THE Scottish weather famously supplies four seasons in the space of one day and in similar fashion the national rugby team went from damp drizzle to something approaching hurricane force over the course of 2015.
The Scots ended March and the Six Nations campaign on their knees, the recipients of an unwanted whitewash with Ireland just done pummelling a record 40 points past the Scots at BT Murrayfield.
Fast-forward seven months to October and Vern Cotter’s men were transformed from Clark Kent to ... no, maybe not quite, but they found themselves so agonisingly close to a place in the World Cup semi-finals for only the second time in history that the quick witted inside Twickenham were already booking flights, hotels and tickets when Bernard Foley’s 80th-minute penalty crushed their dreams. Pity the poor All Blacks fans who don’t get to experience anything like the same range of emotions when following their uniformly successful side.
Scottish fans are a patient and undemanding lot who harbour low expectations that the team rarely, rarely fail to deliver, but if 2015 wasn’t quite a runaway success you suspect that future sporting historians may point to the past 12 months as some sort of watershed for the game in Scotland after what has been a miserable millennium to date. Two players, Greig Laidlaw and Mark Bennett, were short-listed by World Rugby for international awards. 2015 might not signal the start of the glory years but it may just have signalled the end of Scotland’s long rugby recession.
Here are a few highlights from the last calendar year:
Team of the Year
George Watson’s College deserve a mention after winning the Schools Cup for the fourth time in succession and the Scotland U20s were the only squad to hold their end up in the Six Nations, winning three from five. Edinburgh Rugby were the first Scottish side to reach a European final but finished a poor second to Gloucester in the Challenge Cup so there can only be one winner.
Almost 20 years after the game went professional, Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow Warriors finally lifted the Pro12 title with a clinical display in Belfast against the old bogey men of Munster. There were those of us who thought we would never live to see the day. It was just reward for heaps of hard work, not to mention some breathtaking attacking play. What’s more, they managed it without the services of two frontline centres, Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett.
Ahead of the final Townsend famously instructed Leone Nakarawa to cut out the offloads, but thankfully the big Fijian ignored the advice. He was the creative force behind Glasgow’s opening two tries, doing his octopus imitation before Rob Harley and DTH van der Merwe grabbed the scores.
Glasgow not only won but they won well, playing an adventurous brand of rugby, and it seemed to portend a shift in the tectonic plates of the game, away from Munster’s old muscular approach and towards a more open, flowing, free-style rugby that Townsend’s has long championed. Let’s hope so.
Coach of the Year
Calum McRae has regained some respect for the Scotland sevens squad, for which we can all be grateful, but there can only be one winner ... Gregor Townsend.
Blunder of the Year
We will resist the temptation to single out the otherwise excellent Peter Horne for his missed touch-finder against Italy, to squeal about the defensive howlers that allowed Australia to score five tries or heap any more opprobrium on to a certain South African match official ... although an apology might be nice, Craig?
Instead we’ll focus on the Six Nations shocker against Italy when Vern Cotter made the simple mistake of underestimating the opposition. He had a subs bench stocked with newbies in the form of Hamish Watson, Alex Toolis, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Greig Tonks who boasted three caps between them at the time. All four were on the field when Italy scored the decisive try at the death – well, they would have been had Toolis and Watson not been yellow-carded.
The experience, not to mention the sheer size, of players such as Jim Hamilton and John Barclay might have averted calamity. The substitution of skipper Greig Laidlaw six minutes from time compounded Cotter’s selection mistakes and Scotland lost a match that they should have won.
Japan beating South Africa, above, was up there but, while it was difficult to swallow at the time, the final 15 minutes of that World Cup quarter-final against the Wallabies was as good as it gets for undiluted, edge-of-the-seat, heart-stopping drama. When Mark Bennett scored his interception try I got a hug from another Scottish journalist. The first, and last, time that has ever happened.
The Evel Knievel Award for the advancement of medical research
It must be a pub quiz question: Who was named Scotland’s Six Nations skipper for 2015 and never once made an appearance? Grant Gilchrist is the unlucky answer. He broke his arm playing a European Challenge Cup match against Lyon in October of last year just after Vern Cotter anointed him captain. Several months later it turned out that he needed a second operation because the original injury wasn’t healing properly. Against all odds Gilchrist elbowed his way into the World Cup squad, only to hurt his groin just 19 minutes into the pool match against the USA Eagles. Following an operation and several months’ recuperation the sawbones had to open him up for a second go and Gilchrist is now a doubt for the 2016 Six Nations and presumably has an unhealthy interest in the daytime soaps.
The Jürgen Klinsmann Award for diving
Stuart Hogg is an extravagantly talented player but his split-second judgment all too often goes awry. His dramatic fall when Tendai Mtawarira brushed past him during the World Cup was dealt by referee Nigel Owens with the contempt it deserved.
Greig Tonks, Peter Horne and Henry Pyrgos all deserve consideration but Gordon Reid gets the award for his added extras. The Glasgow prop is not the best loosehead in the world, he is not even the best loosehead in Glasgow, but the aggression he brought to that battle against the Springboks during the World Cup suggests that any technical shortcomings in the tight are shored up with heaps of attitude around the park.
The Tony Blackburn Award for resurrecting a career
Mike Adamson is super successful as a sevens referee after a stop/start career as a player but Ruaridh Jackson is tearing up trees for Wasps in Coventry of all places, playing the best rugby of his life, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke.
One to watch in 2016
Zander Fagerson, right, Scott Cummings and Blair Kinghorn have all enjoyed plenty of game time with the pro teams this season and will all enjoy a lot more next year. Zander’s little brother Matt is a national U18 backrow forward with excellent skills and the women’s game has unearthed some serious wheels in the form of winger Rhona Lloyd, who recently snatched a hat-trick of tries against Spain. Dollar Academy’s Euan McLaren is said to boast a 52-inch chest so if he does not make the grade as a first class tighthead it won’t be for the want of bulk, and finally Cameron Redpath (son of Bryan) recently turned out for Sale Sharks U18 team aged just 15.
The future looks a little brighter than the recent past.