THE Greeks knew all about frustration. There was Tantalus chained to a pillar in the Underworld and up to his neck in water, only for the water to retreat when, tortured by thirst, he lowered his head to drink.
There was Sisyphus too, condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, until every time just as he reached the top, it slipped away and he had to start all over again. They must surely have been Scottish rugby supporters – or indeed Scottish players or coaches. “Tantalising” is too weak a word for our experience. It’s difficult to remember that only a few weeks ago we were speaking confidently of the return of the feel-good factor.
Dublin was bad. Rome was worse. On a day for running rugby, we rarely had the ball, and when we did have it, we ran poor lines, slowly and unimaginatively, and then, more often that not, coughed up the ball. Our line-out was terrible – albeit not quite as bad as Ireland’s scrum at Twickenham. Almost the only favourable thing to be said is that, when we had 15 men on the field – which again wasn’t the case for a quarter of the match – our tackling and defensive organisation were good enough to make it seem unlikely that Italy would score a try, despite all the possession and territory they enjoyed. As against that, we found it hard to cross the Italian 22, let alone the try-line, which we never once threatened.
It’s probably too soon in the wake of such a disappointing day, to attempt an assessment of this particular season. It’s not, however, too soon to remark that we haven’t actually had a really good season since 1999. If you take a modest view of what constitutes a good championship the last tolerably successful one was 2006 when, in Frank Hadden’s first year as coach, we beat France, England and Italy.
There have been barren spells before. Some of us are old enough to remember them. It is 61 years, and 62 seasons, since my first visit to Murrayfield when, against the odds and all expectations, we beat a star-studded Welsh team 19-0 in 1951. The following autumn we lost 44-0 to South Africa, in the days of the three-point try. Talk about the descent from triumph to disaster; we came down in a high-speed lift, and didn’t win another international till February 1955. Actually, if you take three championship wins as a measure of a good season, I doubt if there have been as many as ten such seasons in these 61 years.
One reason is, of course, that we have very rarely won away from home. There have been two victories at Twickenham in my lifetime: 1971 and 1983.. Since 1951 we have won five times in Cardiff, six times in Paris, 12 in Dublin, and twice in Rome. This makes a grand total of 27 away wins in the championship. The figures would be even more miserable if Ireland hadn’t for long periods been a poor side themselves.
Even so, we have fallen short of recording one away victory every two years. When we beat Wales at Cardiff in 1982 that was Jim Renwick’s first experience of an international win away from Murrayfield, ten years after he got his first cap – he was injured and missed the 1976 win in Dublin.
Yet Renwick was a great player and there were other great ones in the Scotland teams of his time: Andy Irvine, Ian McGeechan, Billy Steele, John Rutherford, Roy Laidlaw, Roger Baird among the backs; Sandy Carmichael, Ian McLauchlan, Peter and Gordon Brown, Colin Deans, Iain Milne, David Leslie, Iain Paxton, John Beattie, Jim Calder – almost all of them Lions.
We have won three championships (1984,1990 and 1999) and shared two (1964 and 1986) in my lifetime – and there was one odd season (1973) when there was a quintuple tie, each country winning twice – this, like our shared titles, was before points differential decided the title. But we have collected far more wooden spoons. I make these points not to excuse our latest failure or to exculpate Andy Robinson, his assistant coaches and the players, but to point out that our troubles are long-standing.
To put it simply: we have always had too narrow a player base, and this has meant that players have not necessarily had to drive themselves as hard as their contemporaries elsewhere in order to be picked for their country. Moreover, except for our rare periods of success, when a clutch of genuinely great players matured at the same time, almost all Scotland XVs of my lifetime have included players who would not have played international rugby if they had not been Scottish. Sometimes they have constituted a third of the team or even more.
It’s easy for supporters to condemn coaches and players – and both of course expect to be criticised when performances are as poor as Saturday’s in Rome. It is easy to say that selection has been at fault and X should be out and Y in. But this is to evade the issue. Can anyone really believe that two or three different selections would have seen us win three matches this season?
This is why it is worth looking at the position today from a historical perspective. We have almost never been picking from an embarrassment of riches. Our base has always been narrow. Until we have a bigger and stronger professional game, and professional teams regularly matching and beating their rivals in other countries, we shall continue to be the poor relations of European rugby – let alone the world game – picking up occasional victories but seldom achieving consistent success.
Yes, it’s depressing and tantalising. But that’s how it is. Robert Garioch wrote a fine poem about the unfortunate Sisyphus, which contains the line: “bumpity doun in the corrie gaed whumlin the peetiless whunstane.. “ So here we are: doun in the corrie once more, with the boulder to be pushed uphill yet again.