There was a time when rugby took a back seat for a few months over the summer. Studs would be swapped for cricket pads and an enjoyable interlude would be had.
Not these days. The modern professional game is an insatiable beast and the World Cup year of 2019 goes down as one of the most intense and landmark years in the sport since 1823 when William Webb Ellis thought, sod it, I’m picking this football up and running with it.
It was all about Japan and, sadly, Scotland were found wanting. An opening pool-stage trouncing by Ireland had Gregor Townsend’s men on the back foot from the get go and admirable shut-out wins over Samoa and Russia were followed by an epic 28-21 defeat by the inspired hosts in Yokohama on a dramatic typhoon-hit weekend which made it only the second early exit from a World Cup since 1987 following the failure of New Zealand in 2011.
National head coach Gregor Townsend remains to fight another day, with an evolving back-room team emerging, but knows a poor Six Nations, which starts soon with a trip to face the Irish in Dublin on 1 February, will end a tenure which has been, on the whole, successful and entertaining bar a few shockers.
The year began well with a routine home win over Italy but the wheels creaked off and the Six Nations was only salvaged by an afternoon at Twickenham which must go down as one of Scottish rugby’s most famous days.
Not a win, the near four-decade wait for that in London continues, but a soul-enriching fightback from the depths of what seemed a lost cause at half-time. Finn Russell pulled the strings, Sam Johnson scored a try for the ages but, in true Scottish style, glory was snatched out of our hands at the last second. The score 38-38, but the Calcutta Cup still in Scottish hands, retained for the first time since 1983.
Back to the pro-club beat and for the first time ever both Scots clubs made it to the knockout stages of Europe’s elite Heineken Champions Cup.
It was quarter-finals and out, though, as Glasgow were demolished at a soon-to-be sullied Saracens, while Edinburgh couldn’t quite get past Munster in front of a bumper BT Murrayfield crowd.
Saracens, with Scotland wing Sean Maitland a tryscorer on the day, went on to lift the trophy after beating Leinster at Newcastle’s St James’ Park but later in the year became embroiled in a salary-cap breach which casts a shadow on all the great achievements the London club has made in the last decade to become viewed as a now perhaps tainted benchmark.
On the domestic front, the new part-time professional Super 6 league was the main talking point and is now up and running. Governance was also a key issue, sprouting from the ruling that Keith Russell, the father of star stand-off Finn, had been unfairly dismissed from his role as director of domestic rugby. The subsequent report by Sir Bill Gammell and Norman Murray on how Scottish rugby is run is likely to spark heated debate into the new decade.
Ayr won their second league and cup double, beating Heriot’s with a last-gasp Frazier Climo penalty for a 27-25 win over in the cup final, before transitioning into the Ayrshire Bulls, who sit second behind Watsonians in the Super 6 heading into the new year.
The Scotland Women’s team embarked on a change of era as Shade Munro was replaced by Irishman Philip Doyle following a Six Nations whitewash and the new coach oversaw an impressive 2-0 tour series win in South Africa.
Japan was the cornerstone of the rugby year, of course, and didn’t disappoint in terms of drama and fantastic sport.
The cancellation of matches during the week of Typhoon Hagibis goes down as a black mark against World Rugby’s failure to do due diligence but that Japan-Scotland game in Yokohama went ahead and was an absolute cracker. The result didn’t go the Scots’ way and leaves Townsend on a shoogly peg but the occasion was sport at its finest.
England’s name seemed to be on the trophy after a magnificent dismantling of the All Blacks in the semi-finals but, in the end, the wily Springboks timed their run to perfection and were worthy world champions.
Scotland will get a crack at them on next summer’s tour as a busy 2020 beckons. The Guinness Pro14 final doesn’t take place until the end of June as an elongated season due to the World Cup unfolds. The 1872 Cup will be decided at the end of May following Edinburgh’s impressive series levelling win at the weekend.
Dave Rennie will depart Glasgow to become head coach of Australia at the end of the season, replaced by current Scotland forwards coach Danny Wilson.
It’s been a long old rugby year but enticing new chapters await to be written.