Having seen off Glasgow home and away either side of Christmas, Edinburgh headed into 2019 in buoyant spirit while Glasgow started with a loss to Benetton.
Things would change.
Dave Rennie’s Warriors looked back towards the Heineken Champions Cup to avoid their season being derailed by the 1872 Cup losses, while Edinburgh were in with a genuine chance of making the knockout stages too. Edinburgh pulled off a famous win in Toulon and another against Vern Cotter’s Montpellier that sent both Scottish teams through a day early.
Celebrations were short-lived as both sides, heavily depleted by international call-ups, promptly lost in the PRO14. Edinburgh’s playoff chances in particular suffered a huge setback as a result.
The biggest thing in rugby at least in every non-World Cup year, the newly-christened (again) Guinness Six Nations rolled around in February. This year it was aiming to double up as something of a form guide for the wider rugby world, with Ireland hotly tipped to do well in Japan and tournament favourites here too. That all changed when England gave them a hell of a shock at the Aviva – now suddenly England were favourites for the World Cup.
Gregor Townsend announced a Scotland squad hit by injury troubles as first up Scotland welcomed Italy and dispatched them in reasonably confident style for 70 minutes – before conceding 3 soft tries late on, with all our leaders off the pitch.
On-field decision making would be a theme for the year.
There was a similar second-half problem against holders Ireland, who stretched a 2 point lead at half time into a comfortable 13-22 win. It was largely due to Scottish errors, tiredness from constantly battering through the phases (without scoring) and a decidedly mixed refereeing performance by Roman Poite. It did not bode well for the showdown in Yokohama to come later in the year.
After a two week break in which Stuart Hogg, Huw Jones and Finn Russell were all lost to injury – Finn while playing back for Racing92 in Paris and Hogg following Peter O’Mahony’s reckless (ie should have been a penalty at the minimum) elbow in the Ireland game – Scotland travelled to France where they hadn’t won since 1999. Hogg and Russell would come back, but Huw Jones’s year never really recovered.
Despite our makeshift team, expectations were still decent against a French team who had played miserably against England. Needless to say, they showed up for about the only time in the tournament and beat a Scotland team still looking devoid of ideas, scoring 4 tries – and having another 4 disallowed by the TMO.
The Six Nations shifted into the final stages with the two toughest games against Wales and England still left on the fixture list. Wales dominated Scotland defensively and despite a spirited second-half fightback led by Hamish Watson, and newcomer Darcy Graham’s first try for Scotland, they couldn’t overhaul a Welsh team supremely settled in their defensive systems.
Warren Gatland returned back to Cardiff on the trail of a Grand Slam farewell – which he would later achieve – never having lost to Scotland with Wales (Rob Howley was in charge in 2017, although Gatland did lose to Scotland as Ireland coach).
Scotland, having also now lost Blair Kinghorn and Tommy Seymour to injury, faced the prospect of heading to Twickenham in far worse shape than the side that lost so poorly in 2017. Following the reversal of hopes in Paris, optimism was not high, and things were looking worse than awful at 31-0 down (England with a try bonus) after half an hour. That was without the injuries or cards that had cost them dearly the last time under Vern Cotter. In short, excuses were few for an opening half hour in which England seemed able to score almost at will.
Fairy tales are increasingly rare in professional rugby, but somehow Scotland managed to score 6 tries after that point. It was 31-7 by half time but that felt like an act of defiance; not the start of one of the most incredible comebacks test rugby has ever seen. Tries from Darcy Graham (2), Bradbury and Russell saw the Scots level it at 31-31. They then took the lead with three minutes to play after another bit of Finn Russell magic and Sam Johnson powered over.
Ultimately earlier missed kicks (2 conversions and a penalty) cost them a winning margin; George Ford responded with England’s final try in the 84th minute after a series of penalty advantages Scotland seemed unable to prevent. The improbable result was not to be.
Given the gloom at the start, scoring more tries than anyone ever has against England at Twickenham, earning a draw (some called it the greatest draw in test rugby history) and retaining the Calcutta Cup for the first time in years was probably a decent reward. But once again: they should have closed it out.
Scotland Women and U20s also closed the book on pretty dismal showings, both finishing bottom of the table in their tournaments although the U20s did manage a spirited win against Wales.
After that quick fillip for the senior side, hopes were high that the pro teams would kick on and thrive in Europe. So, of course, Edinburgh were Munstered out of a game they could have won while Saracens simply had too much power for Glasgow at the Allianz, despite an early score by Ali Price that showed the visitors at their best. That ended the European challenge for another year.
As spring weather threatened to roll around at last, attention was turning to the PRO14 run-in and signings for the 2019/2020 season, which would be heavily truncated at the start by the Rugby World Cup.
Edinburgh signed a raft of players and announced them all on one day (good) but then couldn’t string together the results to get themselves into either the PRO14 playoffs or the Champions Cup (bad).
