Sadly, for a strong Scotland is good for rugby, Gregor Townsend’s side look lost (as ever, some may say). They also face the prospect of an embarrassing group stage elimination in the pick of the weekend’s games – their clash against the hosts Japan in Yokohama this Sunday.
“We can be bloody brilliant at times,” said the Scotland fly-half Adam Hastings this week, “at other times you are thinking: ‘What are we doing?’ The best teams are consistent, and, in the end, it comes down to us.”
This is a pretty fair assessment of where Scotland are. In less than a week they will have played three games. After their match against Samoa, a 34 – 0 win peppered with the classic Polynesian physical abrasiveness, and a 61 – 0 thrashing of Russia, they face a well-rested Japan in incredible form, with the momentum of a nation behind them.
Needless to say, the odds are not stacked in the Scots’ favour.
Neither are the points. An Irish victory against Samoa guarantees them a qualification spot, although that comes with the caveat of a probable quarterfinal defeat to the All Blacks or South Africans.
Therefore, as Japan have 14 points already, only a bonus point win, whilst also denying Japan any bonus points, will see Scotland qualify.
How has it come to this? There has been so much optimism surrounding Scottish rugby in the last five years. They have overhauled their style of play, unearthed genuinely world class players in Hamish Watson, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, and yet look no closer to success. The decline of Huw Jones has undoubtedly been key.
Individuals, however, tell only part of the story. Both Vern Cotter and Gregor Townsend’s coaching spells have seen statement victories, beautiful rugby and a sense of joy returning to Scottish rugby again. The Chris Patterson years were dour beyond belief.
And yet, what do they have to show of it? An incredible defeat of England at Murrayfield, along with that bonkers draw at Twickenham. Plus, a couple of stirring wins against Australia.
But, with Scotland it always seems to be one step forward and two back. Between the two victories over Australia was a defeat to Fiji. Scotland have never won a Six Nations, the only team other than Italy to hold that inglorious record.
They lack structure, coherence and physicality. The Scottish selection policy over the last few years has been completely haphazard. Ali Price or Greg Laidlaw? This is not just a question of personnel but style and temperament, yet Townsend has flipflopped around. Why was Stuart McInally’s captaincy announced so late?
Scotland may yet pull it out of the fire, and salvage their World Cup, but they would only be kicking the can a bit further down the road. Any challenge for a serious trophy (Triple Crown or Six Nations rather than a World Cup – let’s not get carried away) remains years away.
This is a systematic problem: it is the result of only two professional sides; of the decline of Borders rugby; of the city bias that exists; of the falling numbers involved at grassroots level.
As ever, being a Scotland fan remains a life of false dawns and disappointments.
Written by Joe Ronan