Duncan Smith: Scottish sides in mix for historic year

Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill, left, and Glasgow's Dave Rennie are focused on reaching the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals. Picture: SNS/SRU.
Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill, left, and Glasgow's Dave Rennie are focused on reaching the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals. Picture: SNS/SRU.
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Next month will mark the 20th anniversary of the first time I was afforded the never-to-be-taken- for-granted privilege of being paid to attend and report on a Scotland rugby international. As a wet- behind-the-ears junior reporter for Borders weekly The Southern Reporter, I had been in my first job for mere weeks when despatched to Murrayfield for Scotland v Wales in the opening match of the 1999 Five Nations.

Home centre John Leslie 
collected from the kick-off to score after eight seconds and the rest his history. A dashing Scotland side, built on the potent midfield axis of Gregor Townsend, Leslie and Alan Tait, powered on to win in exhilarating style the last ever championship before Five became Six at the dawn of the millennium.

Naive notions that this was always how things were going to be would receive rude awakenings in the subsequent years as Scottish rugby toiled to keep pace with the rapid progress of the professional era, but at the start of 2019 there is nothing wrong with pondering if there might be a bit of destiny hanging in the air. With Townsend, who famously scored a try in every game of that gilded 1999 campaign, now firmly ensconced as national head coach, could this mouth-watering World Cup year be the one that sees the Scots finally rule the northern hemisphere once again?

The Six Nations looms tantalisingly on the horizon but prior to that we have arguably the biggest fortnight ever in Scottish pro team history as both Glasgow and Edinburgh head into the final two pool matches of Europe’s elite club competition with live chances of making the quarter-finals. Perhaps even more than the Warriors’ watershed Pro12 title win in 2015, having both our teams in the knockout stages of the Heineken Champions Cup would be a landmark achievement in what has been an at times 
challenging couple of decades.

This halfway mark of the season seems like a good time to take stock and consider a mid-term report card which could be misleading if purely taken on what appears on paper in black and white.

A quick glance at the Guinness Pro14 conference tables show both Glasgow and Edinburgh 
sitting in the second-place spots. And yet, behind the bare stats lie starkly contrasting stories, with Richard Cockerill’s side bounding into the new year on the back of three straight Pro14 wins, including two over Dave Rennie’s Glasgow, who went on to make it three defeats on the bounce with that deeply disappointing loss to 
Benetton in Italy at the weekend.

Rennie, who has indicated he will be staying at Scotstoun for at least another year but is yet to have that extension formally 
confirmed, will know full well that the rot needs to stop quickly.

A bonus-point win in the Heineken Champions Cup at home to Cardiff on Sunday would be just what the doctor ordered and take them to the cusp of that often crucial 20-point mark in Pool 3.

Then follows a testing trip to face Saracens, the side who popped the bubble with that bruising 13-3 
win in the tournament opener at Scotstoun.

It was a proper ding-dong battle in which Glasgow did themselves proud in parts, but the way the physical English giants squeezed the life out of the Scots was the perfect template of how to negate their threats and one that would be repeated by 
Cockerill’s Edinburgh.

When things go well for Glasgow they tend to go very well and, on the front foot, they can still be an irrepressible force. The problems start when early adversity sets in. Too often the Warriors seem incapable of working out a Plan B and getting themselves back into games they have fallen behind in.

As was the case when Finn 
Russell, pictured right, was in the playmaker role, the fortunes of the team are often directly reflected 
in the performance of his young successor Adam Hastings. Still finding his feet in the week in, week out grind of top-level rugby, it has been an up and down 
journey but the 22-year-old clearly has the skill and temperament to keep improving given a bit of time and patience.

Over at Edinburgh, Cockerill appears to have the Midas Touch at present and heads to his former club Toulon on Saturday eyeing what would be the finest hour of one-and-a-half years which has contained much to like from the straight-shooting Englishman.

One note of caution would be to cast minds back to the autumn Test period when the capital pro team were noticeably weakened much more than Glasgow by the loss of a Test contingent which 
has grown in line with the team’s drastic improvement.

Managing the Six Nations 
period could make the difference between Cockerill achieving a second straight trip to the Pro 14 play-offs and a shot at May’s Celtic Park final as well as the all-important securing of more Champions Cup rugby next season.

So much exciting 
rugby to savour in the weeks ahead before thoughts can even turn towards the World Cup. As for Scotland, two home games to open the Six Nations is a kinder hand than has been dealt for a while, even if the visit of Italy is 
followed by the formidable Irish.

There were lots of positives to take from Scotland’s autumn, but Ireland, Wales and England could point to even more. This year’s tournament could well raise the competitive intensity several notches. Here’s hoping Townsend’s men can tap into the spirit of 1999.