Having finally discovered their mojo after the chastening by Sarries, Glasgow dispatched their closest rivals with ease in the 3rd 1872 leg (by then a dead rubber) but were still short on big names putting pen to paper, a theme that continues today. Rumours swirled about Aaron Cruden pitching up in the west end but were later debunked. At least, a good bunch of academy prospects were tied down to new deals but it was another year where it looks like the west of the country were being hard done by in terms of their squad.
With Europe over and Edinburgh denied the playoffs, there was a lot less rugby to watch in May. There were however lots of announcements: Sevens coach John Daziell joined Glasgow as forwards coach with two games left in the season, while Scotland U20s coach Carl Hogg was announced as Ospreys coach just before the Junior World Championships to take place in June. The Ospreys would end up in a hell of a mess by year’s end, with Hogg one of the few coaches still in place. Maybe he should have stayed put?
Warren Gatland was announced as the next Lions coach as all of Scotland searched frantically for that meme of Jean-Luc Picard shaking his head, a heavily French panel of referees was announced for the World Cup, and Toony announced his expanded training squad for the same event, including new faces Rory Hutchinson and Blade Thomson.
Judging by their Instagram accounts, Edinburgh all went off on holiday while Glasgow tried to prepare for potentially two home games in Glasgow against Irish opposition. They dispatched Ulster with surprising ease by 50-20 to progress to the final at Celtic Park against Champions Cup Runners up Leinster.
Of the two, Glasgow had suffered the worse beating at the hands of Saracens but would that mean anything? Leo Cullen tried to drum up support from Celtic fans by pulling the playground move of suggesting the Glasgow players were all Rangers fans but it’s doubtful it did anything to affect the 46K+ fans who rocked up to the game, only some 3,000 less than the Scottish Cup final at Hampden earlier in the day.
The rain put a bit of a dampener on the occasion as Leinster did little wrong while Glasgow did just a few things wrong. As is typical against very good sides, that was enough to make the difference in Stuart Hogg’s last game for Glasgow. It ended 15-18, and as usual there was some controversy about Irish players taking Scottish players (or just Hoggy) out and not being sufficiently punished. That did perhaps undermine the excellence and experience of Leinster that won it for them on a pretty special occasion for the city.
June was largely uneventful in the senior game but the Junior World Championships took place in Argentina. A tough group consisting of Georgia, NZ and SA saw the U20s straight into the dangerous bottom 4 playoffs and after a horrid match against Italy in torrential rain where catching the ball was barely an option, they were well beaten by an effervescent and physical Fiji side in the final game and duly relegated from the top tier Junior World Champs competition into the second level.
Having come close to promotion to the World Sevens Series in Hong Kong earlier in the year, the womens 7s team became the first invited team to win a World Series match in Biarritz to show that with further investment, they could be not far away from a place on the circuit.
In the corridors of power, rumblings about SRU governance and oversight continued with more reviews and reports into how the game is run, while a major sponsorship with Johnnie Walker was announced. It was also confirmed that the Edinburgh back pitches stadium development was mired in local red tape, at least according to the SRU who were clearly trying to use the court of public/media opinion to swing things in their direction – a tactic that would backfire fairly spectactularly a few months later in Japan. The new ground would finally be given the go ahead in September, leaving Edinburgh using the big pitch for another season at least.
Even less happened in July but Cammy launched both a text based role-playing game and an unofficial World Cup song on the podcast featuring our own John on drums as an added bonus. Doddie Weir described it as “mad”. But the song went on to raise £307 for Doddie’s Foundation – thanks to everyone that bought it.
The summer warm up games kicked off with drubbing in Nice followed by a much better win at home over France – it was a close game though – with a completely different team, but without ever looking too comfortable. Until half time in the second game there were no injuries to worry about – then Sam Skinner did his hamstring; the first World Cup casualty. Tim Swinson was called up as training fodder without any real sense that he could challenge for a spot in the final squad – perhaps why Richie Gray declined to attend in the same capacity.
There followed an easy win against Georgia in a stadium that wasn’t quite filled with the baying masses (all itching to get into the Six Nations) that we’d been expecting/promised.
It was a reasonable run of games, but the failure to prepare for the first (away) fixture should have perhaps set alarm bells ringing.
Following the third summer test the final cuts to the squad were made and Townsend forewent the tombola for a group that was actually reasonably easy to predict. World Cup dreams were shattered for Rory Hutchinson and Huw Jones, a decision that looked a little like depriving his midfield of its two biggest attacking threats. Other names to miss out included Jamie Bhatti, Matt Fagerson and Josh Strauss – who almost immediately signed as short term World Cup cover for Stade Francais until his final move to the Blue Bulls.
Also missing out were Grant Stewart and Magnus Bradbury, who gamely stepped up to play in the final warm up despite having no ticket to Japan at the end of it. Scotland again defeated the Georgians comfortably. Bradbury was rewarded almost immediately with a temporary call-up as cover for Jamie Ritchie, the most serious of five injures picked up in that final game.
The team departed in short order – the day after Toony undertook a fundraising mission to play a hole on every golf course in the Borders – and begun the tricky process of acclimatising to the heat, dodging typhoons in some kind of real life Banderscotch.
Attention turned to the main event.
