Silver lining amid clouds of gloom

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SPORTS REVIEW OF 2008 Part 4: Scotland lift the Calcutta Cup and end wait for win in Argentina.

STYLE was the great conundrum for Scotland's international squad heading into 2008 and it has remained the case across the ten Test matches since.

It was not a query over the need for blazers or suits, or the increasingly common casual, no-tie affair, but the more prosaic but pertinent concern over what style Scotland's rugby team could find to uncover tries. After the first three games of the year, in the RBS Six Nations Championship

the issue of whether Scotland could score was becoming something of a side-issue to that of whether Scottish players had the wit to simply beat a man and break a defence.

Should Dan Parks remain at stand-off or was it time to throw caution to the wind and push Chris Paterson back in there? Was Phil Godman, the diminutive Edinburgh talent, ready for a return to the international fold? It took a while to find the answers.

After defeats to France, Wales and Ireland in the Six Nations, with one try for and 11 against, a 15-9 win over Brian Ashton's England came as a major fillip to Scots.

After flickers of a revival in Dublin before the 5-1 try defeat by the Irish, Paterson brought more movement and ambition to Scotland's game with the English from the stand-off position, but again the win owed much to aggressive defence, Paterson's goal-kicking – he slotted four penalties with Dan Parks grabbing the fifth – and the frailties of a 'new-look' English side.

Hampered by injury and tactical befuddlement, Hadden used 32 players over the five games and only three, Nathan Hines, Allan Jacobsen and Euan Murray, started them all, but nowhere were the shortcomings posted more clearly than in another ruinous weekend in Rome. When Nikki Walker was ruled out late with an ankle injury, the coach swiftly abolished the new ambition, shifting Paterson back to wing and restoring Parks to the pivotal No10 role.

The pressure on the Glasgow star, for he has undoubtedly been a key man at pro team level, showed in a nervy display and interception howlers in both halves that led to Italian tries. The fury of the Scottish supporters was matched by the players' as the team had put together an otherwise good 80-minute display with Mike Blair and Allister Hogg scoring tries, Parks and Paterson contributing another seven points with the boot – the latter setting a world record of 33 consecutive kicks.

But Italy converted both tries and Andrea Marcato nailed a 23-20 victory with a last-minute drop-goal. Only points difference kept Hadden from a second successive wooden spoon. There was little doubt in the Roman air that evening that if the SRU was able to find another coach with the ability, desire and affordable wage demands, Hadden's time would have been at an end.

But it could not, and instead Gordon McKie, the SRU chief executive, and Hadden agreed to move on with different assistant coaches. Andy Robinson and Sean Lineen, who had helped latterly in the championship, were appointed assistants for the first tour to Argentina since 1994.

Parks had finished the season well with Glasgow, and Hadden and Lineen gave the fly-half another chance in the first Test in Rosario, but the pack under-performed, Parks struggled, and the team lost 21-15 against an unconvincing home side missing around ten first choices. Scotland were also without Nathan Hines, Simon Taylor, Chris Cusiter and Scott Murray due to an elongated French championship in World Cup year.

The XV was changed in Buenos Aires, significantly with Phil Godman replacing Parks at stand-off . A pack performance with greater accuracy let the running Edinburgh fly-half release his back division and though two tries, from Ross Ford and Graeme Morrison, was scant reward it was enough to secure a first Test win on Argentine soil, 26-14.

Even that was tainted, sadly, by the late try that reduced the winning margin. This cost Scotland IRB world ranking points and, under a new system of World Cup seeding, left Hadden's men needing to beat New Zealand or South Africa in November to secure a place in the top eight seeds for the 2011 draw, made controversially in London in December. The win, however, appeased the Murrayfield chiefs and the summer search for experienced long-term assistants – Robinson and Lineen quickly returned to Edinburgh and Glasgow – ended with the appointments of Mike Brewer, the former All Blacks flanker who had quit as Leinster's forwards coach, and Ireland defence coach Graham Steadman.

