Scotland struggling to remain in top tier

IS SCOTLAND a tier one nation or a tier two rugby country? It’s an interesting question and one that is worth examining in light of the forthcoming summer tour to the USA, Canada, Argentina and South Africa.

Scotland will be desperate to avoid another defeat like the 26-23 reverse they suffered against Canada in Vancouver in 2002. Photograph: Richard Lam/AP

Four Test matches in four weekends is a tough ask, it is not usually attempted outside of a World Cup campaign. At approximately 26,000 miles distance Scotland’s eight-flight, globe-trotting will see them fly further than the circumference of the globe. What could possibly have prompted the SRU to sanction the sort of round-the-world, continent-crossing, morale testing, jet-lag inducing expedition that would have Michael Palin shredding his passport?

The answer is that it is to help maintain Scotland’s precarious tier one status. The summer Test schedules were originally rolled out by the IRB in 2010, with Scotland playing almost exclusively against tier two nations. The powers that be decided that the Scots were simply not strong enough to play what had become traditional three-Test series against the Southern Hemisphere big boys – New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. They were right. The prospect of Scotland playing three back-to-back Tests against the All Blacks, as England are doing this summer, doesn’t bear imagining.

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Still, the Scots complained about the quality of their chosen opposition and the big boys agreed to shoe-horn one-off Tests against the Scots into the pre-arranged schedules. Unfortunately, these additional matches have to be played midweek (as with Australia in 2012 when the Test fell on a Tuesday evening) or they have to be played outside the three-week IRB June window (as is happening in South Africa this summer).

Which effectively means that new coach Vern Cotter will have to pick a squad to play the Springboks that is selected exclusively from Edinburgh and Glasgow. The foreign-based clubs will prevent their players from playing outside the official Test window. Premier Rugby Ltd fine those that don’t. So Scotland will play the best of the summer opposition with the weakest team.

Moreover, the trip from Buenos Aires to Port Elizabeth is tortuous, expensive and very long. There are no direct flights from Argentina to South Africa so the squad will have to travel via Brazil in the middle of the soccer World Cup, when every plane in and out of the place will be packed to the gunwales and prices will be through the roof. All to ensure that Scotland get tier one opposition. Never mind that it is the same tier one opposition that the Scots played in November, oh, and last June as well.

Already there is talk of not one but two touring parties taking on the challenge of this marathon quest. A largely domestic and potentially a more experienced squad of players will travel to Argentina and South Africa for the harder two Tests. The first party will use the exiles and one or two young guns for the North America leg of the tour. Given the numbers, or rather the lack of them, some poor players will inevitably be asked to front up on four successive weekends.

This is partly because Cotter can’t afford to put out a significantly weakened side in North America for fear of losing to the Eagles and/or the Canucks. The hosts will smell blood and will relish claiming a tier one scalp, even if it only belongs to Scotland. It’s happened before.

Back in June of 2002 a very decent looking Scotland side, including the likes of Mike Blair, Chris Paterson, Simon Taylor and Jason White, slumped to a first ever defeat to Canada by 26-23 at Vancouver’s Thunderbird Stadium. Ian McGeechan was coach.

Cotter will not want a repeat. Indeed, he will be determined to get off on the right note and losing in North America will send out an unfortunate “business as usual” signal rather than the preferred “under new management” that all tartan fans are hoping to see.