Name me a more iconic duo than “Scottish rugby team” and “underperforming in a big game”; I’ll wait.
Now that the dust has settled on Edinburgh’s disappointing loss to Ulster in their Pro14 semi final, it’s time for Scottish Rugby to address their biggest problem: the mentality needed to win on the biggest stage.
There has been a lot of praise for Richard Cockerill’s improving Edinburgh side. He has taken the club from a struggling, mid-table side, to a club that should now have the firepower to win silverware. All in just three seasons. However, it can’t be overlooked that of the four knockout games during his tenure, Edinburgh have lost all four.
Even with putting the two losses in the 2017/18 season down to teething problems, the loss to Munster in the Champions Cup last season and this game against Ulster were both eminently winnable games.
This is a well documented and deep rooted issue in Scottish Rugby. The fact that Glasgow actually won one of their three visits to the Pro12/14 final is slightly amazing. But that win aside, Glasgow have been one of the top two or three teams in the league in all but one season between 2012 and 2019. Only one win could be considered slightly disappointing, especially considering Connacht won one.
Glasgow have also had major issues in the Champions Cup. They have only qualified twice from their group in the same period and been convincingly defeated at the first hurdle on both occasions.
Much has been said of the lack of emphasis on the psychological side of the game at a national level. Jason O’Halloran has publicly criticised the lack of development in this area, stating that Scotland are 20 years behind in this area. This must be improved and it must start at club level.
The national team is predominantly made up of Edinburgh and Glasgow players. If that mentality isn’t there at club level, it definitely won’t be there at test level. Edinburgh had a 12 point lead with 23 minutes to go against an Ulster that weren’t at full strength.
In an interview with the BBC in 2018, Stuart Hogg stated that seeing a sports psychologist made him a “better player and a better person” but that “some boys don’t believe in it”. There remains a stigma about admitting any weakness mentally, and Matt Smith’s interview with Jamie Lyall revealed the woeful conditions surrounding access to psychologists at Glasgow.
A winning mentality doesn’t begin and end with psychologists. Some players naturally have that edge. The SRU need to make the most of the resources at their disposal. At Edinburgh they had a leader and a winner in John Barclay who led the Scarlets to a Pro14 title. Instead of keeping a player with his experience of these moments around, the SRU cast him aside.
I appreciate that his playing days were numbered, but having someone like Barclay around to teach the likes of Ritchie, Bradbury, Crosbie, Graham and Chamberlain is priceless. Also, outside of the front row, the average age of Edinburgh’s bench against Ulster was 22.4 years old. If Cockerill was able to bring Barclay on at the 60 minute mark, with all his experience and leadership, I could have been writing a much cheerier article right now.
I am 25 years old. I don’t say that to make anyone feel old, merely to make a point that I am yet to see a winning Scotland team. Obviously Scotland won in 1999 but I was four and can’t remember it. What I’m trying to say is I’m used to seeing Scottish teams lose. There were eight Scottish players younger than me in Edinburgh’s team at the weekend. All of those players have grown up watching Scotland lose as I have. That’s hardly a breeding ground for a winning mentality. On paper, Edinburgh had a far stronger squad than Ulster, but there was always that doubt because it is a Scottish team.
There is much progress to be made in Scotland. Breaking that losing mentality won’t be easy, but it must start soon or we face slipping even further behind. Perhaps we should speak to the Irish. They went 34 years between Six Nations titles before 2009 and now they can’t stop winning the bloody things.
How can we turn it around?