Their influence was clear in the autumn Tests, where a strengthened, more ambitious Scotland team seemed energised with Godman at stand-off and created a brand of rugby that excited and, more importantly, cut through the best defences in the game.

Still, the All Blacks' second string won 32-6.

Scotland went close to emulating the football team of 1967 and beating the reigning World Cup champions when a strong South Africa arrived at Murrayfield, but the Boks survived a stirring Scots display in a 14-10 victory.

South Africa then thumped Martin Johnson's new England side 42-6 at Twickenham, adding to the frustration in Scotland at an historic win slipping through the net.

Scotland finished the year by running in six tries against Canada in a 41-0 victory that, along with the emergence of more talent in centre/wing Max Evans, lifted spirits.

It still brought only a third victory in ten Test matches and though the World Cup draw did not prove as disastrous as feared, Scotland drawing the two nations they had beaten this year in England and Argentina, there is much to achieve in the next two years if Scotland are to turn a corner.

Pro rugby

Streamlined teams can hold their own

SCOTLAND'S slimmed-down representation in Britain's professional rugby ranks began to take on a more battle-hardened look in 2008 with Glasgow and Edinburgh, but still the teams fell short of top silverware or European breakthroughs.

The controversial decision to close the Borders pro team and shift resources to the two city sides had its downside, not least the shrinking of opportunities for native Scots in the pro environment, but the major plus was the ability of Edinburgh and Glasgow to divide up an extra 1million to help punch above their weight.

The Scottish sides, even with playing budgets now over 2m, still lag behind all but Connacht in the Magners League in terms of spending power, but the key is investing wisely at home and abroad.

Glasgow's main overseas signings Daryl Gibson, Lome Fa'atau and Chris O'Young made little or no impact this year, and that was costly. O'Young returned to Australia and Gibson to his native New Zealand, having failed to swing matches Glasgow's way.

The capital squad benefited from the SRU's luring of Andy Robinson, the former England and British and Irish Lions coach, and in his first season the newcomer and his team were on an upwards curve.

They started 2008 by beating Leicester 17-12 at home, killing off the Tigers' hopes of a quarter-final place in the Heineken Cup, while Glasgow were taking Saracens to the wire in their pool after beating Biarritz at home. Both teams missed out on qualification, Glasgow narrowly losing at home to Saracens, but there was an obvious rise in belief emanating from the Anglo-Scots battles.

In the Magners League, Edinburgh finished in fourth and Glasgow fifth, but both hinted at a new-found ability to beat the best sides in the league home and away.

This season's Heineken Cup was another 'learning curve'. Edinburgh won in France for the first time in the competition, beating Castres, and Glasgow fell just short at Bath, but hopes for a quarter-final run are all but ruined for both.

Now, however, Edinburgh have picked up and Glasgow remain well-placed to launch an assault on the Magners League title in the new year.

Club rugby

Ayr emerge to shake up pecking order

THERE may have been a certain predictability about Boroughmuir winning the Premiership Division 1 championship, having wrapped it up early, and the bearded Angus Martyn being voted Division 1's player of the year, but the emergence of Ayr, Selkirk and West of Scotland after the summer was more of a surprise.

With 'Muir in command of the league, all eyes had turned at the start of 2008 to the race for the Scottish Hydro Electric Cup and the clubs who would lose their places among the elite and those vying to join them.

On the cup front, it was Melrose who uncovered consistency at the right time and drove on to Murrayfield. The Borders club, under Craig Chalmers, stunned Heriot's to win 31-24, 11 years after their first cup triumph.

GHA and Dundee tumbled from Division 1 and were replaced by two proud clubs long absent from the top echelon of Scottish club rugby, West of Scotland and Selkirk. West are close to securing their stay in the top flight, while Selkirk have been the real stunners, winning 11 of their 15 games to date to currently sit third.

