Less than four months ago, Ian McGeechan was in two minds as to whether Chris Paterson could shoulder the dead weight of responsibility as an international outside-half. Yesterday, that same Paterson was awarded the captaincy of a Scotland side in transition. The 25-year-old Edinburgh player will lead his country against Wales in Cardiff tomorrow week - the fixture marks the start of a Six Nations Championship campaign that many expect to mark a low point in Scottish fortunes - and, if he prospers, he can expect to keep the job for the Calcutta Cup match against England at Murrayfield on 21 February.
Paterson was in serious danger of fading from view as a player without a position. He should have made the 2001 Lions tour of Australia as a full-back but failed to find a way past the Bath pairing of Matt Perry and Iain Balshaw. He then found himself on the wing, where he came across as a uniquely dangerous figure desperately in need of something to be dangerous about.
It was not until the business end of the World Cup that McGeechan, no mean judge of a player but strangely hesitant in his dealings with his most gifted attacking back, finally fell into line with the rest of the rugby universe and picked Paterson at No 10.
That Matt Williams, the Australian who succeeded McGeechan as the national coach in November, should have gone much further down the road at the earliest available opportunity is striking indeed. Williams described Paterson as an "outstanding character" who, by demonstrating an ability to handle the pressure of life at stand-off, had proved his readiness for a still more influential role. He also lauded his captain's teetotalism as a "great example" to both the team and the country. Rumours that prominent Scottish leaders of the past - Finlay Calder, for instance - also abstained for the sake of the nation have never been widely believed.
For his part, Paterson said he was "deeply honoured" by Williams' decision. He might also have expressed some surprise. At the official tournament launch in London on Wednesday, Williams was accompanied by the long-serving Glasgow hooker Gordon Bulloch, whose presence appeared to establish him as a clear favourite for the captain's job.
"Gordon went to the launch as a senior player," Williams explained. "I was quite up-front about that. Besides, I was certainly not going to make an announcement on the Scottish captaincy in England."
Bulloch has been installed as Paterson's vice-captain and is certain to start against Wales, as are the likes of Simon Taylor, Tom Smith and Nathan Hines. There is still, however, considerable uncertainty as to the shape of Scotland's full starting line-up.
Derrick Lee, back to his elusive best at full-back, is challenging for a place, as is the outstanding young back-rower from Edinburgh, Allister Hogg. Williams must also choose between Stuart Grimes and a resurgent Scott Murray at lock, and select two centres from Andrew Henderson, Brendan Laney, Gareth Morton and Tom Philip.
* The Ireland captain, Brian O'Driscoll, is on course to appear in the Six Nations opener against France after being named in a 22-man squad. The Lions centre has been suffering from a hamstring tear he picked up on Heineken Cup duty for Leinster last month, but he has responded well to treatment, and the Ireland coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, said: "We always knew that Brian's case was going to go down to the wire. We want to give him every chance to play but we won't take risks. The decision will be made in the middle of next week at the earliest."Reuse content