THERE is little doubt that Scotland are steadily maturing as a team. At their attacking best they remain a joy to watch and are at times unstoppable, while over the past year, as we saw against Italy last spring and Argentina in the autumn, they have also acquired the ability to win in different ways even when playing below top form.

But, as we approach the Guinness Six Nations Championship, a key question remains. They are getting better compared to their own past performances, all right, but are they improving relative to other sides, or are they merely running to stand still?

We have been here before, after all. This time last year, for example, a record victory against Australia in November encouraged many of us to have inflated expectations of how Gregor Townsend’s squad would perform in the Six Nations. Those expectations were swiftly deflated in the opening game in Cardiff, where Wales won at a canter.

Subsequent victories against England, France and Italy helped Scotland to a top-half finish for just the fourth time this century, and they were behind runners-up Wales on points differential only. But such results simply made the opening-day meltdown all the more frustrating, proving how maddeningly inconsistent they can be.

“In that opening game in hindsight we maybe reflected too much on the positive things that happened in November and not enough on the hard work or the accuracy we’ll require to beat any of the teams in the Six Nations,” Townsend said last week when asked to reflect on that 34-7 defeat. “We learned that the Six Nations is tougher than the November Tests. We probably learned that the first 20 minutes of a game is so important - to be accurate, to stick in the fight longer than we did that day.

“But we also learned the resilience of our team to come back - the next two games we won against two very good sides in France and England. So our players quickly bounced back to perform much better in the following weeks.”

Such resilience is fine, but the ideal, of course, is not to need to bounce back at all - by winning your opening game then keeping on winning. Getting the best out of his players more frequently is clearly one of Townsend’s major concerns, as it is for every head coach in the tournament with the arguable exception of Joe Schmidt, under whom Ireland, the defending champions, have already perfected an enviably inexorable approach. The other concern for the Scotland boss is getting as many of his best players on the pitch as possible - something that he may only achieve in the last game or two, if at all in this championship.

Townsend has chosen not to dwell too much on the growing injury list that confronts him, arguing that all teams have such problems. He is right there, of course, but not all teams have such relatively slight resources from which to select a national squad. Take 20 players out of the England squad, for example, and Eddie Jones might still have another 40 or 50 international-class from whom to choose his matchday 23. Take 20 players away from Townsend - which is what has happened before the first match has even begun - and his room for manoeuvre in selection becomes tight enough to provoke an outbreak of claustrophobia.

The dilemma is particularly acute at hooker, where Stuart McInally is the last man standing of any experience with Fraser Brown and George Turner sidelined, and in the back row. Townsend has worked for some time on the presumption that he would be without John Barclay and Magnus Bradbury, at least for the first couple of rounds, but in recent weeks those two have been joined on the sidelines by others such as David Denton, Blade Thomson and Matt Fagerson. And last Friday came potentially the most damaging blow of all, when Hamish Watson broke a bone in his hand playing for Edinburgh.

Contrary to one report which was widely shared last week, the specialist openside is unlikely to miss the entire Championship, and as things stand should be back to play against Wales and England. But Watson, still only 27, will nonetheless be a big miss in the first two or three rounds. Perhaps more than any player, he has epitomised the team’s gradual growth in maturity, having graduated from being very much John Hardie’s understudy a couple of seasons ago to being one of the first names on the team sheet.

Hardie is now in line to take over from Watson at seven - unless, that is, Townsend opts for Jamie Ritchie, who would provide an additional lineout option and, being equally home on the blindside, is more versatile. It is a choice which could decide the outcome of the opening game against Italy, and hence set the tone for the entire campaign. The world-class Sergio Parisse, the Italian captain, is exactly the type of No 8 Scotland are crying out for. In order to prevent him from becoming the dominant personality in the game, Townsend needs to construct a back row that has maximum disruptive power in defence but also more than a little artistry in attack.

Asked to set out the case for going with Hardie, the head coach reasoned thus: “He’s similar to Hamish in that he’s an out-and-out seven. He’s not going to be the tallest guy to help out in the lineout, but John is a very experienced player both at international level and at club level.

“It’s a physical position, seven. You’ve got to clear contact, you’ve got to carry when necessary, but especially you’ve got to defend. It’s been encouraging to see how well John’s played over the last few weeks and how accurate he’s been around that defensive role.”

Never one to give anything away, Townsend talked in equally positive terms about Ritchie. “He brings different things as a seven, because he has played six and he’s a lineout forward too. Even if he was to play seven for us, he’d still be doing a lot of the six role. That could be lineout or other things like ball-carrying.

“He played very well at seven against Fiji and has played really well right throughout the season, both for us and for Edinburgh. It’s great that he’s available given that Hamish got injured at the weekend.”

Italy at home first up is the best possible draw for Scotland, offering an excellent chance to build some momentum before Ireland come to BT Murrayfield a week later. But there is no automatic right to victory, and captain Greig Laidlaw, for one, knows how hard it will be to get off to a winning start against opponents who invariably view this fixture as their greatest hope of avoiding the Wooden Spoon.

“We don’t need to look too far back to understand it’s going to be a tough game on Saturday,” the scrum-half said. “Italy always believe they can beat us. The players understand that, we’ll definitely reiterate it and talk through why we didn’t have a good performance away from home [in Rome in 2018].

“The first game is never easy, no matter who you play. You can do as much training as you like, but you’ve got to get that first game under your belt to get anything that’s a bit rusty out of the way. It’s all about winning that first game.”