When Scotland trudged off the BT Murrayfield pitch after being humbled 40-10 by champions Ireland at the end of the RBS Six Nations you could have named your price on them being the last northern hemisphere side still standing at the Rugby World Cup later in the year.
It was partly down to the scheduling as their quarter-final was the last one to take place on a weekend which ultimately resulted in a clean sweep for the southern hemisphere, but it was still a remarkable turnaround after the misery of a Wooden Spoon from a championship which Scotland entered in good heart following an encouraging start to the reign of Kiwi head coach Vern Cotter in 2014.
When it comes to following the fortunes of the Scotland national team it is so often “the hope that kills you” and a dose of the intoxicating elixir of optimism had duly returned after a positive warm-up period ahead of the World Cup. But few could have predicted the dramatic and emotional rollercoaster that lay ahead.
When the season ended, Glasgow’s Pro12 title had lifted the gloom of that Six Nations whitewash and we embarked on a seemingly endless build-up to the World Cup.
Cotter, pictured below, named his extended training squad at the start of June and in the first part of a relentless three-month preparation the players travelled to Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees for a high-altitude camp. It was a merciful relief when they finally returned to rugby action and in the four-game warm-up series there was evidence that the long time spent together had borne fruit.
The squad looked supremely fit and well organised as narrow away losses to Ireland and France bookended an away-home double of wins over Italy.
When Cotter named his final World Cup squad there was sympathy for the likes of flanker John Barclay missing out, although the subsequent performances of Kiwi import John Hardie vindicated Cotter’s decision. The South Africa-born pair of WP Nel and Josh Strauss were also selected after qualifying on the three-year residency rule and added some power to the pack.
Scotland’s opening Pool B match against Japan in Gloucester was given added spice when the Brave Blossoms created the biggest shock in World Cup history when they stunned South Africa in Brighton – a sensation which would help their Aussie coach Eddie Jones to the England job.
While the 34-32 triumph caused a flutter in Scottish hearts it actually proved a godsend as, firstly, they were given notice of the Japanese threat and it also clearly sapped a lot of energy from the Asians.
With only a four-day turnaround from the biggest win in their history, Japan, despite scoring the first try of the match, fell away in the second half and Scotland were able to get off to a dream, bonus-point start.
It was a similar story at Elland Road in the second game as the Scots started slowly against the United States before forcing a grip on proceedings and taking maximum points again.
The road headed north to Newcastle for the final two pool games and St James’ Park proved a fantastic venue with an electric atmosphere.
The South Africans bounced back from their Japan embarrassment and a muscular performance by them proved too strong for the Scots. It meant that, as expected, the clash with Samoa would determine Scotland’s progress or not to the quarter-finals, something they were determined to achieve following the pool stage exit of 2011.
Samoa, surprisingly, were out of the running after losing to both the Springboks and Japan, but you wouldn’t have known it by the intensity of the onslaught they launched at the Scots that day.
In a game which at times resembled an end-to-end basketball encounter, Scotland got the job done… just. Skipper Greig Laidlaw scored the decisive try late on and looked forward to the last eight. That was more than hosts England could as they traumatically bowed out after failing to progress from a devilish Pool A, losing at Twickenham to Wales and then the do-or-die showdown with an increasingly impressive Australia – failures which cost Stuart Lancaster his job as head coach and led to high-profile rugby league convert Sam Burgess returning to the 13-man code after failing to make an impact as a union centre. There were fears that the loss of England may drain the life out of the tournament but the extravaganza rolled on and it was their Wallaby conquerors who provided Scotland with their quarter-final opposition.
The build-up to the match was overshadowed by the seemingly harsh bans handed out to Ross Ford and Jonny Gray for an illegal tackle after they were reported by an Australian citing commissioner. But in a rare outbreak of common sense by a World Rugby judicial panel, the bans were thrown out and both lined up at Twickenham.
What followed was one of the games of the tournament as Scotland played with the verve and panache they had been hinting at for some time.
The Wallabies were second favourites for the tournament but some wayward kicking by Bernard Foley and spirited attack by the Scots meant Cotter’s men stayed in the game.
Trailing 32-27 with seven minutes remaining, a Mark Bennett interception try sparked euphoria in the stands and had Scotland fans, not to mention many a neutral, on their feet around the world as the dark blues snatched an improbable 34-32 lead.
Hearts sank minutes later, however, as South African referee Craig Joubert awarded a dubious penalty after a botched Scotland lineout and Foley slotted to seal a dramatic win for the Aussies. Joubert infamously sprinted from the pitch after full-time, an action which sparked fury, and the penalty award was later deemed incorrect by the authorities. It was, however, too late for Cotter and his dejected players.
The frenzy over Joubert’s errors and behaviour rumbled on but, in the cold light of day, the Scots, who had been outscored 5-3 on the trycount, could also look at some of their own errors in the closing stages which prevented them from seeing out a famous win.
It was, however, a performance to be proud of. As was the calm and gracious reactions of both Cotter and Laidlaw in the immediate, desolate aftermath. Bennett sprinting clear in the rain to touch down under the posts is the stand-out image of the Scottish rugby year – or indeed, many a year.
Australia went on via a semi-final win over Argentina to an all-antipodean showdown which proved a worthy final. In the end, the All Blacks, who beat France and South Africa en route, won 34-17 to become the first nation to defend the crown, win it for a third time and bring down the curtain on the titanic careers of skipper Richie McCaw and stand-off Dan Carter in fitting style. Carter went on to be named World Rugby Player of the Year, for which Laidlaw also earned a nomination.
Scotland’s showing has lifted hope (that dreaded word again) ahead of the 2016 Six Nations, but caution lingers. England visit on the opening weekend and will be determined to get the Jones era off to a winning start. Lose that and it’s Wales in Cardiff the following weekend – never a happy hunting ground for Scotland. For now, though, Scotland fans can toast a festive period with a glass which is very much half full.