THE old Windmill theatre, where girls posed naked but immobile as the law required and comedians sought laughs from men in mackintoshes waiting for the girls, used to boast that throughout the war years “we never closed”.
Rugby is pretty close to being able to make that claim. It’s not alone in this of course. Football got there years ago, and hardly a fortnight of the year passes without a cricket Test match somewhere. Actually, thinking of this miserable spring, you may be forgiven for wondering if the weather hasn’t given up on seasonal differences too.
Be that as it may, one consequence is that there scarcely seems to be a suitable moment for taking stock. Our 2012-13 domestic season may be over, though it would have lasted till this weekend if Glasgow had scored three more points against Leinster, but the Lions will be in action against the Barbarians in Hong Kong next Saturday, and the Scotland XV will be off for their mini-tournament in South Africa. There’s more Sevens to come and the Under-20 World Cup, and before you can blink an eye we’ll be into the 2013-14 season.
As I’ve remarked often, we in Scotland have to run very hard to stay in the same place. I make no apology for repeating this because it sometimes seems that there are a good many Scottish supporters who are reluctant to recognise that a country with our comparatively meagre resources cannot realistically expect to enjoy sustained success. That said, there is reason to think that we may at last be emerging from a long dark period.
We have more players of genuine international class available than for some time – even if this was not reflected in the Lions selection.
Though we have had some talented centres in the last decade, it’s nevertheless true that this is an area where we have generally been weaker than the French, Irish and Welsh.
England have arguably been no better off than us since Clive Woodward’s World Cup-winning team broke up and nor have Italy. But suddenly prospects in the midfield look brighter. Matt Scott has come on well this year, and in Glasgow Gregor Townsend has had an embarrassment of youthful riches, with Peter Horne, Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett now competing with Sean Lamont for the two centre positions. This is as it should be. It is quite clear that to be successful a professional club really needs to have in effect two first XVs available for selection even if this isn’t of course possible for every match, on account of the inevitable injuries.
The disappointing feature this year was the failure of both Edinburgh and Glasgow to make any sort of mark in the Heineken. Edinburgh got off to the worst possible start with a miserable performance at home against Saracens, and never recovered. Glasgow’s record was little better, even though their performances were. One will look for more from them in the autumn.
The future of the competition itself remains doubtful. One has sympathy with the complaint of the English and French clubs for whom qualification is demanding while it is automatic for the Scottish and Italian ones, and pretty easy for the Irish and Welsh.
But, though it may be prudent to make some concessions, it is essential that we continue to insist that the Heineken is a competition for the clubs of the six unions, not for the three leagues. The English Premier Rugby League has broken ranks by making a unilateral TV deal with BT Sport, and can’t be permitted to get away with this. They have in fact tried to sell what isn’t theirs to sell, and, unless they draw back, they must be threatened with being ostracised, and excluded from the tournament. Happily, though the rich owners of some of the French clubs sympathise with the English position, the French Rugby Union is more European-minded. It would be very sad indeed if the selfishness of the English clubs wrecks what is the best club competition in the world.
The end of a season (inasmuch as it has an end) is, sadly, a time for good-byes. Two of Scotland’s stalwarts, Allan Jacobsen and Graeme Morrison, are hanging up their boots, or at least their professional ones. Both, it may be, are examples of players capped regularly for Scotland over a number of years, who might have made at most a handful of international appearances if they had been of a different nationality, but neither has ever given less than 100 per cent for club and country; and there are everywhere players of greater natural talent of whom the same can’t be said. Rory Lamont is another who has had to call time, in his case after a career which never blossomed quite as it might, on account of a succession of often ghastly injuries. And a dreadful neck-break has ended Joe Ansbro’s very promising career, far too early.
A final thought. We have often talked of the need for a third Scottish pro-team – and the need is real.
Nevertheless we may note that the spate of Scottish signings made by Dean Richards at Newcastle suggests that we are half-way to having that third team – even if it is located south of the border.