THREE defeats from three Autumn Tests have constituted less than ideal Six Nations preparation for Scotland, but they can at least point to substantial progress since that sequence of games began with a 38-0 away loss to Italy. Just two weeks later in November their 28-25 home defeat by Canada, the world-ranked No 4, showed they had become significantly more competitive, then this month they might well have got the better of Spain in Madrid instead of going down 29-24.

However, as they get ready to welcome the Italians to Scotstoun on Friday for the first fixture in this year’s Championship, Shade Munro’s team are all too aware that narrow losses will not be deemed good enough. After ending a long barren run in the tournament by winning twice at home in 2017, they won away for the first time in over a decade last year. Those achievements were significant but still modest, and are viewed by the head coach and his squad as the first steps in what has to be a long-term rebuilding project.

England and France may still be some distance ahead of the rest, but if Scotland do manage to play at the top of the game they should have a decent chance of winning their home games against Italy, Ireland and Wales. They will almost certainly be without the influential Jade Konkel for the first of those games, as they were in the autumn against the Italians and Spanish, but that loss is counterbalanced to an extent by growing strength away from the back row.

In Madrid, for example, Helen Nelson, captain Lisa Thomson and Hannah Smith made for a highly effective midfield trio - part of the reason Munro is looking forward to his fourth Championship in charge with some carefully qualified optimism.

“I would like to say we’ve progressed quite a bit,” he said at last week’s Six Nations launch in London. “That fixture [against Italy] came a bit early in the season - we’d only had one warm-up camp against Ireland - so we were caught a bit cold that day. But certainly Italy played extremely well and are a good outfit.

“But you saw the reaction when we played against Canada the week after that - there was quite a reaction to the way they had performed in Italy, so that was quite encouraging. Playing Spain recently there, we certainly played pretty well - not to the levels we did against Canada, but it was a good performance away from home and it could have gone either way. So I would say we’ve progressed quite a bit going into that first game against Italy.

“Eight tries in the last two games is pretty good. Obviously we didn’t win, which is the next hurdle. We went 17-10 up against Spain, for example, and it’s the old ‘Oh, I hope we win’ rather than ‘We’re winning this game and this is what we’re going to do’.

“So that’s why these games are really important. Competition at the highest level is what we’re looking for, and that’s how the players will develop.”

Scotland’s principal problem remains the set scrum - had they achieved anything close to parity in that department, they would have beaten Spain. The absence of Konkel will compound that difficulty, but they have now brought in former Scotland men’s tighthead Alasdair Dickinson for some specialist coaching, which should help players such as the 22-year-old Megan Kennedy begin to realise their considerable promise. And if the individual talent in the pack can be moulded into a more formidable unit in the set piece, those disappointments in the autumn might just soon become a distant memory.