Allan Massie: It’s surprising how much Warren Gatland’s judgment has improved since the last Lions tour
Given that the Under-20 Six Nations begin this weekend, that the final of the suddenly improvised Rainbow Cup will be played between Benetton and Vodacom Bulls this afternoon, and that French and English leagues are still advancing to their conclusion, one can’t yet ring out this weird 20-21 season, one in which it has often been devilish hard to know just what was happening.
On the other hand, what wasn’t happening was all too miserably clear: no domestic club rugby, a blank for all the players and the volunteers who make it possible, the heart of rugby locked down and only just breathing.
Still, there have been good things, most notably away victories for Scotland against Wales, England and France. That would be an odd triple in a normal season, since we never play these three all away in the same tournament, but of course the match in Wales in October was the one that should have been played back in March 2020, the one that for fear of Covid infections was called off a few hours before kick-off, even though Cardiff had already been swarming with Scots fans for hours or a day or even two.
Of the other two big wins in this years Six Nations I suppose the win at Twickenham mattered more to many. No wonder. After all, even Scotland’s coach Gregor Townsend himself was a boy of eight or nine last time we won at Twickenham, and you could pick an outstanding imaginary Scotland XV of players who never won there. It was a very cool and competent performance and if, after the first delight, one greedily thought it would have been nice to have scored more than one try and so won by a bigger margin, we admired the way we controlled the game in the last quarter. I would guess that Ali Price’s management of those final 20 minutes at Twickenham had Lions’ chief coach and selector Warren Gatland put an approving tick against his name. Some of course said England had a bad day because they played badly. I thought they had a bad day because they weren’t allowed to play well.
Yet the win in Paris was perhaps even more meritorious, because that was a match in which we stared defeat in the face and yet came back to win, again showing what till very recently would have been an uncharacteristic patience and nerve to construct a winning try after a passage of play when any Scottish knock-on would have had the referee blowing “no side”.
Sadly, of course, between these two heights came narrow losses at Murrayfield to Wales and Ireland, defeats so narrow that it was easy to construct a scenario which would have 2021 the year when Scotland’s fourth Grand Slam was allowed to slip away. Well, this was a thought of the “if my Granny had wheels, she’d be a motor-bus” type. We would have gone to Paris for the last match after a week’s postponement on account of Covid, and all too probably with jangling nerves. Of course if France hadn’t had victory at Twickenham snatched away in the very last minutes, both teams in this imagined scenario would have been seeking the Grand Slam, a 1984 re-run, except in Paris rather than Edinburgh.
For both Glasgow and Edinburgh it was an up and down season, with for both more downs than ups. One could only feel for the coaches Danny Wilson and Richard Cockerill. The task Pharaoh set the Israelites in Egypt – making bricks without straw – wasn’t much tougher than their lot: deprived of even more international players than usual, on account of the size and duration of the necessary Covid-free bubble, beset by injuries, cobbling a team together week after week, theirs was an unenviable task. Both clubs had a few good days but more bad ones, though Glasgow saw light at the end of a long dark tunnel in the last few weeks when they successfully introduced some very talented youngsters, two or three of whom have been rewarded by selection for Mike Blair’s squad for summer internationals.
All in all we will leave this bizarre rugby season with many more good memories than bad ones, and I can no longer bore members of younger generations by assuring them that I was at Twickenham the last time we won there. Meanwhile, with eight Scots in Gatland’s pride of lions, we can all support the Lions more wholeheartedly than in recent series. It’s surprising how much Gatland’s judgment has improved since the last Lions tour, when for many Scots the question was whether he was clueless or only prejudiced against us. Or, of course, both.
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