The corner is long. Very long. But could it be that last weekend gave Scottish rugby the first true glimpse of a better road ahead?
For too long Scotland fans (ok, me!) have convinced themselves that better times are just round the corner, that the squad is coming together and the next Six Nations will see the team click together and challenge for silver trophies rather than wooden spoons. These predictions have, without fail, been quickly dashed – often within the first 20 minutes of the first game, when it’s evident the same failings are still there. These are the same failings that saw Scotland head home from the World Cup before most of the fans. The full gamut of Scottish shortcomings were there for all to see – an inability to convert pressure, lost composure at key moments and poor decision making. For us travelling fans it was like watching a repeat of previous horrors; all too familiar.
Fast forward two months and suddenly the doom appears to be lifting from Scottish rugby. Despite a poor start Edinburgh seem to be picking up form and results, whilst Glasgow are now on a hot streak that has seen them solidify as a top end Pro12 team. This last weekend is probably as fine a weekend that Scottish rugby has had in a long time. One victory would have been good and could have been written off as a fluke, but four positive results (Heineken Cup and British & Irish Cup) appear to point to a more sustained and widespread progression.
Edinburgh were worthy winners against a workmanlike London Irish side and were unlucky not to walk away with a try bonus point. Glasgow scored the tries in their game and fought like dogs until the last whistle – too often that sort of bounce of the ball goes against Scottish teams but on the day they made their luck and deserved the win. Both Melrose and Ayr battled to one point victories and points to a mental strength not always evident in Scotland sides.
The real joy of the weekend though was not the victories (although they were very satisfying) but the emergence to the casual viewer of not just one, but a handful of potential stars of the future. The Scottish dearth of talent at 10 may, finally, coming to an end with both Leonard and Weir putting in good displays. Weir, in particular, looks like he is potentially banging on the national team door and by the time of the Six Nations he could be positively kicking the door down. Leonard, in what is only his 3rd start at pro level, was creative and, whilst not always precise, seemed to have an ability to play the game as it sat in front of him and not just by the agreed game plan. Elsewhere the weekend saw a few other stand-outs – Scott and McInally – both put in brilliant performances and both should grow from last weekends performances. Over at Glasgow Hogg and Harley stood out, Hogg picking a great line to waltz through the Bath defence for his first score for Glasgow. Not forgetting the big man Richie Gray; in a week where he has had to explain (justify?) his upcoming move to Sale he stood tall, hit hard and pounced to deliver a brilliant finish. He’ll be missed from the Scottish game but he’ll be a stand-out in the Premiership and that can only help boost the standing of the Scottish game.
So, after a weekend where the green shoots of recovery seemed to finally break through the permafrost that is Scottish rugby, where do we go now? Well, the immediate focus goes back to the Heineken Cup with Glasgow’s trip to Leinster and Edinburgh hosting the Parisians Racing Metro. There is a need to build off last weeks result, Glasgow need to keep it close when they go to Ireland – they won there earlier in the season so there should be no fear. Edinburgh, with their first home match in the competition, have the opportunity to really announce themselves on the European stage. If they can win on Friday they will have effectively knocked Racing Metro out of the competition and given themselves the best opportunity to progress to the knock out stages for the first time since 2003. In the medium term the hope will be for the young players to continue cutting their teeth in the Pro12 and, for some, try and push their way in the reckoning for the Scotland team for next years Six Nations. They have the ability but they need to maintain the consistency. In the long run we can only hope that this is not just an aligning of the stars and an exceptional group of players coming through together at the same time but rather the first signs that changes made at junior and grass roots levels are taking hold and this indicated improvement is sustainable. It’s certainly nice to be able to talk positively about Scottish rugby for a change!