With quicker than usual evaporation of our hopes, Scotland almost completely failed to turn up in the opening game against world number one ranked Ireland. The Irish were very good but very dull, while Scotland were just very bad despite putting out what looked like our strongest team.
For the second time in a few weeks, no tries scored and no shots fired – but this time it wasn’t a friendly, and the World Cup prospects were in serious trouble.
It was a very worrying wake up call for Scotland fans. That result on some level justified almost everything ever said in Six Nations punditry or debate over Lions selections about our players – had the blinkers finally come off?
A rejigged team nilled Samoa – who turned out not to be a banana skin for anyone in the tournament, not even Japan. Their tournament was almost as poor as ours.
Back in Europe and South Africa the PRO14 had kicked off, but no one was really paying attention other than to soothe rugby withdrawal in the off days between World Cup games.
Scotland Women finished off a fine summer/autumn series with a second win over South Africa, a nice end to their season ahead of World Cup qualification matches in 2020.
Over in Japan, the “seconds” led by John Barclay and with Adam Hastings and George Horne running the show ripped Russia apart, and again didn’t concede any tries. With Hamish Watson at home but Bradbury and Ritchie two of the few standouts for the first choice XV, it would be Barclay’s last game for Scotland.
Typhoon Hagibis threatened to cancel the final pool game and despite doing a lot of damage elsewhere in the region, Mark Dodson’s hints of legal action against World Rugby probably did more damage to Scotland’s rep in the immediate vicinity of Yokokhama. The game went on as planned in front of a full crowd, Japan played for their country and Scotland for their survival and reputation.
Scotland lost, despite glimmers of a Twickenham-style fightback led by the tighthead props, of all people. The on-field reputation survived, just, but not many were sad to see us go.
Back down to earth with a bump, the PRO14 resumed for Scottish fans with Edinburgh and Glasgow going in opposite directions without their internationals. Edinburgh’s new signings proved useful and they got off to a great start. Glasgow still didn’t have any new signings and Rennie wouldn’t pick Huw Jones despite glimmers he might have found some form after the disappointment of not going to Japan.
In England, Saracens were spanked hard by Premier rugby for breaching the salary cap and everyone on Twitter started trying to figure out how to bring Duncy Taylor and Sean Maitland home. The SRU were spanked hard by World Rugby for Dodson’s comments in Japan but eventually it fizzled out as the SRU took their medicine after a face-saving (they thought) spell of initial defiance.
European competitions started with Glasgow in Heineken Champions Cup action and Edinburgh in Challenge Cup action, both winning the first round then losing and drawing the second respectively.
As had been rumoured since Scott Johnson left his post at Murrayfield for the Wallabies earlier in the year, Dave Rennie was announced as the new Australia coach and Scotland forwards coach Danny Wilson was shuffled over to Glasgow, leaving Gregor Townsend to find a new forwards coach after the Six Nations.
After a win over Munster in Cork for Edinburgh and a dispiriting loss to Leinster seconds at home, attention turned right back to Europe and the 1872 Cup to follow.
Early in the month John Barclay, Tommy Seymour and Greig Laidlaw all announced their retirement from test rugby, meaning 207 caps worth of experience would be missing from the Scotland ranks for the coming year.
The well thought of Scotland/Glasgow attack coach Jason O’Halloran joined Rennie in moving on from Glasgow at the end of the season, while NSW Waratahs defence coach Steve Tandy was announced as a replacement for Matt Taylor who left to join Rennie in Australia.
Edinburgh beat Wasps home and away to get into pole position in their pool while Glasgow won in France but fizzled out to La Rochelle at Scotstoun, a result that seriously damaged their already slim hopes of making it to the knockout stages.
Aside from rumours of a short term deal for Leone Nakarawa – fired by Racing92 for staying home after the World Cup for too long – Christmas cheer was in short supply for the Warrior Nation. Usually out of sight by Christmas, their league and European challenges were already in big trouble by the festivities. It meant that the 1872 Cup leg at home was a must win, and the Warriors obliged with a hard fought victory, but it was a turgid spectacle that saw 5 yellow cards issued by referee Ben Blain.
The return fixture at BT Murrayfield was played in front of a record crowd and was a much brighter affair, with excellent tries by Darcy Graham and Huw Jones giving all sides something to cheer as the Six Nations loomed in the calendar. Edinburgh ran out bonus point winners to bring the year to a close.
It was far from vintage and there were several massive disappointments, but as usual a couple of decent showings by key players (Finn Russell continues to show blinding verve in France, Stuart Hogg has settled in nicely at Exeter, while Rory Hutchinson and Matt Scott are also playing brilliantly in the centre) will fill us with the usual optimism, at least until the Six Nations starts.
Happy New Year!
Scottish Rugby Blog Editors XV of the Year: Maitland, Kinghorn, Hutchinson, Scott, Graham, Russell, G Horne; Schoemann, Brown, Fagerson, Skinner, Cummings, Ritchie, Watson, Mata.
Looking for more of the rugby year in review ? Check out the Scottish Rugby Podcast Christmas Special.