by Justin Aylward
There was once a time when a trip to Edinburgh to face the Scots was as appealing a prospect as a having a bath with a hungry shark. But enough about William Wallace. Times have changed, and in today’s rugby world, Scotland have faded from the challenging, passionate team they were in yesteryear to become a ramshackle team of whipping boys with a lack of potency or ability to challenge even the second tier teams of world rugby today.
The problems manifested in the national team are a product of a deeper misalliance. Fractious contra-temps between the clubs and the national union are no stranger to European rugby at the moment, but Scotland have failed to draw the reconciliations that the likes of France and England have accomplished, and instead have seen negotiations stall, resulting in the closure of a number of the top-flight Scottish clubs. Furthermore, the remaining clubs such as Edinburgh have experienced a haemorrhage of their best players, further weakening the roots of the Scottish game; Chris Patterson being the latest to flee to fairer shores after agreeing a contract with Gloucester. He follows the likes of Chris Cusiter (Perpignan), Scott Murray (Montauban) and Simon Taylor (Stade Francais).
The result of this disharmony has been evident in the cracks of the national team for a number of years, but never has Scottish rugby been in the turmoil in which it currently finds itself. A loss at home to Italy in this year’s 6 Nations was perhaps inevitable in time given Italy’s rising ascendancy and Scotland’s demise, but for even the staunchest of supporters this spectacle must have helped highlight the withering ability of the national side to win games of top-level international rugby in today’s environment. The structure of Scottish rugby is now such that it is depressingly unlikely that we will see many new talents bred and moulded into world-class players by a system that has not so much given up the ghost, as it has gone home, locked the door, thrown away the key, and left the ghost to its own haunting devices.
So where does this leave Scottish chances in the Rugby World Cup? The pool stages see them pitted against New Zealand, Italy, Romania and Portugal. We can safely say the match-up against the mighty Blacks won’t even be a contest, but one would hope the games against Romania and Portugal are a foregone conclusion. So that leaves the Italy game – will Scotland prevail or will we witness a recurrence of March’s Murrayfield mockery?
An Italian team full of confidence following their encouraging performances in the 6 Nations will provide a formidable opponent, especially with the likes of Serigo Parisse and Alessandro Troncon dominating from the base of the scrum. In contrast, Scotland do not have a solid team of players who have cemented their places, nor a notable core of experience from which any platform can be built, exemplified by a lack of fluency of results in recent internationals. Frank Hadden admittedly has a thankless task, but recently stating that this team is the best ever prepared Scotland side to go into a World Cup is slightly optimistic at best.
Perhaps the best way to summarise Scotland is the amount of hope they lay on the narrow shoulders of Chris Patterson. Used at fly half, wing or full-back, he possesses a spark that could ignite an explosive run and kick-start some momentum for the team. However, too much responsibility and hope lies on one man, especially one who when matched up against serious teams such as the All Blacks, will be treated like a toddler in a bear-pit. Today’s international rugby is all about size and power; Patterson has neither. A jinking runner he may be, but players such as Rockocoko, Howlett, Sivivatu and Gear have those qualities in excess, plus the sheer speed and strength that makes them some of the most awesome attacking prospects around. Unfortunately, Scotland’s glimmer of hope may well be snuffed out and spat back into the black abyss.
Were I a betting man, my money would be on Scotland not making it past the group stages; a sorry prospect for a country whose national and international rugby is very much in turbulent times.