2018 proved a topsy-turvy year but then this is Scottish rugby so you probably knew that much already. The political row around the sacking of Keith Russell as the SRU’s head of domestic rugby was undoubtedly the most depressing aspect of Scottish rugby over the past year, with the structure of checks and balances struggling to keep some of the governing body’s bigger personalities at bay. The return of the Calcutta Cup to Murrayfield’s trophy cabinet for the first time in a decade proved the highlight – and there was plenty to ponder between those two extremes.
The year started with barely contained excitement about Gregor Townsend’s first ever Six Nations tournament as Scotland coach, an enthusiasm that was only marginally dented by the “Beast from the East”, a band of freezing weather that reminded everyone that we exist, and exercise, only at nature’s pleasure.
The Six Nations opener in February was a slap in the face for Scotland’s new coach. Wales not only won but they did so at a canter. Townsend’s much vaunted fastest rugby on the planet certainly unravelled faster than anyone expected. Peter Horne’s late try was the Scots’ only contribution in a 34-7 thrashing: the low point of 2018 for Scotland fans, a generation of whom have yet to witness a win in Cardiff.
Matters improved quickly from there with a back-to-basics win over France and that brilliant display against England to grab the ancient silverware. Finn Russell’s long floated pass, on his own 22 metre line, with no margin for error, was the moment of the year for many.
Russell was to join Racing 92 in the summer for reported wages of around €700,000 per year, and it looked like the Parisian club had got themselves a bargain. Scotland hadn’t scored a try against England at Murrayfield in 14 years, and while Huw Jones grabbed two that day, he conceded two through missed tackles against Wales in November, making it a roller-coaster ride of a year for the outside centre.
Scotland lost to Ireland away, though there wasn’t much between the two teams, and squeaked past Italy in the final game in Rome, which only confirmed that this side can’t coast against anyone and still expect to win as they soon found out. In the summer Scotland gave the USA Eagles their first tier 1 win, largely down to selection, and the recent November Tests finished level – won two, lost two – which saw Scotland slip from fifth to seventh in the world rankings, a more accurate picture of where the nation lies.
Elsewhere there was what could prove to be a seismic shift in rugby’s tectonic plates as the Springboks and Ireland both beat the All Blacks, the former doing so in New Zealand.
Ireland boast a host of top class players and a first-rate coach in Joe Schmidt, and while the Kiwis suddenly look a little vulnerable, only a fool would write them off. Closer to home England won’t be far off the pace at next year’s World Cup in Japan if they can get their best players on the field, ditto Wales and France.
Scotland’s women continue to progress under coach Shade Munro. They won just one Six Nations match, against Ireland in Dublin, but they finished just one point off Wales after fighting back from a 13-0 half-time deficit.
The women’s team are now worthy opposition for anyone as they proved recently against Canada, a team ranked seven places above them. Three times Scotland fell behind and three times they fought back, only losing in the final few minutes with one ball dropped over the Canadian try line and a simple penalty pushed wide of the posts. Agony at the time, obviously, but vital lessons to be learned. Numbers continue to be a problem and Scotland’s women are not world beaters but they are competitive, which hasn’t always been the case.
The pro-teams enjoyed a breakthrough year with both sides qualifying for the Guinness Pro14 playoffs for the first time ever. Edinburgh fell to Munster at Thomond Park in the quarter-finals; a game they could have won. At least coach Richard Cockerill, pictured, breathed new belief into his side with an ethic of hard work, the players forgoing Scotland’s traditional Sunday service for extra coaching sessions. For turning Edinburgh’s serial underachievers into contenders, Cockerill gets my coach of the year award.
Glasgow also had a new coach in Kiwi Dave Rennie, and the players reported that he wanted to play just like Townsend had done...only faster. Sadly the Warriors got their season back-to-front. After a brilliant start that saw them go ten league wins on the bounce, Glasgow lost four of their last five matches including that semi-final against the Scarlets who looked as surprised as anyone inside Scotstoun at the ease of their victory.
Teams heal quickly, players less so, and John Barclay is still rehabbing that painful injury to his Achilles tendon that he suffered in that same match.
Neither pro-team impressed in Europe last season, although Edinburgh got into the Challenge Cup play-offs where Cardiff proved too strong and Glasgow scalped the Exeter Chiefs in the final pool game. Fast forward to the current campaign and both of Scotland’s pro-teams are in with a shout of qualifying for the Champions Cup quarter-finals with two pool matches still to play. Neither team has the weapons to win it.
Overall Scotland are competitive but world class players remain a rarity. There was not one Scot in the BBC podcast Team of the Year and just five nominees in total, four of whom were backs. Stuart McInally, the one forward, might yet get there if he maintains the current rate of improvement.
In clubland the biggest battles took place in the boardrooms rather than on the pitch, with Super Six dividing opinion much like the man who devised it, Scott Johnson, who returns to Australia next year. Super Six is a sword of Damocles for some, a golden ticket for others. Quite what the final competition will look like is uncertain but Murrayfield misfired when ignoring the wider argument in favour of a Glasgow franchise instead of placing three in Edinburgh, two of them a mere Stuart Hogg spiral apart from one another.
Melrose beat Ayr in the league final and Stirling County in the cup final, but perhaps the most interesting development in clubland was the March meeting between Heriot’s and Currie Chiefs, the first Premiership match to take place indoors at the Oriam centre. Currie took full advantage of the perfect conditions to run out 47-14 winners.
The worst aspect of 2018 was the whole sorry Keith Russell saga.
His perfunctory sacking lifted the lid on some of the unsavoury practices that Murrayfield have employed, with 14 “settlement agreements” still unexplained. Chief executive Mark Dodson continues to divide opinion but neither he nor Scottish Rugby chairman Colin Grassie have offered to explain and/or excuse their behaviour, which speaks volumes.
Thankfully the year ended on a high with the announcement that Big Dod was to receive an OBE for his services to charity after all the work he has done raising money for and awareness of motor neurone disease. Doddie Weir’s award is a timely reminder that while rugby has the occasional power to uplift and inspire, there are many more important things in life.
Happy New Year.