Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


A Complete* History of Scottish Rugby

John Barclay
John Barclay scores for Scotland vs Australia - pic © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography Photo Credit: Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

*as represented by a squiggly line and some guesswork. Terms and conditions may apply. Please read this blog responsibly. Or not.

Fellow ruggers website Rugby4Cast took a look at the pre-World Cup form guide earlier in the month, by analysing the win rates of the Rugby World Cup winning teams in the years leading up to those wins. Then they looked at the same metric for the top rugby nations across the last 3 years to see if that helps to figure out who will win the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Scotland’s graph looked about as reasonable as you’d expect (vaguely upwards after 2015), to which your correspondent scoffed and said – yeah but what about the noughties? Could we learn anything about the current team by looking at the past?

Armed with some figures from ESPN Scrum and a spreadsheet, here is our own graph of the Scotland rugby team win rate throughout the Rugby World Cup era, since 1987. It encompasses some of our glory years (1990, 1999), the advent of professionalism (and Nelson Mandela) in 1995 and plenty of dross before the current purple patch.

Just as well winning isn’t everything, eh?

Scotland Rugby Win Percentages since 1987 – © Scottish Rugby Blog

You can click to see a larger version (opens in new tab). Orange markers indicate Rugby World Cup years and coaches initials are in the year they took charge.This link should get you to the data with the query pre-defined if you want a closer look.

What is initially the most striking is how wildly inconsistent Scotland were at the dawn of the professional era, going from years where they won a lot, to hardly at all. 1994 was the nadir, with a Win/Loss/Draw record of 0/6/1 (7%= 1/2 a win). Yet the next year was one of the best.

The biggest change has been an improvement in those differences as the cone of peaks and troughs narrows towards the present day. Scotland gradually became more consistent year to year, but it’s worth noting that cone was narrowing to a point around 40-45%. Had it settled there, Scotland would be competitive but regularly lose more than they won.

To change that trend, Scotland needed to build an assembly line of winners.

A closer look at the top 10

Of the 32 years covered, there are only 11 years where Scotland have won more than they have lost and so the top 10 really are about the best years we’ve seen in this period – the others were all “losing” or “drawing” years, bar 1991.

Year GamesWLD%FAPDTr

The Grand Slam in 1990 should perhaps not have been too surprising, given their high win rate the previous year (topping the table) too, but the number of games played in an international season has risen since those days which makes it relatively harder to achieve now (unless you are New Zealand). Those still remain our highest peaks in this era (the win rate in Grand Slam year 1984 was 66.66% from 6 games, if you are interested).

There are three out of the first four World Cup years present in the 10 best years, which suggests that playing extra fixtures against Tier 2 sides in a year perhaps boosted the score a bit, but as the general standard of world rugby (and World Cups) has improved over time this has had less effect.

To fans, 1999 feels like some sort of stylistic peak at the try-scoring Five Nations Championship-winning side (who also made the quarters of the World Cup) but there was an extra pre-quarters knockout round against Samoa in those days.

In 1995, the year the game turned professional, Scotland actually won more games and came much closer to a World Cup semi. In 1991 Scotland finished a record 4th in the World Cup but the year overall is no great shakes based on looking just at win-rate.

What might surprise is the absence here of 2015 which was by far our best effort at a recent World Cup – but which was counteracted by an awful 6 Nations; Scotland went into that World Cup with only 2 warm-up wins over Italy to their name, out of 9 matches…

This perhaps goes to show that purely looking at win-rate isn’t going to reflect World Cup performance, especially with other factors like the peculiar psychology of the 6 Nations or a new coaching regime also having an effect.

New Coach Bounce

Hot take: Vern Cotter is the only coach not to have had a positive upward impact in the year he took over.

Matt Williams technically took over in December 2003 but presided over no games until 2004. However Cotter’s influence looks like it could be ultimately more valuable, as that 2015 Rugby World Cup was a turning point: if you drew a sort of cone along the high and low points on the graph, the clearest conclusion is that as of about 2016, Scottish rugby started bucking the trend of “more consistent, but heading for a 50/50 ratio” and entered new territory.

Most encouraging is the presence of the last three years in this top ten. This represents the first time since that 1990s heyday where Scotland have kept a win rate above 50% for 3 years running. A fourth year with a win rate above 50% for 2019 would make them the most consistently successful Scottish team of the modern era, silverware notwithstanding.

Maybe the current group of players really could be as good as the 1990 side or Toony’s 1999 generation?

Forward to 2019

Another consideration is the success of other teams relative to us: France haven’t managed to get above 40% in the last three years so this could be a chance to pick up a couple of wins against them. On the other hand Ireland had win rates of 54.1, 81.8 and 91.66% which means Scotland would be heavy underdogs even at home.