Heriot's have played one game more and have eight more bonus points, to occupy second, but the top story of 2008-9 is Ayr. Under new coach Kenny Murray, they have lost just twice, away to Selkirk and Melrose, and lead by ten points. The league race is not yet over, but Ayr appear unstoppable, especially at 'Fortress Millbrae' – where Boroughmuir took possession of the trophy at the start of the year – and a first-ever Division 1 championship is now Ayr's to lose.

Club rugby did briefly return to TV screens with BBC Alba, the BBC's new digital Gaelic channel covering games, but, strangely, they were able to pull the plug halfway through a ten-match deal recently to save costs for next season, apparently.

The issue of a new, improved "SPL-like" Division 1 is still being discussed by clubs, but the details of that could take longer than the six months before the next AGM for agreement to be reached.

In Scottish women's rugby, while the national squad struggled through the Six Nations Championship, Murrayfield Wanderers proved the top club side as they scooped the Division 1, cup and sevens titles.


Horse Racing

O'Brien mops up Flat prizes while Nicholls shines with Denman

LIKE a stick of rock, Aidan O'Brien's name is embedded in the 2008 Flat racing campaign from beginning to end.

The master of Ballydoyle sent out an incredible 23 Group 1 winners, equalling his own European record set seven years earlier, enjoyed six Royal Ascot victories, was champion trainer in Britain for the fourth time and became only the second person in history to land all five Irish Classics in the one season.

Given the circumstances, it would be easier to highlight the big races O'Brien didn't manage to get his hands on, the most notable of those being the Derby and Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe.

Epsom's blue riband still went to Ireland courtesy of Jim Bolger's New Approach, a triumph that was greeted with muted cheers in many quarters as the County Carlow handler had gone public a few weeks previously to say New Approach wouldn't run in the race.

An about-turn that proved costly to the punter who laid the colt at 209-1 on the betting exchanges after Bolger had apparently ruled him out of the premier Classic.

There was no sour taste left by Zarkava's stunning victory in the Arc however, with the flying French filly putting the boys firmly in their place and heading off to a new career at stud on the back of an unblemished record of seven wins from seven starts.

If not quite ruling the roost in quite such a dominant fashion as O'Brien did on the level, Paul Nicholls still towered above his rivals over the sticks, the Somerset handler lifting a third championship and earning an astonishing 3.5m plus in prize money as he did so.

As it usually is, Cheltenham was the place reputations were forged, no-one establishing his credentials with more authority than the mighty Denman as he led home a Nicholls 1-2-3 in the Gold Cup.

The exploits of runner-up Kauto Star since have merely emphasised how awesome a performance Denman turned in that day and it's to be hoped the irregular heartbeat that has sidelined him since proves to be no more than a temporary setback.

Scottish-owned Inglis Drever made his own little bit of history when landing the World Hurdle for the third time, the first to do so, and Comply Or Die gave David Pipe and Timmy Murphy their first Grand National victory.

North of the border, there was a huge shock in the tartan National when Iris De Balme, who went into the race with just one victory to his name and was 26lb out of the handicap, caused a major upset at 66-1 in the hands of amateur jockey Charlie Huxley.

The Ayr Gold Cup was won by a young man with a famous name when William Carson, grandson of the former champion, booted home Regal Parade in the colours of Aberdeen-based Dab Hand Racing whose members celebrated as if they had just won the Derby and Arc combined.

On the debit side, everyone once again held their breath during the summer when Panorama decided to take another look at cheating within racing although this "expos" caused far fewer shock waves than the original programme. The year still ended with the sport embroiled in more controversy over corruption, with trainer Paul Blockley and jockey Dean McKeown warned off by the British Horseracing Authority for 30 months and four years respectively for their part in the laying of horses to lose on Betfair.

While we won't be seeing either of those gentlemen in 2009, one well-known face who will be in evidence is Kieren Fallon, with the BHA announcing recently that the Irishman, out of action since July 2006, won't face any more race-fixing charges.

As such, they won't be objecting when he re-applies for his licence so expect a Fallon comeback in September.

That's one month taken care off for next year's review.