Gregor Townsend began this Six Nations championship campaign with a squad seemingly no more capable of sustaining a title tilt than they have been at any time since he took the helm in 2017 – or indeed, for many years and with multiple coaches in the years preceding his appointment.
While two other Six Nations contenders chose the autumn to shed their head coach within just a year of the World Cup, the underachieving Scots had seemed reluctant to follow suit even if the evidence of their implosion at the last event hardly predicated that 2023 should be any different.
They were drifting, it seemed, deeper into the nether regions of irrelevance.
And even their coach – tied down to a contract until after the World Cup but with little prospect on all sides, and even less enthusiasm, about the chances of him remaining beyond the showpiece in France – was apparently fidgety.
A rumoured gig with France was floated on the eve of this campaign and Townsend, once a gifted out-half who never shied away from stepping up for the big plays, as he did so memorably on the 1997 Lions tour, was refreshingly honest.
Yes, there had been contact with France. Yes, he would have talks with his bosses either during the Six Nations or after it. Yes, he would be open to staying.
Notwithstanding his lack of inhibition, it did not seem to be an auspicious manner in which to begin a campaign.
In stark contrast, Ireland, with Andy Farrell’s imperceptible improvements suddenly blooming into an unprecedented 2022 of untrammelled triumphs by an eloquent squad laden with quality depth, appeared to be operating from a distinctly firmer standing.
His employers’ only concern was in granting the Lions access to a coach who will, by 2025, have completed his current contract and who will presumably, given the shelf life of the modern leader, be seeking a different challenge by then.
Given their global status in the game, it has been little surprise to see Ireland in position to make it four wins from four this weekend, and perhaps even clinch the title too, should results go their way, before targeting a first Grand Slam on home soil a week later against a transitional, fitful England.
However, it has been a shock that the team seemingly most likely to deny them are the Scots who, notwithstanding a narrow defeat in Paris, remain firmly in the hunt for silverware themselves.
Far from unnerving them, the uncertainty surrounding the head coach has apparently galvanised them.
From a position where the last World Cup humbling against Ireland was not the first time there were calls for Townsend’s removal, there is thinly disguised giddiness that he can now plot not one, but two major tournament successes against their superior Celtic cousins.
They have not managed that yet on Townsend’s watch and, given the circumstances that surrounded their last failure against Ireland, their seventh in succession, it is a wonder to many that he now has another opportunity to do so.
Ireland cruised to that win in Dublin last spring, claiming a sixth Triple Crown in total since the last time Scotland managed the feat, a now sepia-tinted 1990 when Jim Telfer led them to their most recent Grand Slam. But it was not the familiar wreckage of defeat that cast the longest shadow on the perennially brow-beaten Scots, rather the tawdry build-up, which had seen Townsend ditch a half-dozen players who decided to break curfew the previous weekend.
Included in their number was the team captain, Stuart Hogg, who had initiated the rules he helped to shatter, but also Finn Russell, the enigmatic out-half. Bizarrely, although all six were disciplined, the coach decided to prolong his ongoing sporting feud with Russell by axing him from his Irish plans.
However, by retaining his captain, it seemed a schism had now clearly split the squad, while the wider rugby public was also diffident about any conceivable future for either its team or their coach.
As for Russell, exiled in Paris, it now seemed impossible for him to find a way back into national favour once the distrusting Townsend was in charge.
One year on the landscape has utterly changed.
Townsend’s men are buoyant, a chippy Russell back in the fold but with the team no longer relying heavily on his wayward genius; if anything, their attack is functioning better than ever.
Townsend, the great survivor, has led teams that ended long streaks of misery – from Cardiff (first win in 18 years), to Paris (22) and Twickenham (38) and this year claimed his first win at the 12th attempt against a Warren Gatland-coached Wales.
They have always been capable of a one-off success but a consistent strain of mediocre Championship finishes has defined Scotland of late, as has their miserable record against Ireland; only once have they managed to get within seven points of them.
Defeat to the Irish, yet again, would render this campaign as undistinguished as any one of the predecessors overseen by the amiable 49-year-old.
And yet might it be possible that at the very tail-end of his time in charge, he finally delivers something of substance – a first ever win against a No 1-ranked side, as well as a novel chance of winning a title on the final day?
Ireland, the only European mountain remaining for Townsend to conquer, could represent a stunning late career bounce.