stage before a play-off against the equivalently placed team in the other pool on December 5. It is a gruelling schedule and head coach Town-send has indicated that, in tandem with trying to win every game, he will need to mix and match personnel with the longer-term aim of creating the same sort of depth and competition for places in the squad as the top rugby nations in the world such as New Zealand, South Africa and England can draw from.

“I don’t think I would use the word ‘experimentation’, but we will have to change the team because there are a couple of injuries and players may be coming back from injury,” he said.

“There are players coming into this tournament whose form merits a start or a chance off the bench. The changes will be because we think these players are good enough to help us move forward or create a bit of competition or depth around a position or two.

“There are people who missed out today who we would like to introduce, whether it’s against Italy, France or Fiji. That’s the long-term aim. If we can have that 30 to 35-man squad where, just like the front row today, the quality is as good coming off the bench as started, then that should make us stronger.”

While his top two stand-offs – Finn Russell and Adam Hastings – are serious injury doubts for the Nations Cup, Townsend can draw comfort from Saturday’s evidence that a number of his other senior players are in good nick both mentally and physically.

Most notably, the Wales victory seemed to be a coming of age for Stuart Hogg as the team’s captain. The full-back joined the camp last week on a high after back-to-back victories for Exeter Chiefs in the European Champions Cup and the English Premiership, and interacted well with the likes of Fraser Brown, Jonny Gray, Jamie Ritchie and Ali Price to balance his own instinctive devil-may-care attitude with the need for pragmatism at key moments in tight matches.

“He brought a lot of energy this week,” said Townsend. “I did say to him in the changing room that it’s not always like this – winning a trophy every week. Jonny, too, because he is living the dream. He’s only been down at Exeter a couple of months and he’s won his third trophy.

“It has been a really memorable time for them both. It was in the back of my mind that energy levels might be tougher today after the emotion of those last two weeks, but I thought they both got better and better as we went through the game.

“They are a strong influence on how the team works. They are leaders in different ways. They both allow others to lead. It has been great for Stuart after going through a difficult moment in Ireland [when he dropped the ball over the line] that he has got the best out of the team and the team has improved under his captaincy.”

It is a very different mood to this time last year, when Scotland had just returned home from Japan reeling from their early World Cup departure. The hangover carried on into the prep for the 2020 Six Nations, with the deterioration in the relationship between Townsend and Russell coming to a head when the player quit the camp and did not return until after lockdown.

With all that in mind, Townsend is entitled to feel pleased with how this elongated Six Nations has gone.

“I would have always thought it was possible,” said Townsend. “I felt the players we have, and the lessons we have learned, we’d have the ability to play more consistently.

“There was a lot of reflection for me and others after the World Cup. The things we had to change was around consistency and getting into positions to win games as we go into the final 20 minutes.

“We always have that ability to score 14 points in two minutes, as we did at Twickenham a year-and-a-half ago. We have players in our team who can make those things happen. But that stubbornness, hard work and set-piece power has been a pleasant surprise. The emergence of players really taking control at set-piece, the coaching we have had in that area, that’s probably surpassed what I thought we would achieve this season.

“I have also a big belief in this team. It has not been easy, to miss the chance to play Wales seven months ago when we’d really built some momentum. We didn’t play as fluently as we’d have liked today but we still had the determination that we weren’t going to lose.”