Aidan Smith: There’s optimism at Murrayfield, at Hampden you fear the worst

National football and rugby captains Andy Robertson and Greig Laidlaw got together at Oriam.  Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS/SRU
National football and rugby captains Andy Robertson and Greig Laidlaw got together at Oriam. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS/SRU
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At sold-out Murrayfield, the Scotland rugby captain Greig Laidlaw begins the move which involves Jonny Gray, Finn Russell and Peter Horne before Huw Jones magicks up a flipped pass behind his back to Sean Maitland who from deep on the left flank charges forward, seemingly propelled by the roar of the crowd, now well-used to such dazzling breaks but not in the least bit blasé about them.

Maitland is eventually halted but Jones has kept up with him and, just in case anyone missed his impersonation of Meadowlark Lemon, he repeats it. Horne, pictured inset, has kept up with them both and as he crashes over the line the stadium explodes with joy.

Scotland and Israel players line up ahead of kick off. Pic: SNS

Scotland and Israel players line up ahead of kick off. Pic: SNS

A couple of hours later, over in the Balkans where a mere 8,632 are scattered round the ground, the Scotland football captain Andy Robertson begins the move in roughly the same unpromising-looking area of the pitch.

It’s certainly unpromising as far as Scotland’s footballers are concerned because they never start flowing moves from there which result in goals.

But this time the ball is clipped to Ryan Fraser, to Callum McGregor, back to Robertson and on to Ryan Christie who arrows a hard pass up the wing to Fraser, no less of a turf-scorcher than the rugby boys, and from the cutback James Forrest tees himself up for a thumping volley. The crowd – the Scottish element – are stunned.

Not only are team goals like this a rarity, so are any kind of goals. Forrest, true to his name, usually gets lost in forests when clear paths present themselves but this time displays impressive nonchalance to supply his own assist.

These fans explode too, going off like a penny banger.

Two scintillating moves, two stunning scores. Which was better?

Now, the sports are not in competition with each other – there are enough real sporting rivalries out there to make progress challenging enough – and the two skippers sitting down to lunch at the shared training camp in preparation for their respective autumn encounters made for a cheering picture.

But, as both sets of dark blue shirts are washed and packed away for a while, we might consider the current state of the teams and where they’re going.

There isn’t really much doubt about this, the rugby team are in a better place right now. When you visit Murrayfield there’s optimism in the air; if it’s Hampden you fear the worst.

Murrayfield is packed every time; Hampden for Tuesday’s crucial game against Israel wasn’t even half-full. The rugby team are bold, dynamic, urgent, inventive and, when the trick passes come off, tremendously entertaining. The football team struggles to be these things.

It wasn’t always so. You’ve never heard 67,000 folk make less noise than Murrayfield when the team were stodgy and dull. Passes would be delivered slowly, limply – and they would be dropped. Too polite to jeer, the crowd would greet the latest cock-up with disappointed sighs. And the place wasn’t always full, not for games against the likes of Fiji who visited two weeks ago.

But Vern Cotter bashed the team into the required shape to start resembling a proper, grown-up, serious-minded XV, and then Gregor Townsend took over the coaching. This looks, for the moment, like a rather brilliant succession plan. But it was part of no one’s thinking that Gordon Strachan would abruptly hand over to Alex McLeish for a second stint in charge because his time, after failing in Egypt, seemed to have come and gone.

International rugby does not have to put up with the noise and self-importance of its clubs like international football does. And qualifying for the Rugby World Cup is not a problem for Scotland. Unlike the football team, in their version, they simply turn up.

But, while some of their prospective routes to finals have been absolute stinkers, the football team have massively contributed to their own downfall. This being Argentina anniversary year, there have been plenty of reminders of when Scotland possibly loved their team just a little too much. Recently, though, the relationship has been under serious strain.

The hot, young equivalent of Townsend in football doesn’t crave the job (though this is a problem throughout the international game). The supporters don’t turn up – and for some of the players in the countdown to that vital encounter in Albania it was the moment for I’m a Scottish Internationalist … Get Me Out of Here!

But look what happened next. You can only kick a Scotsman so hard, so many times. And what better place to start fighting back than Albania, home to the biggest Norman Wisdom fan club in the world, for all his movies about the little pushed-around guy not prepared to take it any more.

I hesitate to say everyone is right back in love with the football team. The caterpillar hasn’t yet turned into a fully-formed butterfly; maybe at the moment it’s a slug which has simply found its way out of the forest. The opposition were modest, but big respect to the guys who stayed and played in Shkoder, then came back to drookit Hampden, gave Israel a goal of a start and won that one, too.

Modest opposition this may have been, but these were meaningful games and significant victories for a manager they used to always call lucky, who’s had to deny he hit upon a winning formation by accident.

The rugby boys’ almighty tussle with South Africa, on the other hand, was to all intents a friendly, and despite that fantastic try it ended in defeat. These teams could meet next year in Japan’s World Cup and that will be the true test of where Townsend is taking his vibrant side.

The excitement surrounding them is understandable but calls for Peter Horne’s score to be installed as our best-ever try suggest we might be getting a wee bit carried away.

The greatest remains Jim Calder’s against Wales at the Arms Park in 1982.