AT this time of year most sportswriters get the chance to make their predictions for the 12 months ahead. They used to be able to do that safe in the knowledge that readers of the print editions of their newspapers were unlikely to cut out those predictions and keep them for checking, but these days with the damned internet every sneaky little toerag can call up what you wrote a year ago and troll you for it.

That’s not going to happen to me, for a very good reason. As my bookmaker drives around in his top-of-the-range BMW, he can testify  – when he’s not laughing – to the worth of my predictions about the several sports in which I invest my readies, including rugby. In short, I’m leaving the prophecy business to Elijah, the Brahan Seer and Nostradamus.

What I will state are my wishes for the year ahead in rugby, and that’s an entirely different thing. Let’s start this week with the national men’s team and I’ll give you my wishes for the domestic game next week.

By any objective standards, Scotland had a decent 2021, with the away victories over England and France plus the defeat of Australia at Murrayfield being the highlights. And yet it could have been so much better with Scotland being just a few errors short of a Grand Slam in the Guinness Six Nations. Progress was undoubtedly made, but Gregor Townsend’s men did not and should not have peaked in 2021 – for it would have been too early, and 2022 will be the same.

My problem is that having watched Scotland for getting on for 50 years, I am only too aware that the national side does not do consistency in success. Had we seen the squad reach a plateau in the last 12 months, I believe they could not have sustained the winning habit, due probably to that frustrating Scottish penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as happened against Wales and Ireland at Murrayfield.

This may sound almost blasphemous, but I don’t want Scotland to win the Six Nations just yet. It would be nice to do so, but it would not guarantee further progress by Scotland into 2023, and it’s next year that is so much more important. I want us to be prepared to write off 2022, for the real test of Scotland will come in the World Cup in France next year when we will have to beat world champions South Africa or the current form team of Ireland in Pool B – preferably both – to ensure we progress to the quarter-finals. It’s all about taking steps towards then.

I believe that if the Scotland squad maintain their current progress, then they can get past the pool stage. Winning, or even just performing well in the Six Nations next year would be a good step up at the right confidence-boosting time prior to the biggest tournament which, I remind you, starts for Scotland with the first pool match against South Africa in the Stade Velodrome in Marseille on September 10 – just 20 months from now.

Prior to the World Cup, Scotland will need to improve much further. There can be no more fateful indiscipline, and the penalty count must be kept down. As for cards, I accept that refereeing standards can make this area of the game something of a lottery, but the answer is not to give referees or TMOs the opportunity for a dismissal.

Townsend has clearly decided on a Scottish way of playing and it is often thrilling, but there were signs last year that he is also instilling in the squad an ability to withstand the pressure that will always come in Test rugby, and also to exert pressure and manage the game when needed. The performance against England proved that, and the look of bewilderment on Eddie Jones’ face near the end was for me the highlight of the tournament.

What is truly satisfying is the number of new players that have been introduced into the Scotland squad and they will get plenty of chances to secure a World Cup place before the final line-up is announced. Yes, Scotland rely on our best players being injury-free, and perhaps we set too much store by Stuart Hogg, Ali Price, Finn Russell, Chris Harris, Duhan van der Merwe, Rory Sutherland, Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie, but if the starting XV for each Six Nations game includes these eight men, then I think we have an outstanding chance of outperforming last year’s display.

I wish Townsend and the squad all the best for 2022, but remain convinced that this year can only be about moving forward in an incremental way.

Above all I wish for this blasted virus to go away by the end of the year so that we can all look forward to a 2023 free of disease and full of great rugby, especially by Scotland.