Looking on the bright side, one can say with some assurance that the state of Scottish rugby is not half as dire as the state of Scottish football. Sadly, this is no great compliment, and there is no need for me here to list football’s troubles.
It’s enough to say that what was once one of the great footballing nations of the world, producing a succession of great players, is now scrabbling about in the basement of the world game. When rich clubs in England, Spain , Italy and Germany look for the stars of the future, they turn to Africa, South America, the Balkans or Asia, not to Scotland. The days when the champions of England would regularly have four or five Scots in their team are long gone, and there is absolutely no sign that they may return.
Our rugby is not in such a wretched state, not yet anyway. We still cling to our position in the world game, though of course it must be said that rugby – at least in its full 15-a-side form – is not a global sport as football unquestionably is. Nevertheless it is slowly going that way, and, though I’m of an age which allows me to hope, even expect, I won’t see a Rugby World Cup without Scotland in the final stages, it’s all too probable that fans who are now young or even already middle-aged will have to endure that experience. So far, we haven’t even had to go through qualifying to appear in the finals, but we may wonder when we shall have to do so.
Not everything is gloomy, immediately anyway. It’s possible to write off our poor record since the Five Nations became Six in 2000 as one of these periodic slumps which we’ve had before. Ireland, we may say, had an equally rotten decade in the Nineties, and haven’t done badly since. Moreover we can remark that even in this generally wretched period we have beaten all the top teams in the world except, of course, New Zealand. So we are clinging on, if only by our fingertips. Moreover, Scottish rugby players, unlike their footballing brothers are still sought and signed by leading clubs in England and France. You would have no difficulty in selecting an acceptable Scotland XV composed entirely of players who don’t play for either of the two Scottish pro teams, especially if you included a couple now retired from international rugby – Mike Blair and Nathan Hines.
Realistically, however, there is more dark than light in the picture. That we should be quietly satisfied to have won two of our five championship matches this season – both at Murrayfield – says it all. Then we have to consider that our Heineken Cup record has been generally miserable; only twice has a Scottish club reached the knock-out stages of the tournament. Glasgow are at least bidding to reach the play-offs of the Pro12 league, and may yet emerge champions, but Edinburgh languish near the bottom. Meanwhile, with the IRB World Sevens due in Glasgow, we are in danger of falling out of the group of automatic qualifiers for the world series, being ranked equal 12th with that rugby powerhouse the USA. And I guess we shall all be happily surprised if Warren Gatland names as many as five Scots in his Lions squad.
In short, as I’ve said in this column before, we have to run very hard just to stay where we are. This means we are going to have to run even harder to improve our position. This is not impossible, in theory anyway, and may not be beyond us in practice. Some improvements are being made. Much work is being done by clubs all over the country and there is evidence that the organisation, and therefore the quality, of our age-group teams is better than it was even three or four years ago. Then our Premier clubs are benefiting from their experience of participating in the British & Irish Cup.
However, we need more professional players because at present we draw from a very small pool . In this respect we are at one with Italy, rather than Ireland or Wales. So we need a third pro team, and this should probably be based in Aberdeen, because there is a big enough population to support it. Nothing, however, better demonstrates the fragility of our game than the failure to find a suitable home-base for Edinburgh. Everyone recognises that Murrayfield is unsatisfactory; nothing is done about it. Asked this week about finding a solution to the problem, the club’s new managing director David Davies said “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. He, of course, bears no responsibility, being new to the job, and was doubtless giving what he thought to be a diplomatic answer to an unwelcome question. Nevertheless his answer invited the response that, if you might need more than a day to build a city, it really shouldn’t have taken 15 years to find or build a suitable ground for a rugby club. But it has – and there is absolutely no sign that the SRU regards the matter as urgent. Yet it is urgent, and the failure to address the question is evidence of the sort of lazy complacency which has contributed to the decline of Scottish football, bringing it to its present miserable condition.