TOO many games of rugby, expectations too high and a withering boredom numbing my brain too often has forced me to end the year by changing my mind on the battle for supremacy in the Heineken Cup debate.
Having argued that Scottish rugby needs to fight tooth and nail to keep Edinburgh and Glasgow in the world’s premier “club” competition, a bit of time off and reflection as Christmas approaches has made me think again. In fact, watching Edinburgh’s turgid arm-wrestle with Racing Metro did it.
Now, as Scotland’s best home-based players prepare for the two-legged 1872 Cup battle, I am seeing an opportunity with the English and French clubs’ desire for a new Heineken Cup. From the next European Accord – 2014 onwards – if only the top eight in the RaboDirect PRO12 qualified for the Heineken Cup and the bottom four entered the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup, it could benefit Scottish rugby.
Why? Well, why are Scotland struggling to win games and, under a very good coach in Andy Robinson, did they slump from a high of sixth in the world to 12th? How have Edinburgh gone from Heineken Cup semi-finalists to league strugglers? And why do the players seem to be finishing the year lacking direction and belief, and tries?
There was a clue in Glasgow yesterday in the smiles as the players looked ahead to the 1872 Cup. It may mean little in the big picture of British and European rugby but it is a cup. It is what people play sport for. James Eddie spoke for his Warriors team-mates when he said “this week is different”.
Scots over the years have shown themselves capable of raising their games for one-off occasions. A particularly good Scotland rugby squad used experience from touring Australia and New Zealand to drive through a Grand Slam campaign in 1984. Again in 1990, experience from a successful Lions tour to Australia combined with a talented group of players and the best coaches Scotland have ever had, landed another Grand Slam.
But that aside, Scottish success has been sporadic, wins in a year counted on one hand.
The main reason is that success requires consistency and consistently good performance require a high degree of basic skill to ensure that such performances can be repeated and errors can be eliminated without other destructive problems creeping in.
In a country of around 10,000 adult rugby players, where school sport has gone backwards, club playing numbers have dwindled and government investment in facilities has fallen, such consistency is a dream even Father Christmas could not turn into reality.
When there were just three or four home games in a year, six or seven Tests in total, Scotland were at the races because they could get up for one-off games and, occasionally, surf the momentum.
One leading internationalist from pre-professional days said they cared little for the rugby before Christmas because the real stuff began with the international trial and then the Five Nations. The rest was just a warm-up.
Top players nowadays will have had seven months of intense training by then. Ten or 11 punishing league games, four intense Heineken Cup matches and three full-blooded Test encounters. Quite a warm-up.
That was an entire season for many top players pre-professionalism, and many of them say they could coast through a handful of those games.
Today’s top Scottish players now head into the 1872 Cup derbies between Edinburgh and Glasgow, then more league rugby and another two weeks of Heineken Cup action, where the inspiration of reaching the knockout stages is long gone.
Then it’s five international matches in seven weeks and, finally, a league run-in which, after the next fortnight, may also be meaningless.
This is not an attempt to elicit sympathy for current players, nor denigrate the efforts of heroes of the past, merely an attempt to understand why success is harder to achieve for players now. Hard, maybe, but we can still win more than we did in 2012.
How? As we wait for the level playing field of the shortened calendar enjoyed by southern hemisphere players, a little thing like injecting a fresh challenge with qualification for Europe would be a start. Players need inspiration from meaningful competition. They really only function at 100 per cent when there is hope, fear, excitement, ambition and, crucially, belief pumping through their veins when they take to the field.
All of those will be there in the next fortnight, when Edinburgh head into the new Scotstoun Stadium home of the Warriors and again on December 29 when Glasgow pitch up at what Edinburgh optimistically term their Murrayfield “castle”, because both sets of players believe they can beat their opposite numbers and push themselves into the Scotland frame in the process. But failure in a derby also leaves an indelible stain for all to see.
We need more of that, which is why I now think it would be good if Scottish teams had, at best, just one Heineken Cup spot each year and something to really fight for, ideally right up to the last game of the season. The SRU fear a loss of revenue but, actually, the second Scottish team should win more games in a still-tough Amlin Challenge Cup and have a better chance of progressing.
Just as it does with relegated SPL clubs who then mount a storming run back up that would attract bigger crowds, more hospitality interest and more merchandise sales. People want to be associated with winners, anywhere.
The unsavoury aspect of the debate over the future of the Heineken Cup is the English clubs’ naked desire to manipulate it for their own monetary benefit. But, while we’re often told to think outside the box, it is also necessary to keep an eye on what is inside this box.
Players are now well paid, many drive nice cars and many supporters of old do not like it.
But anyone who believes pay packets inspire players at the top level has it wrong. A necessary evil in pro sport – idealistic talk of cutting wages for poor displays won’t ever return – it creates a comfort zone, rather than a motivation.
The lure of silverware, cups and medals, places in the history books. That is success. That excites players. It always has and always will, at any level.
We should see that over the next fortnight in the 1872 Cup, a determination to drive Scottish rugby into the New Year with fresh optimism.
But, while our game clings on, in other sports as well as rugby, the rest of the world moves on apace and 2013 will need to witness a significant shift in sporting culture if Scotland is to catch up again.