The All Blacks haven’t dropped below 82% since 2009. That’s what a great team looks like, so it is clear Scotland are currently a good team but not much more yet.

Even without a World Cup quarter-final spot – still a hefty assumption – to achieve a winning record in 2019 Scotland would need to win 7 or more of the 13 games we know about, and only 5 are at BT Murrayfield:

Ita, Ire, Fra, Wal, Eng | Geo, Fra, Fra, Geo | Ire, Sam, Rus, Jap

That’s a big ask purely in terms of game time and the physical toll it will take on our front-line players, but one for which the current crop of players should be ready. A word of warning before you make your lists of which ones we’re off to win: the only two years Scotland have played more than 12 tests were 2003 and 2015 and both years saw success rates of under 40%.

The question is, now we are going in the right direction, can Scotland’s upward trend continue in this World Cup year and beyond?

19 Responses

  1. Great article, Rory. It would be interesting to compare these statistics with how many otherwise 1st 15 or 1st 23 players were injured for a majority of each year to see whether there’s a correlation between major injuries and lower win rates.

    Even though our 2000-15 generations are much maligned, we actually had some very good players, particularly in the forwards and scrum half. The difference is that our vastly improved professional system is now bringing through many more quality players in almost all positions due to structural/financial/coaching/academy changes. Among other benefits, this means we can absorb injuries far better than we used to. Ireland have done the same, only they’re further along and have four strong provinces compared to our two.

    1. Agree with this, the academies seem to be churning out players significantly better than some of the mainstays of that period. For example we are worlds away from a backline like:

      Di Rollo

      Don’t get me wrong there is talent in there and some great servants to Scottish rugby during a bleak period but we have much, much greater depth in the backs these days and much more x-factor to boot.

      Mind you imagine our current pack with the addition of the likes of Jason White, Nathan Hines and Simon Taylor…

      Interesting and thought provoking article.

      1. Yes. We are in a different era. The previous one was bleak in many ways but I do feel sorry for players from that era, many of whom I’m sure read forums/articles like we do and will regularly see themselves casually and generically dismissed as an embarrassment. This is deeply unfair on the players who were top-class and also those who weren’t, the vast majority of whom were doing their best within a struggling, debt-ridden national structure which could never quite pull itself out of the mire (at least relative to other unions). How many of those players would have thrived in 2019, I wonder?

        Edinburgh’s revival seems to be a similar story of recurring despair/doldrums to revitalisation.

        Hats off to everyone who’s played a part in transforming the fortunes of Scottish rugby, including those from the 2000-2015 era, who knew we could be far better and are making it happen step by step.

      2. This is just an opinion , the data can be interpreted in many ways however you would need to be able to overlay other nations to make a meaningful comparrison.

        Other nations will be able to look back and see similar patterns , for example how will Wales feel looking at the days of Scott Quinnell compared to now. It is unfair to compare players, only last night over dinner some english lads thought a standout player was Euan Murray ! He demolished the opposition long before WP. (To see ourselves as others see us might be an interesting theme coming uP to Burns day Rory)

        Different rules, set up, feed structure, registered players per nation ,coaching even pay and rumuneration. My point is everyting was changing around us as well.

        World ranking might be one other addition to the graph however it can move through the season.

        I dont think we need statistics to tell us that we have depth in almost every position. We argue over team selection weekly, would be one evidence of this.

        Our difficulty is keeping up with changes and competition. We have the lowest registered playing base in the whole of the 6 nations . Which is good as there is room for developing players to reach their peak, however remains a challenge as we need to fund it. We have 2 pro teams to showcase these players and demographically that is as much as we can sustain. I think a major benefit we have today has been the BT funding.

        Liek it or not, Glasgow need to be competing in order to draw kids from football to rugby . This is where the majority of our population resides and they , up till recently, knew little of rugby. Talk to any taxi driver in the west these days and they not only know about football, they know about rugby and not just the 6 nations.

        In short, I am not sure what this is telling us in isolation. Good article and long may the opinions it generates continue.

  2. “A word of warning before you make your lists of which ones we’re off to win”

    I think at least one regular poster will not only be making lists of which games we’ll win, but also squads for each game in the coming year…

    Interesting article, and it’s good to see that the variance in our performance is reducing, even if the peaks are reducing, too. I guess it’s like more process things: you get stability then increase performance. And, a couple of freak results aside, our losses now are largely of our own making – e.g. against the US, Ireland in 2018, Wales in the 2018 AIs, SA – or close (and, if we’re being a wee bit childish, totally unjust), such as against NZ.

