January began with an improbable but thoroughly deserved 1872 Cup win for Edinburgh, after storming to victory over the Warriors in the Murrayfield leg in front of a record crowd. There was further gloom for Glasgow as they narrowly lost out on qualifying for the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup with a 5 point defeat to Bath at the Rec in the final pool match. As if to rub it in, Edinburgh topped their pool in the lower cup competition and went through to a quarter final against London Irish. Speaking of Bath and London Irish, Glasgow lost two of their big name players as Niko Matawalu and Sean Maitland announced departures to those clubs at the end of the season. Vern Cotter announced his first Six Nations squad and there were several raised eyebrows at the selection of New Zealand U20 Hugh Blake (uncapped even for Edinburgh) at the exclusion of the in form John Barclay. Also absent from the squad were Ryan Wilson and Ryan Grant. The former was found guilty on charges surrounding the assault of Ally Maclay in a Glasgow chip shop whilst dressed as Batman. Grant and Rory Hughes were returned a verdict of not proven. In Prem 1 the top three of Melrose, Ayr and Heriots all looked good for the play offs but the race for 4th place looked like any one of Gala, Hawick, Stirling County or Currie. At the bottom Accies, Boroughmuir and Hawks were struggling.
In February Wilson was banned from Glasgow for 3 months and from playing for Scotland until August – conveniently in time for the World Cup should he be required. Grant was called back to the Scotland camp, as attention moved to the happier thoughts of the impending Six Nations campaign and the opener against France. Happy, at least for 40 minutes after a spirited display in Paris caused France to shut up shop in the second half and Scotland were unable to keep on the right side of the ref or the scoreboard. It was a similar story against Wales with an even closer scoreline and some controversy as Finn Russell was yellow carded then banned for 2 weeks after he accidentally up-ended a high-flying Dan Biggar. With Richie Gray injured, Cotter hoovered up all the available locks to his squad. Glasgow’s second string hammered Zebre in Italy, ground out a vital home win over the Ospreys but then fell prey to Munster in Cork, while Edinburgh beat the Ospreys at Myreside then blew a 2 man advantage over Ulster and lost away against a ragged Cardiff. The month ended with the disastrous 6 Nations result against Italy which really blew away the hope/hype surrounding this squad and left Scotland all but certain of another Wooden Spoon with games against England and Ireland to come.
March saw Scotland pick up the pieces after a disastrous start to the Calcutta Cup and play probably the best 20 minutes of attacking rugby played by any side in the tournament to that point, but it didn’t last. Having led at half time, they scored no points in the second half to go down 25-13. Vern Cotter took on his old pal Joe Schmidt in the final match of the tournament at home to Ireland and came off distinctly second best as Ireland delivered a hammering and amassed enough points to claim the championship, but only just. That famous final day saw a swathe of attacking rugby by England, France, Ireland and Wales – and once again Scotland and Italy came off as poor relations. In between the internationals, Glasgow hammered Zebre again (this time at home) and Edinburgh won away in Treviso, both sides picking up bonus points and meaning that Glasgow stayed atop the league while Edinburgh grew closer to a real challenge for the desired 6th spot.
In April Glasgow drew with Leinster in Dublin after a first half deluge of tries that Leinster reciprocated onto their visitors in the second half before a battered Glasgow showed immense spirit to claim a deserved draw, setting up a gripping final few games of the PRO12 season. They also claimed back-to-back Melrose 7s titles led by Niko Matawalu and the impressive Fraser Lyle, while Edinburgh earned a place in the Euro Challenge Cup Semi against London Irish but stuttered in the league, not helped by some bungling (Scottish) officials gifting Munster a fictional try. Ben Robbins, Scotland U20 and Watsonians winger and Callum Hunter-Hill, the Scotland U18 and Stewart’s-Meville lock set off for New Zealand to be trained at the Canterbury RFU International High Performance Unit under the MacPhail Scholarship. Scotland’s World Cup started to look a little gloomy in midfield as first Mark Bennett and then Matt Scott joined Alex Dunbar on the injured list, requiring surgery.
May saw the much touted battle of the scrum-halves took place during the European Challenge Cup final between Edinburgh and Gloucester. The Cherry and Whites beat the Black and Red Army with Greig Laidlaw doing what he does best, and Sam Hidalgo Clyne sadly afforded little chance to do anything that would raise him in the pecking order. The Pro12 campaign drew to a close with Glasgow stuttering at the Ospreys, leaving themselves a lot to do against Ulster to secure a home semi. They managed it after 50 poor minutes when Stuart Hogg sparked a revival and Glasgow scored 4 tries to set that semi up against: Ulster. The rematch saw Glasgow play even more poorly but they held in there until Finn Russell conjured some magic to squeak them into the final, where they would face another Irish province, Munster. Thankfully the final was a different story as Glasgow dispatched Munster in some style, playing a style of fast-paced attacking rugby to which Paul O’ Connell and his men simply had no answer. Glasgow were crowned worthy champions for the first time and Al Kellock and Dougie Hall bade farewell in the best possible circumstances.
