GRANT Gilchrist believes that the next few weeks in South America will constitute “a pivotal moment” for the Scotland squad as they bid to put a disappointing Six Nations Championship behind them and start to build momentum towards the next  Rugby World Cup.

The tournament in France may still be some 15 months away, but the Edinburgh lock, appointed captain for the four-week tour to Chile and Argentina, thinks that the three-Test series against the Pumas in particular will mark the real beginning of the countdown to it. 

There are still four Autumn Tests and next year’s Six Nations to come before the players’ and coaches’ thoughts can turn wholly to preparing for the World Cup. Nonetheless, this tour, which gets under way with a flight to Chile tonight, will be the only substantial block of time that the squad will have together before the summer of 2023. If certain lessons are learned now - off the field as well as on - work over the coming year should progress a lot more smoothly, according to Gilchrist. 

“We want to start our journey to the World Cup as of this tour,” the 31-year-old explained at Riccarton on Friday as the squad trained together for the last time before leaving Scotland. “We’re going to take on a lot of learnings from the Six Nations. 

“It’s quite obvious that getting the start of a Test series win in Argentina would be a huge boost going into the autumn, playing back at Murrayfield with that momentum behind us. It will be an awesome test for us and a real chance for us to put ourselves on the right path to the autumn when we play some of the best teams in the world -  and then the Six Nations and the World Cup in just over a year’s time. It’s a pivotal moment for the squad and we’re really excited to get going.”

Gilchrist was involved in all three matches the last time Scotland toured, captaining the team in their win against Canada, coming off the bench in the loss to the USA and then playing from the start in the convincing victory over Argentina. Four years on, he believes the fact that the team are playing three games against the same opponent will provide a different sort of test, and possibly a more valuable one too.

“For me it’s exciting, because you can win the series and it’s not a one-off game. You’re going to be playing the same team and there are different challenges in that. If you show certain things in the first Test then you’re going to have to change them, depending on how the games go.

“We’ve experienced it a little bit with the fixtures between Glasgow and Edinburgh when you play each other back to back and you start to work out what they do and you have to make different tactical decisions. But I think the biggest thing is the chance to go and win a series rather than a one-off Test match. That’s exciting.

“I think the reason we’re there for four weeks is that the Chile game is an awesome opportunity for guys to play for Scotland and for the coaches to see an A fixture against a side that are stronger than people think,” he continued, referring to the game in Santiago which kicks off the tour this Saturday. “I know people think it’ll probably be a rollover game, but they’ve beaten Canada recently. 

“They’re a good side and it’ll be a good test for us, setting us up for the three-Test series against one of the best teams you can play. Certainly at home, they [Argentina] would fancy themselves against anyone. What a challenge and it’s something we’ll relish.”

When head coach Gregor Townsend announced his squad at the start of the month, he said he hoped that Stuart Hogg would be able and willing to resume the captaincy in the autumn after being omitted this time round to give him the chance to recover from some niggling injuries. That would suggest that Gilchrist’s elevation is very much a temporary one - but the man himself insisted he would not worry about such a possibility.

“I haven’t looked beyond this,” he added. “It’s a huge honour to be asked to captain this squad. I’ve never played a three-Test series before, so to be asked to lead a young group like this is awesome for me. 

“I’m not going to look beyond this tour and making sure that individually and collectively we put the right foot forward. What happens beyond that won’t be up to me.

“I’m experienced enough to know that you never know when your last tour will be or your last chance to play for Scotland - never mind captain the side. I will play every game like it is my last one.”