“Rugby’s Greatest Championship” may now be branded marketing with less emotional impact than a Labrador playing with toilet roll, but despite this it remains accurate. The Six Nations is an extraordinary competition, and this year’s was more exciting, more controversial, more unbelievable, more Dave Cherry, more everything than perhaps any before.
From a Caledonian perspective it seems preposterous to suggest that a tournament in which Scotland finished fourth out of six is their best in two decades, particularly when on multiple occasions they’ve finished higher. But in a world where home is work, lawyers are hairdressers, fresh air is greeted with facemasks and jesters are Prime Ministers, perhaps it’s more appropriate. Because Scotland quite literally almost won the Six Nations.
Yes, there was the now traditional implosion against an Ireland team that even hobbling about on their zimmer frames was able to give us an embarrassing runaround. Yes, we should perhaps (probably?) have beaten eventual champions Wales, and yes, beating Italy this year in particular is about as noteworthy for prosperity as beating an egg.
But in a tournament that gave us the genuine excitement of Le Crunch and… whatever the French call their games against Wales, the controversy of enough reds to make a matador blush, and the denied-their-slam-but-still Jam Champs Welsh, Scots will rightly remember its bookends. A thumping, colossal, Kaiju-sized, erm, 11-6… hell with it, decimation of England in the black hole of hope and glory that is Twickenham. A hard fought, do or die, never say never, absolute pummelling of a… four-point victory over France in Paris.
Oh, for the mediocrity of champions.
Lest ecstasy take one too far from reality, the Wales and Ireland games should stick in the memory. So too should the England scoreline because Scotland spent more of 2021 next to the tryline than bartenders have next to the pumps and took precious little reward from it.
The collapse against Ireland was enough for many to proclaim the end of progress and flash back to the nightmares of the noughties. But to be as cold and dispassionate as a Scotland rugby fan is able, Gregor Townsend’s side is making real, measurable, progress.
“Technically,” we were minded to say last year, Scotland were in with a chance of winning the Six Nations right up until the finale but the quantum equations that would have been required put the feat on roughly the same level of likelihood as a third professional team being founded on the moon. Or, you suppose, anywhere.
This year that possibility was absent by the time of the final game but second place was as real to see as Hamish Watson’s barnet; wild, preposterous, and right there in front of us being referred to as lightweight by a professional Saracens shill.
But for the absence of one try it was ours.
Alas, a bonus point win at Stade de France eluded us but in the final reckoning it mattered not. Because if you’re minded to argue that the Wales and Ireland games should have gone Scotland’s way, spare a thought for Gallic fans who spent a quiet Friday evening watching with horror over cabernet and waffles as their doom inexorably approached. Surely they must be minded to say they should have won that one.
And it’s a mark of the differing mentalities between the countries that France’s second place will be bitter in the mouth and Scotland’s fourth tastes as sweet as a Championship victory. But of course it is. Gone are the days when the Italy match alone would decide whether Murrayfield’s kitchen would be granted another ignomious utensil – but they’re still ripe in the memory.
2015 saw a last-place, nul point, humiliation for the men in blue. Of the six tournaments since though, they’ve seen four fourths, one third, and a fifth. These are not the numbers of rip-roaring success but they are better than the four fifths, one third, and a sixth that preceded them.
Scotland have, for a decade now, been able to beat almost anyone in the world… at home, in the mud, on their day, with incongruous aid from nematodes and appropriate sacrifices made to benevolent gods. This Scotland team can do it away, they can do it with flair, they can do it with graft, they can do it in the final moments when a more traditional outcome is tryline fever and unforced error. They are not the finished article, they are not consistent enough, they are not yet champion material, but they are unmistakably closer than they were.
A little more luck there, a little less French referee there, and talk of this being a three-way fight for the title isn’t the product of a fever-induced madness, but a reflection of reality. France had a wonderful win over Wales, but they also lost to England whom you will recall, have been joyously abysmal this year. Wales almost lost to Ireland. Scotland almost beat Wales.
Historically looking at these “what ifs” has been a coping mechanism for Scotland fans who can’t quite understand why they’ve laden so much of their emotional wellbeing in a rudderless ship with a hole in the front. This year they’re fun because rather than trying to explain away a wooden spoon, they put us within fingertips of the trophy. Scotland have gone from almost getting a win to almost winning it all.
Inevitably talk will now move on to the Lions. Inevitably Warren Gatland will field a team of Pokémon before he gives many Scots their due consideration. But pick the finest players from across England, Wales, and Ireland, put them in red and march them onto the pitch at Murrayfield to face Watson, Ritchie, Cherry, Harris, Van der Merwe et al and the result is not the foregone conclusion it would have been because Scotland are not just better than they were; they are much better than they were.
No one would begrudge you saying, “let’s not get carried away.” Too often the dawn has been a mirage and Scotland have found themselves still lost in the night. But it’s been a torrid year. Cut off from family and friends, denied a social existence, in too many cases faced with real loss that goes far beyond anything that may transpire in a game of rugby.
Sport is at its core, just entertainment for spectators. It’s Godzilla vs Kong; a big, loud, shiny spectacle to distract us from other things. It doesn’t matter.
And yet it does. It affects us. It moulds us. It helps define us. It can hurt us, and hinder us, and bring out the worst in us.
And it can connect us though we’re separated, bring us joy amid sadness, and give us hope for a fair wind and a brighter tomorrow.
Being a Scotland rugby fan at the end of March (and on into April) has so often been an exercise in such crushing disappointment it takes ten months to slip the shackles and dare to dream again.
This year it will have been the only thing to make some of us smile past tragedy and keep us standing when we want to fall.
“We’re not going to get carried away,” said Stuart Hogg, “[but] we’re going to enjoy this moment and start building towards something memorable. I’m the captain of a very, very proud nation.”
Professional players would do well to follow their captain’s lead. Those of us on the sidelines need not.
Because it’s 2021 and Scotland almost won the Six Nations.
Carried away? Perhaps.