It was a sorry end to the season, Scotland’s defeat by Fiji, although you fancy that the islanders will take a few more scalps with more time together, especially on home soil.
Had they won Scotland would have edged into the top four in the world, nose-bleed territory. Instead the Scots will probably slip back to sixth, which better reflects the reality on the ground.
If Scottish fans are depressed by the setback in Suva, they might be heartened to hear that, as the season 2016-17 staggers to a close, the elite end of the game in Scotland has never been in better shape.
This is not about a sudden glut of world-class players but rather a slow, steady and measurable progress from a very low base. After almost two decades of being an international punch ball, Scottish rugby is once again punching above its weight, which is all we can ask.
Much has been made of the senior side’s win over Australia in Sydney, a place where Scotland have never beaten the Wallabies. The Aussie commentators were dismissive of the visitors’ opening two tries which owed much to pressure defence but even they were stunned into superlatives after the third. Hamish Watson finished off a move that started with a lineout just outside the Scots’ 22 and included 18 passes before the flanker dived over the Wallaby line 70-odd metres upfield.
After easing himself into the post with a regulation win against Italy, and it’s worth noting that for a decade or more there was no such thing, Gregor Townsend announced his arrival on the Test match stage with some aplomb even if he was unable to back it up yesterday albeit with some good reasons..
The Scotland XV in Fiji was without their best player – Stuart Hogg – and their captain, Greig Laidlaw. The Lions and injuries denied them the use of Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour.
Add to that list of absentees the name of a reinvigorated Richie Gray, the find of last season Huw Jones and the hugely influential loosehead prop Ally Dickinson
And finally throw into the mix those late call-ups to the Lions’ squad, Allan Dell and Finn Russell, and remember that a couple of players were sent home early and Townsend had access to less than half of his first-choice XV.
Before flying to Auckland, Russell underlined his credentials as a world-class player against the Wallabies. Ben Toolis adds more depth to Scotland’s well-stocked locker of locks and Greig Tonks rose to the challenge, even if he couldn’t rise quite as far as Israel Folau. Matt Scott proved a point and Ali Price and John Barclay replaced Laidlaw so effectively, as scrum-half and skipper, that the little Borderer may find it hard to break back into this team.
There is better strength and there is greater depth across much of the park although were the rugby gods to unearth another Test-class stand-off and a powerhouse finisher out wide Townsend’s is unlikely to complain.
If the senior side did well against the Wallabies, the under-20s’ performance against the same foe one day later in Georgia’s World Championships was arguably the greater achievement. We know the lack of numbers hurts Scotland’s national team but when you are picking an age grade squad from two (at very best three) year groups Scotland’s numerical disadvantage is compounded
No one told John Dalziel’s young squad, which finished fifth in the world, the same place the senior side are ranked (at least for today) and a new high-water mark for this age grade. After an initial 42-20 loss to New Zealand, when the young Scots were fiercely competitive, they went on to beat every other team they played; Italy, Ireland, Wales and Australia.
We know all about the potential of Blair Kinghorn, Darcy Graham and Callum Hunter-Hill but several others put their hands up. Ross McCann made the switch from wing to outside centre and he did it with an admirable lack of drama. Currie’s Luck Crosbie earned the players’ player of the tournament award, which says much for his competitive instincts, and Conor Eastgate of Wasps did enough to suggest that he may be a long-term rival to Russell.
Best of all, the age-grade squad mirrored the ambition and skills shown by the senior squad, scoring one try against Ireland that went the length of the field.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is that listening to Dalziel being interviewed afterwards there was no elation or jubilation, just a recognition of a job well done and a lingering sense of regret that the young Scots were one bonus point try (against New Zealand) shy of a top-four finish... a little like the senior squad.
Whoever replaces Dalziel as 20s coach has big boots to fill and Scott Johnson, despite the embarrassment that was Alan Solomons, has nailed several key appointments.
It is surely only a matter of time before Dalziel is parachuted into one of the pro teams but right now one Melrose man replaces another as he takes over the Scotland sevens squad from Calum MacRae who masterminded back-to-back victories at Twickenham; the only time Scottish rugby has won anything when competing against the very best the whole rugby world has to offer. A one-man rebuke to those who would use Scotland’s lack of numbers as a get-out clause.
The good news doesn’t stop there because Scotland’s women won two matches in the Six Nations. And if that doesn’t sound like the stuff of back page headlines then consider that they last won a Championship match back in 2010 when they beat the French 10-8 at Lasswade. You wait seven years for a win and two come along in the same season. Chapeau to head coach Shade Munro who has transformed the fortunes of the squad.
All of which leaves us anticipating next season with something akin to hope. Two-time Super Rugby winner Dave Rennie will surely get Glasgow back on track while Edinburgh need a really good shake and Richard Cockerill may just be the man to provide it.
Saying this out loud goes against everything that Scots hold dear but I have an odd sensation in my waters about the immediate future of elite rugby in Scotland and it feels something like optimism.
Heck, in four years time we may even get a starter in the Lions’ XV.