It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally starting to look like Scotland can once again begin challenging for top honours in international rugby.
Although it would be amiss to get too far ahead of ourselves after successive victories over an injury ravaged Italian side and one of the worst French sides in modern history, there is still plenty to be positive about. After all, were it not for a questionable refereeing decision, or Finn Russell’s inability to hear Stuart Hogg’s scream through the wall of sound at Murrayfield, Scotland could well have found themselves still in contention for this year’s Six Nations title going into the final round of action.
This is of course ignoring the fact that Vern Cotter’s side were comprehensively outplayed for much of their Calcutta Cup clash with England, or that Wales probably had the better of the game at the Millennium one week later. However, the fact Scotland were still within a score of both sides when the final whistle blew shows how far the team have come even since last years disastrous championship that ended with the Scots being awarded the Wooden Spoon.
Unfortunately it is becoming something of a trend in Scottish rugby for a disputable decision costing them at key times. There will always be that lingering question of “what if?” after last year’s World Cup exit at the hands of the Wallabies, whilst had Gareth Davies try been ruled out in the opening game of the Six Nations, Scotland would still be challenging England for the Six Nations title this year.
The problem is though, ifs, buts and maybes mean nothing at the end of the day. Players and fans can feel hard done by, but there is no silverware for second place. The onus must now be on Scotland to put games beyond outside factors such as penalty decisions in the dying minutes. Against the Wallabies for example, had the Scots forwards managed to gather a relatively easy line out ball in their own 22, Joubert would never have had to make the costly penalty decision, and we would instead be sat here talking about Scotland’s first ever appearance in a World Cup semi-final.
Fortunately however, Scotland are now the kind of side that are at least capable of winning the big games, even if they’re not quite there yet. Under Vern Cotter they have begun putting themselves in a position where they can go into the final minutes of a game still with a chance of taking the spoils. They also proved against both France and Italy that they can actually win games, even if it is somewhat more nerve-wracking than necessary at times. The fact they head into Saturday’s clash against Ireland in Dublin with more than a sliver of a chance of claiming victory tells you just how far they have come since last years 10-40 loss at the hands of Joe Schmidt’s side.
Even if they fail to claim that elusive third victory in this year’s Six Nations, they can still head to Japan this summer brimming with confidence as they begin their preparations for the World Cup there in 2019. Not just will they be boosted by their performances in this year’s Six Nations, but they can also get excited about the potential of this current squad now that they finally seem to have found a way to win games.
At present, just four members of the current squad are over 30 years old meaning that the bulk of the current side will still be together for the World Cup in 2019 and possibly beyond. Not only this, but they are playing a fantastic style of rugby that is not only entertaining to watch, but could potentially pose more of a problem to teams in the Southern Hemisphere than anything else being employed by the other sides in the Six Nations.
Whilst there will be some concerns over the ageing front row with no international caliber replacements as of yet, the rest of the squad is looking pretty solid. The Gray brothers in the second row are a solid pairing for now and the future, whilst the like of John Hardie and Dave Denton in the back row are constantly being challenged for their starting spots ensuring they remain at the top of their game.
Finn Russell at fly half has been a huge boost, but both Ruaridh Jackson and Peter Horne look like more than adequate replacements if necessary. In the centres the competition is looking incredible tough with Alex Dunbar, Matt Scott, Mark Bennett and Duncan Taylor all looking to battle it out for a start. Out on the wing Tommy Seymour is in the form of his life, whilst players like Visser and Maitland are forced to battle it out for the other spot.
Whilst Greig Laidlaw will be a tough act to follow at scrum half, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Henry Pyrgos may actually help improve the current Scotland side when the time is right given their speed of delivery. This is all forgetting the inimitable Stuart Hogg at full back who looks to be getting close to being a world class talent. The fact he is just 23 is a truly terrifying prospect for the rest of the Six Nations given the way he almost single handedly dissected the French last weekend.
The fact that so many of the current Scotland side are being touted as potential Lions candidates just goes to show in how high a regard Vern Cotter’s side are held by the opponents. It is now therefore of the utmost importance to ensure Scotland can build on this momentum both on the international stage and in the Pro12. This means continuing to ensure the production line of talent continues, whilst a serious push must also be given to the prospect of a third professional team in Scotland.
With rugby’s global expansion rapidly gaining pace, the SRU must ensure they do not fall behind as the likes of the USA and Japan continue their rise towards the top table. Given the decline of professional football in Scotland, now is the ideal opportunity to capitalise on the growth of rugby and ensure that an entire nation gets behind their rugby team.