Rugby: Transition must make way for a new era

THERE has been no escaping the word of the year in Scottish rugby, no matter how different the accent in which it was spoken.

The boot of Greig Laidlaw helped Scotland to scare the Springboks. Picture: Getty

Transition. It is hardly a new term for those used to the challenge of striving to make a country of 10,000 or so adult rugby players competitive with a neighbour of more than one million, not to mention the nations of the southern hemisphere where rugby is a religion in vastly bigger tranches of land.

We could argue that every year is a transition year for Scottish rugby, but a new coach for Scotland, and another waiting in the wings, a new chief at Edinburgh and a remodelled squad and even new plans to shake up club rugby announced before Christmas add up to a feeling of Scottish rugby bidding to re-invent itself, only with more success.

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Australian Scott Johnson stepped into the shoes of departed Englishman Andy Robinson at the start of 2013 with Scots expectations on the rocks again and many fearing that if World Cup winner Robinson could not cultivate a Test-winning mentality what hope was there of a changing picture?

Johnson came in with a mixed reputation as a popular skills coach but no-one was sure if he could cut it as a head honcho. After negotiations with the SRU, it was revealed in April that he would not remain as coach, but move to the SRU’s director of rugby position, last occupied by Ian McGeechan in 2005, and a whole new controversy ignited when Clermont Auvergne’s Vern Cotter was confirmed as Scotland’s new man, but his French club blew a gasket and insisted that he see out his contract to 2014.

So Johnson remained in charge, but by then it was no big deal as he had followed the example of Frank Hadden, on replacing Matt Williams in 2005, and, urging his players to believe in themselves with a freer gameplan, steered them to third in the 2013 RBS Six Nations Championship with the best win yet over Italy and a dogged victory at home to Ireland.

Wales won the Six Nations decider with England at the Millennium Stadium on the final Saturday, having opened with defeat by the Irish, who just missed the wooden spoon – France claimed that – and so there was no surprise when a whole lot of red poured into Warren Gatland’s British & Irish Lions camp.

Scotland was represented by Richie Gray, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg – Ryan Grant joined them after it seemed every other prop standing was sent for first – but, as is ever the case, Gatland went largely with players he knew, starting with young skipper Sam Warburton, and the same applied to contentious front row calls by his assistant Graham Rowntree and in the backs by Andy Farrell.

The tour itself provided another glorious chapter in the famed Lions history book for Greg Thomas to write up, the 2-1 Test series win the first since the 1997 McGeechan-Telfer inspired triumph in South Africa and first in Oz since Fin Calder’s troops claimed a 2-1 win in 1989. It lacked sparkling rugby until the final half-hour of the third Test in which the Lions let loose with the style we always knew they possessed. But result is king, so honours were festooned on Gatland’s men.

Of more relevance to Scottish rugby was the blooding of ten faces and a host of callow internationalists in South Africa, burgeoning talents Matt Scott, Alex Dunbar, Tim Swinson and Tommy Seymour emerging as key figures in a squad so callow as to resemble a nursery in Test rugby terms.

An opening defeat by Samoa underlined its fragility and Samoa’s growing strength, but when Scotland led the Springboks 17-6 in the second match, tries by Scott and new cap Dunbar added to by Greig Laidlaw’s boot, well into the second half in Nelspruit, there was a strange silence among the home faithful in the Mbombela Stadium and a buzz from the pockets of blue.

Jim Hamilton was sin-binned for pushing tormentor Eben Etzebeth in the face, the Boks rallied with a penalty try and scores by the skilful JJ Engelbrecht and Jan Serfontein, the last in the final seconds clinching a 30-17 win that flattered the home side. Scotland had never won a Test match in South Africa and this one joined the agonising Nathan Hines near thing in 2003 in the “one that got away” category.

The squad needed a last-second try by Alasdair Strokosch and conversion by Laidlaw to snatch victory against Italy and ensure there was something tangible to toast the tour with, but the side story was one of development. By the time Fraser Brown made his appearance against the Italians, having spent most of the season playing for Heriot’s, ten previously uncapped players had made the step up to international rugby and none looked out of place.

The hope in the autumn was for a more solid, cohesive squad to gain revenge over South Africa and claim an historic third-in-a-row win over Australia, but instead we had to make do with an eventual comfortable win over an improving Japan, and talk of improvement and development in defeat by the Wallabies, after the Murrayfield floor opened up and swallowed Scotland in the game against the Boks.

It did not actually open up, but it came close after an infestation of nematode worms ate their way through the turf, creating the potential for a cartoon implosion and sight of players dropping down into a dark cavern.

As it turned out, Scotland briefly fell into an abyss of their own making with the performance against South Africa, while the once world-class Murrayfield pitch, now hammered by Edinburgh fortnightly, reached Christmas resembling a poor council pitch of grassy islands amid the brown slick.

Edinburgh started the season in turmoil with South African Alan Solomons bringing in his own ideas, but only after arriving in August, while Glasgow started well and needed a win over Edinburgh on Boxing Day to bring some peace to a rocky run.

With the Heineken Cup effectively over for both, focus will swiftly turn again to the real testing ground, the Six Nations Championship, and the extra spur of proving to incoming coach Cotter that one has the ability and mental fortitude to be part of the move out of transition and into a new era.