In June thoughts turned to the impending World Cup with the Scotland squad announced and several project signings came close to fruition as WP Nel and Josh Strauss were named among the rank and file. Otherwise life was quiet as the players took a rest ahead of the World Cup training camp later in the month. There was a parade in George Square for victorious Glasgow and the Under 20s struggled in Italy at the Junior World Cup. Several talents such as Zander Ferguson and Magnus Bradbury did manage to shine in the victory over Argentina.
July was pretty quiet as everyone was on holiday. Both pro sides announced signings to boost their squads ahead of the coming busy period. Down under, there were rumblings amongst the Pool-of-Death watchers ahead of the World Cup as both Australia and Fiji hit form in their warm up tournaments.
August saw international rugby return to the North as Scotland lost to Ireland in Dublin – but only just – and Australia claimed the Rugby Championship down under, then were hammered by the All Blacks in a “friendly” return fixture the next week. That match also saw Richie McCaw become the most capped player of all time. Everyone was warming up for the World Cup or the PRO12, and our pro teams took on Romania (win for Edinburgh) and Canada (narrow loss for Glasgow). Vern Cotter announced he was sticking around for another year to build something with Scotland, and followed the good news up with a narrow win over Italy in Turin followed by hammering them at home – a result a long time coming after several narrow tussles between the two sides.
Scotland sneaked into September with a narrow loss to France in Paris when they spurned a draw on offer. It was claimed simultaneously as a great result and a poor performance while being closer to neither, and with that the World Cup beckoned. A very similar trend continued into the early pool games, with Scotland starting both games very badly but turning things around in the second half to record comfortable bonus point wins against the USA and Japan, the magnificent giant killers of South Africa earlier in the round.
Needless to say when Scotland took on those same Springboks at the start of October, they were not nearly as charitable and our boys were given a bruising lesson in South African power. That was followed by the crunch game against Samoa, a qualification mired in controversy as Ross Ford and Jonny Gray were first banned then unbanned following a weekend that saw the retirement of Paul O’Connell, and Sean O’Brien only banned for week for a punch that had Al up in arms. The bans were overturned last minute to boost Scotland ahead of their heroic efforts in the quarter final against Australia, where they turned in their first 80 minute performance of the tournament and came within two minutes and a single point of a semi final. There was a little bit of controversy too, that saw Craig Joubert run away and perhaps never come back.
With the World Cup over for Scots, attention turned to the PRO12 where Alan Solomons’ Edinburgh were mounting a strong challenge but Glasgow, shorn of some 21 players for the previous two months, had stuttered and then struggled to re-integrate them. On the global stage, New Zealand won the World Cup but the Scots were rewarded for their progress with end of year nominations for Mark Bennett (Breakthrough Player) and Greig Laidlaw (World Player of the Year). And Edinburgh finally secured the signature of free-agent John Hardie, only to lose Dave Denton to Bath.
November saw the weather close in and the start of European competition. Edinburgh were again impressive in the Challenge Cup while in the Champions Cup Glasgow’s opening game was postponed by the horrific events in Paris and their second match against Northampton at Scotstoun was horror of a more trivial, sporting kind.
December saw the back-to-back double-headers in Europe as Glasgow put a combined margin of 40 points on the Scarlets while Edinburgh were miserable at London Irish but eked out a win at Murrayfield to leave both sides with a chance going in to the New Year. As Christmas came and went, the first leg of the 1872 Cup took place and the honours went to Edinburgh as Glasgow continued to misfire, bringing a mix of the sublime and the indisciplined while the team in Black and Red continue to exact set-piece dominance allied to the stingiest of defences. As the year drew to a close, Gunners stalwart Roddy Grant announced a knee injury had ended his career still short of a first full cap and Glasgow were forced to move their “home” 1872 leg back down the M8… to Edinburgh.
Hero of the year: The SRU waited 3 years to get Cheetahs tighthead WP Nel qualified for Scotland, and although he had a mixed start at Edinburgh, when the time came to pull on the navy blue he repaid all the faith placed in him and then some. Consistently a top performer (and try scorer) for Edinburgh this season, it’s been a case of “more of the same” for Scotland and in the World Cup alongside Dickinson and Ford he put paid to several front row units including the resurgent Wallaby scrum. Honourable mentions: it was very close between him and Edinburgh’s other big import John Hardie, and you can’t overlook the consistent leadership and kicking contributions of Greig Laidlaw over a year where Scotland never quite lived up to their individual promise but finally started hanging on in the big games. And don’t forget, Finn Russell was almost unknown outside Scotland at the start of the year…
Villain of the year: Really it has to be a joint tie between Craig Joubert and whoever called the silly lineout move that put the ref in that position come the end of the nail-biting quarter final against Australia.
Moment of the year: Mark Bennett‘s try against Australia to put them into the lead by a point. Haven’t roared like that in a pub in a long time!
New Year Wish: please, can we have a Six Nations performance to be proud of?