IT WAS back in 1998 that Welsh rugby had an epiphany of sorts, their very own Damascene moment. It is worth reminding ourselves of this in light of last weekend. The event occurred in Pretoria’s wonderful old Loftus Versfeld stadium.
Professionalism was in its infancy and Wales were bush-whacked by the Springboks who ran out 96-13 winners. It was an utter humiliation for a nation that has always seen itself amongst the world’s elite, stymied only by fate, blind referees and cheating Kiwi locks.
It proved a turning point for Wales, who hired Graham Henry and drew a line in the sand. Enough. Within 12 months they had their revenge, posting a 29-19 victory over South Africa in Cardiff, surely one of the greatest turnarounds in sporting history.
Scotland’s miserable 51-3 defeat by Wales last Saturday won’t be wasted if the experience is used to galvanise the SRU into making some of the changes that are badly needed. The Scots too have their very own Kiwi coach arriving this summer in the robust shape of Anthony Vernon Cotter and, whatever else you may say about Scott Johnson, the SRU’s director of rugby picked a good ’un in the Clermont Auvergne coach.
Cotter’s appointment was endorsed by Joe Schmidt of Ireland, the Six Nations championship-winning coach and a former Clermont colleague. He had this to say: “I think Vern will clarify a few things for the Scottish players, like how scary he is as opposed to the opposition!”
Of course Cotter is only human, he can’t conjure up world-class players from Highland mist. What the Kiwi can do is cajole this group of players into fulfilling their potential, or something close to it, which is not a claim anyone has made on behalf of the man he replaces.
Sadly Scotland won’t win next year’s World Cup (it is a goal, if you recall), but they have a realistic chance of qualifying from their group by beating Samoa and making the knockout stages. The islanders are a tough nut to crack but the Scots would prefer to clash heads with them rather than England or Ireland, two other second-tier countries they could have been drawn against. Scotland lost to Samoa in South Africa last summer, for the first time ever, but beat them in Apia in 2012. It will be a close game but this Scotland team is much better than they have shown in recent weeks and the XV that Cotter picks for that crunch World Cup fixture will bear little relation to the one that got its backside kicked from one end of the Millennium Stadium to the other – perhaps less than half will survive.
The back three should be plucked from Stuart Hogg, Sean Lamont, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser, the latter pair missing almost the entire Six Nations due to injury. The midfield duo of Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar have the potential to be the equal of anything in Europe. Scott came into the Six Nations one match late and hopelessly undercooked on account of the hand he broke against Japan in November so imagine just what fireworks the pair might produce when they are both fully fit.
Ryan Grant follows a long line of mobile, athletic and skilful Scottish props (Hugh McLeod, David Sole, Tom Smith) and on the opposite side of the scrum WP Nel will ensure that Euan Murray is at the top of his game, exactly the boot in the backside that the veteran Scot needs.
At his best Richie Gray is world class, even if he has struggled occasionally to reach those heights in recent months. One insider insisted that his gym numbers were well down since joining Castres: he has effectively gone from pulling up trees to picking daisies. Am I alone in suspecting that the big fella might have been better served by staying put at Glasgow?
Leave aside Richie and concentrate on “little” Jonny Gray. He came off the bench for the final 11 minutes of the Calcutta Cup game and was never seen thereafter. Gray Jnr has every chance of being in Cotter’s World Cup team, possibly playing alongside his brother. The competition for a second row place remains healthy with Jim Hamilton, Tim Swinson and Grant Gilchrist all in the mix.
South African Josh Strauss, who qualifies for Scotland just in time, will give Cotter options in the third row of the scrum, as will the return of Ross Rennie and John Barclay, who are refurbishing their reputations in England and Wales respectively.
Admittedly that still leaves Scotland short of a Test-class ten but someone – Duncan Weir, Greig Tonks, Tom Heathcote, Finn Russell or even Greig Laidlaw – will put their hand up. Laidlaw’s cause will be helped if he is playing stand-off on a weekly basis for Gloucester, Weir’s by getting regular starts for Glasgow. If Cotter can sort out the half-backs, Scotland will boast its best back line they’ve had this millennium.
Two people are tasked with dragging Scottish rugby out of the mire. Cotter will help determine Scotland’s results for the next few years but, if he does what he is tasked to do, Johnson can help Scotland’s results for the next decade and then some. The Aussie has to focus on his day job and give up any thoughts of “helping” coach the national team, even presuming Cotter wants him hanging around. Johnson’s record as head coach has been one of dismal under-achievement.
The Australian needs to focus on getting more competition at youth level and even here the news is not all doom and gloom because the private school sector has undergone a quiet revolution over the last few years with a long list of impressive signings.
Heriot’s coach and one-time Edinburgh assistant Phil Smith is now director of rugby at Glasgow Academy, where Peter Wright is the hands-on coach. Former Edinburgh professional Andrew Easson is helping Heriot’s, Gloucester stalwart Don Caskie has the reins at Dollar Academy, former Borders coach Steve Bates is at Fettes College, Scotland A full-back Mark Appleson and Edinburgh lock Isak van der Westhuizen coach Edinburgh Academy, Rob Moffat and Roddy Deans crack the whip at Merchiston Castle, one-time Scotland A stand-off Mark McKenzie is doing great things at St Aloysius, helped by former Scotland centre Andy Henderson, while Ally Donaldson has just added Ben Cairns to the already impressive coaching roster at George Watson’s. In the last few years a vast reservoir of coaching talent has been sucked up by the private schools because they can afford it (or more accurately because they can’t afford not to have it) and all these coaches want an integrated and competitive fixture list. They recognise the need for change so it should not be beyond Johnson’s ability to push open a door that is already ajar.
Naturally the SRU will continue its evangelical work within the state sector but that necessity should not prevent them from fully exploiting all the talent in the private sector: it is what drives the excellence in Irish schools rugby that one coach dubbed “professional, in all but name”.
Beyond the immediate needs of competition at youth level, Johnson needs to address a couple of other issues, the first being the structure of the Premiership and whether they should resort to an eight-team, semi-professional superleague – although that decision will ultimately lie with the clubs themselves. Secondly, he needs to help smooth the transition from youth to adult rugby when so many young players chuck in the towel. Encouraging the Premier Clubs to run under-20 teams would help, and they could play in tandem with the senior sides, so limiting any additional transport costs.
Meanwhile, the policy of pumping money into the pro-teams has yet to pay dividends for Edinburgh but if coach Alan Solomons is a decent judge of horse flesh then the capital club may be the surprise package in Europe’s second-tier tournament next season. Glasgow remain on course for a place in Europe’s main competition and the Rabo play-offs, although a home tie looks beyond them. They will likely travel to Limerick or Dublin.
If Scotland use last weekend as the spur to make the necessary changes the gloom currently hanging over rugby will lift pretty quickly. One day a journalist might be able to write that the Scots eventually got to grips with professionalism in 2014 after suffering all manner of indignities in Cardiff. Hell, we might even be grateful to the Welsh.