Ambition is a drug that makes its addicts potential madmen – Emile M. Cioran
A new Chief Executive is bound to make positive claims when addressing an AGM for the first time, and Mark Dodson certainly left nothing in reserve when doing so to the members of the SRU last week. The proposition came at the end of what has proved to be a mixed season for the Scotland Rugby side following a winless Six Nations and then a 100% summer tour with victories over Australia, Fiji and Samoa. On top of that, domestically Edinburgh reached a Heineken Cup semi-final – the first time a Scottish side has done so – whilst Glasgow also reached the last four of the RaboDirect Pro12.
Dodson’s proposal outlined helping to support Edinburgh and Glasgow as much as possible by strengthening the bond between professional and club sides in Scotland, in order to transform the two teams into the best in Europe. On top of that, the national team is expected to win a Grand Slam before 2016 and also the Rugby World Cup in 2015. For many, both seem impossible. Here’s why.
For all the fanfare regarding Edinburgh and Glasgow’s achievements, there is the flip side that Edinburgh finished 11th in the Rabodirect Pro12 behind the Dragons, Treviso and Connacht. With regards to the national side, Scotland have only won two out of their last 15 Six Nations matches. That is all before remembering that Scotland haven’t progressed beyond the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals since 1991. In fact, they didn’t even reach them last time out in 2011.
History is therefore not on Scotland’s side, almost making you feel that when judging by those statistics, the idea of Scotland winning a Grand Slam or Rugby World Cup is quite frankly ludicrous. But of the two, if one were to happen, you would probably plump for a Six Nations success where based on a run of absurd luck and a double figure try-scoring championship from Tim Visser, a first Grand Slam since 1990 would miraculously come to pass. After all, Scotland have only beaten France once since the Millennium, so a Grand Slam should be a doddle, right?
Now, Dodson has to obviously be positive when discussing the future because you can’t come out as the head of a business and say that over the next four years the same levels of mediocrity and gloom will continue. There’s no need for it, whatever level of truth lies within it. But hoping for a Grand Slam can be an excruciating process, just look at Ireland’s 61 year wait in between clean sweeps. Perhaps a better objective would have been to improve on their record of either one or no wins in every Six Nations Championship since 2007. For Scotland to finish the 2013 Championship in 3rd place would mark a significant improvement. Talking about Grand Slams just adds unnecessary pressure.
Scotland’s summer success has been dismissed by many given the quality of their opposition – a weakened Australian side, plus Fiji and Samoa rather than three tests against one of the Southern Hemisphere giants – but that is a disservice to the good work carried out amongst the squad and the confidence victory brings. Ross Ford will have grown as a captain, Greig Laidlaw adapted further to his fly-half role, not to mention the bond between their new back row of three opensides in Alasdair Strokosch, Ross Rennie and John Barclay. There is the promise and potential of Matt Scott, Stuart Hogg and Tim Visser, plus they additionally have a world-class talent in Richie Gray. Unfortunately, they need around 5-6 more players of Gray’s quality to actually be anywhere near ticking off Dodson’s checklist of a Grand Slam or a Rugby World Cup.
Therein lies the problem. With just 148,000 registered players and 257 clubs, Scotland have roughly a tenth of the available number of players as England, who also have 1809 clubs. (Intriguingly, Wales have only 69,000 players but nearly 100 more clubs). The quality might be out there but with only two professional clubs to aim for within Scotland without going abroad, the options are limited, as arguably is the coaching and facilities.
Winning a Grand Slam or an RWC takes a degree of talent, continuity in selection and nurturing that Scotland don’t have at the moment, or at least with the last two that haven’t been in place for long enough. To simply turn around and say that Scotland will win the Rugby World Cup and see off the likes of New Zealand and South Africa under the pressure and scrutiny of a World Cup Final right now sounds completely delusional. Proclaiming unrealistic ambitions only puts Andy Robinson and his side under greater pressure. Don’t be too stunned if those Grand Slam and RWC heroics don’t come to pass.
by Ben Coles