    It also appears that the difference between a good performance and a bad performance nowadays is more mental than to do with skills or physicality, or even quality of players.

    My hope is that Toonie will stop experimenting quite so much and start picking a more settled side who can really start to gel ahead of the RWC. One of the causes of Glasgow’s recent form has surely got to be the tombola-esq. nature of Rennie’s selections (9 centre combinations in half a season?!), so it would be interesting to see if less variety in selections results in less variance in results.

  3. One of my concerns for 2019 and the world cup is whether France are the best team to be playing against in the warm up games.
    The teams we struggle against tend to be those with really well drilled, press defences – Ireland, Wales, England particularly.
    We know we can play well in open, unstructured games and this is what we will be up against with France.
    We really need to find a way to get on top of the tough defending teams and break them down, rather than kicking away all our possession when we run out of ideas in attack.
    Defensively, we also need to tighten up and cut out the basic errors. It’s ok to concede tries from good attacking play, but we give away far too many soft ones.
    If we can beat – or at least get parity with – England, Ireland or Wales in these areas in the 6N, it will give us a massive psychological boost ahead of the world cup.

    1. I see your point but we are playing Ireland, Wales and England before the world cup and we probably need to keep something up our sleeves for the Ireland game in the world cup. If we could beat England at Twickenham for the first time in a generation then I would say we are ready.

  4. Interesting article.

    Ironically, by starting in the first World Cup year, it just misses Scotland’s best year to date since the Second World War (1986) where an 80% win ratio was achieved…and only a controversial refereeing decision or two in Cardiff denied Scotland a Grand Slam and a 100% win record.

    There’s no doubt we are a world away from the dark days of much of the early part of this century but it’s certainly true that many of the individual forwards of that era (Murray, Hines, Taylor, White) would revel in our current setup. It just goes to show what the right systems, coaching and the momentum gained from winning in pro team rugby can lead to at international level, including age group level, where our relative success over the next 5 years or so is (sadly) completely unprecedented.

    Depending on the way that one looks at it, the huge volume of players from the 2016 U20s already playing pro rugby (or who’ve also played for Scotland) for example either shows that

    1) The best young domestic players are better than ever before, and
    2) They are being brought effectively into the pro team environments ; or
    3) The journey is now self fulfilling…if you haven’t made it into the age group setup by 16/17 then you can more or less forget playing professional rugby

    1. There are still opportunities for late developers but there is no doubt that the increasing professionalisation of the youth pathways acts as a barrier to those excluded. I think it both prepares young players for pro rugby more effectively and makes it harder for those not selected for acadies. Like it or not, the Super 6 is designed to mitigate this and bridge the gap between pro rugby and club rugby. Will we get a chance to see if it works?

    2. 3 is wrong – especially with the regional academies now.

      Rugby is a late stage development sport.

      1. Not sure that’s true – can you even name 5 domestic players who’ve made the step up to playing pro rugby in the last five years that weren’t in the Scotland U18 setup, far less U20s?

  5. To be fair to the much maligned Hadden and Robinson era, it seems to be when the ship was turned about…compare the overall decline through our highly vaunted Geech/Telfer era…They inherited a lot of problems.

    Over 10 years, I’m not sure how much is “coaching” versus “structural” changes, but a long term national coach should have strong input on structure anyway.

    1. Not sure it was turned around then.

      More of a succession of

      1) Dodson appointed
      2) Townsend appointed coach of Glasgow
      3) SJ appointed D0R
      4) Vern Cotter appointed as Scotland coach
      5) U20s set-up overhauled and the age group coaching set up and structure improved
      6) Rennie and Cockerill being appointed at the two pro teams
      7) The best young players largely bypassing community rugby and moving straight into the pro rugby environment.

  6. Good article. If someone has the time it would be good to get a post or article on the players who came through at club level during the 2015 World Cup. From memory it was when guys like Grigg, Johnson and Cummings started getting game time at Glasgow. They are now core players for Glasgow and fringe Scotland players. Interesting to see what young players take the opportunity this time. E.g- Grant Stewart likely to get a prolonged run of games (this run of games has been rather forced rather than planned!), same too for McDowall. Crosbie at Edinburgh, perhaps Bradbury to get a good run of games if not involved with Scotland. Same with M Fagerson- both with the opportunity to develop leadership?

    Anyone got any thoughts on other players who might get pro rugby game time whilst the international boys are away for a a long period of time? Sure Cockers is planning that his entire pack plus the prop bench options will be away.

    Of course I am assuming the pro14 will start during the World Cup- haven’t actually checked that’s the case!

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Scottish Rugby News and Opinion