When the Scotland football team were frustrated by reigning champs Brazil in the 1974 World Cup, I thought - devoutly hoped - I wouldn’t have to live through such an evening again. To be so brilliant and not get your just rewards was too sare tae bare. The late, great Peter Lorimer detonated at least one rocket shot from 40 yards that would have made the entire Maracana swoon if he’d been wearing buttercup yellow instead of dark blue. The late, great Billy Bremner missed a chance he’ll have converted a million times as a kid, booting a tin can into a drain. At every opportunity since I’ve described how we annihilated the Brazilians 0-0. It’s been scant consolation.
So what do our rugby team do on Friday night? Only go and win in Paris. Right now, even though this has been a spellbinding Six Nations and we’ve played a leading role, that feels like scant consolation too.
Every season a Scot looks at the tournament fixture list, remembers that it’s France and Scotland away and concludes: “Maybe next year … ” Invariably we have to be playing these two at home to have a truly memorable campaign. The Grand Slams of 1984 and 1990 were achieved that way, as was our only other Slam back in 1925: the French at Inverleith for the last-ever time and England at the grand Murrayfield opening, Herbert Waddell popping over the winning drop-goal.
But … win in London and a few weeks later do it again in the City of Light? If we were somehow able to get a message relaying these stunning facts to old Herb and other great servants and doughty wing-forwards now longer with us, the answer might come back: “ … And we won another Slam?” Alas, naw. But we’re now the undisputed kings of - the pre-eminent authorities on - “If only ... ” in a sporting context, are we not?
Let’s not beat ourselves up too severely and celebrate the good. How much did we enjoy watching Hamish Watson knocking stuff over? Not just any old stuff but the heavy French machinery in a pack determined to grunt their way to the title? And not just Watson but George Turner, too. His bright red skull cap popping up from the back of a maul was - and I’m sorry for this analogy, George - as conspicuous as a baboon’s bahookie. But despite flashing this warning, the English - and then the French - couldn’t stop his breaks, even when he almost lost a finger.
The lineout, with Turner throwing, was hopeless against Ireland but near-perfect in the Stade de France. From the ridiculous to the sublime. Schizophrenic Scotland helped make this Six Nations the maddest and one of the best.
Remove Italy from the equation and every game bar two was decided by the finest of margins, with the losing side only a score away from a win. The exceptions were England’s 14-point defeat by Ireland and the 16 they lagged behind Wales.
Matches were won late and often way into overtime - the drama was huge.
Damian Penaud’s try against England was a thing of beauty; Finn Russell’s try against Ireland, via Stuart Hogg’s chin, was a thing of comedy. Rugby, to outside eyes, can often seem predictable but this year, on the inside, no one expected England to be so bad and no one expected Wales to be so good.
What part did Covid play? Following football’s difficulties - slower, sterile games - the Six Nations was expected to suffer in the same way. Instead we’ve witnessed a classic. The pandemic penned the Champions League into Portugal and forced single-leg rounds on what is often a sluggish competition and the results were spectacular. That was the best of Covid sport but it’s just been beaten.
Rugby’s fans missed seeing the players; the players, though, just got on with it without all the colour and noise. Scotland’s tight home defeats by Wales and Ireland could have been different if Murrayfield had been packed, but by the same token the Scots probably found London and Paris less daunting with the grounds empty.
So, we need the roar of the crowd in EH12 but on the road would prefer silence. Do you think there’s a chance rugby beaks will allow us to play under these terms and conditions next year? They definitely owe us after the shambles of “Wafflegate” but, hey, in 2022 it’ll be England and France to visit us. The Slam is on!
Obviously we didn’t play a perfect tournament this time. The manner of the defeat to Wales and the failure to take chances will niggle for ages. That one-point victory set the Welsh on the road to an improbable and, some were arguing, undeserved Slam, until it was their turn to be trumped in the closing minutes against France. That was the French at their swashbuckling best but Friday at the end - what were they doing, trying to chase those 21 points from their own line with the clock already in red? - was them at their swashbuckling worst.
Thus, rugby beats football as a spectacle and surely Scotland can claim the two most eye-catching wins. By my reckoning that makes us the best, small, mad, fourth-placed country in the world.
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