There are two schools of thought when it comes to judging the great rugby teams. The first is concerned with scorelines, win/loss ratios, and how mathematics actually present the cold hard facts.
The other is excitedly watching Scotland improve over the past decade and thinking, “my god, just maybe.”
The win over Australia was far from perfect. Truth be told in many ways it was a mess. Responding to the task of facing fourteen men for a spell by conceding ten points seems typically Scottish. Zander Fagerson, who surely remembers what the penalties are for contact with the head, was fortunate to stay on the field after an inexcusable rake of the eyes. And yet as has oft been commented on, the ability to grind out wins from mediocre performances is a mark of the greats, and a benchmark Scotland have so often fallen short of.
What fan would swap an ugly win for a gallus do or die loss?
Much was made of Australia missing their three Japan-based stars but such is the nature of test match rugby. Depth is more important than ever. For a team to enter the field with no first-choice players absent is now the exception.
There are no excuses at this level and so Scotland can rightly and fairly say without need of asterisk, they were the ones to halt the Wallabies five game unbeaten run, a run which no one forgets, includes back-to-back wins over the world champions.
Scotland, that small meteorological phenomenon nor’-nor’-west of civilisation, a country that chose an uncatchable mythic creature as its national animal, that imbued a belligerent shrub with national pride, and somehow made a name for itself by exporting gone-off booze at an outrageous mark-up – that Scotland announced to the world that it is a rugby nation, Murrayfield is a hurdle to match any other, and they no longer show up merely to play. They show up to win. And this wasn’t the first time.
The great curse of being a Scotland fan has always been to amplify the grey cloud beyond the silver lining. Well, one might reticently present, we beat them but their best players were absent so does it really count?
‘Yes,’ is the basic response and one no other country needs a lesson in.
And now Scotland have shown up, faced, fought, and defeated almost every top flight team in the world presented to them over the past few years. Three times they have faced Australia – ostensibly the third best side in the world – and three times they have been victorious.
Only Ireland, South Africa, and New Zealand remain unconquered. And what is life without goals?
Scotland’s run against Ireland of late has been humiliating. One to ignore, or at the least, try one’s hardest to forget. The Irish have, six times in a row now, shot the Scottish unicorn on sight because they have no time for flights of fancy when one could spend time simply driving forward, choke tackling, and asking Johnny to kick it every now and again.
Ireland, perhaps surprisingly, have become the immovable object to Scotland’s irresistible force. Every time a young lass in Largs dares to dream, there’s Tadhg Furlong pummelling those dreams into the dirt.
And yet Ireland, if only by virtue of proximity, are not a team to fear. Respect of course, but fear in northern hemisphere rugby is reserved for those hailing from south of the equator. Ireland are neighbours. Formidable neighbours for sure, but familiar and beatable all the same. Those hailing from the other side of the planet however; they present threat of another level.
And there is now only one foe south of the equator that Scotland truly, genuinely, actually fear.
And it’s not South Africa.
It may be that this weekend the Springboks run riot and remind Murrayfield exactly why they are world champions. But does anyone really expect it? Imagining it is easy; most of us still remember the Scotland side that imploded against Italy inside five minutes, but expect it? The numbers must be fewer in that camp.
With all the respect in the world to South Africa, and only a fool would give them any less, there is the small, real, and growing though: Scotland can take them.
Presented with all the players in the world, which thistle sporting fan would swap Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, or Hamish Watson for anyone else? Months after the excitement of the Six Nations some are minded to ignore the events of the Autumn series but are these not the best teams in the world coming to our house? And are we not their equal?
Perhaps South Africa will dominate Scotland. Perhaps Scotland will fall apart. Perhaps Elon Musk will fund a third pro team based out of Gretna and named after a mathematical symbol.
All three of these are possibilities, but they don’t seem particularly likely.
Is this a Scotland team that is minded to fold under pressure? Is the defensive line not as strong as it has ever been in modern history? Do they not have attacking options that veterans of yesteryear only dared dream of?
The All Blacks, as everyone knows, are a force of nature. It will take something genuinely and visually miraculous for Scotland to beat them. That is for another tour. For now, Scotland must focus on the mere formality of facing the world champions.
And Scotland will not need a miracle.
Stuart Hogg said this side was the best of his career, but perhaps, maybe, could it be? The best of all time? Is this as good as it gets and is extraordinary, life-defining, magic not just over the horizon?
Too much? Almost certainly. But amid the doldrums of reality ask the simple question,
Could Scotland beat the World Champions this week?
Even the haughtiest of Springboks would admit the possibility exists.
And that possibility is the lifeblood of Scottish sport, be it rugby, football, or one of those other ones that people apparently have an interest in.
Maybe on our day, maybe if all goes well, maybe if the gods favour us, this could be ours.
And yet as Scotland showed against Australia, they no longer have need of divine intervention. A – let’s be honest – not all that impressive Scotland performance beat Australia. A team that just months before had beaten the world champions.
Ask any player in the Scotland camp the same question and the response will be much more emphatic.
This is not conjecture. This is fact.
Scotland can beat South Africa.
And if they can do that…
Well not for nothing – but there’s another World Cup coming up in 2023.