A nation rises
The flowering of Scotland’s rugby teams
Watching Edinburgh secure brilliant back-to-back wins against Glasgow over the festive period, I was struck not only by what a great job Richard Cockerill is doing up there, but what rude health Scottish rugby is in.
Heading into next weekend’s penultimate round of the Champions Cup, both Scottish clubs are well placed to qualify, not something many would have predicted at the start of the season. Glasgow lie second in Pool Three, behind Saracens, whom they play in the final round. Edinburgh, against expectations, are top of Pool Five after beating Newcastle home and away.
You have to give Cockerill huge credit. Glasgow still have the better players and are probably stronger in the back row and behind the scrum. What Cockerill has done so brilliantly is to sort out Edinburgh’s front five. That is his forte. I don’t think it’s any coincidence Leicester’s pack has suffered since Cockerill left.
Edinburgh now have a really solid set-piece. They’re very good at stopping their opponents at source and they’re not afraid to open up once the game is broken up. They put huge pressure on the opposition half-backs, which can lead to poor kicks from which their back three, Blair Kinghorn especially, are lethal in counter-attack.
Edinburgh’s set-piece dominated Glasgow in those two wins, which secured them the 1872 Cup with one game left of their best-of-three series. They will have gained huge confidence from those successes, and from their back-to-back victories against Newcastle before Christmas.
I still rate Glasgow as the better all-round team. They maybe try to play a little too much and too laterally. But their record at Scotstoun is unbelievable. When they get it right, they can destroy teams. Dave Rennie has to be on the shortlist for the All Blacks. It is great news he has signed a new deal.
Between Glasgow, Edinburgh and
Scotland, I don’t think Scottish rugby has ever had it so good in terms of coaching. Players are now being challenged at every level, with good continuity between the clubs and the national team.
When Vern Cotter arrived at Scotland in 2014, that was the moment things changed. Under Scott Johnson, things were all over the place. Cotter brought back what it meant to play for Scotland and got them playing in a style which has brought Scotland success historically.
Gregor Townsend has taken it on. The Scottish Rugby Union would have liked to have kept Cotter on until after the World Cup but were worried Gregor would get poached. It has turned out well.
He has got Scotland playing quick, heads-up rugby. It’s back to that “organised chaos” which I was accused of coaching. It was always the greatest compliment I got!
The overall dynamic is positive. Optimistic. It has taken Cockerill coming in to really square that circle.
Scotland still has its Achilles’ heel. Its population – around five million – is roughly the same as Yorkshire’s. There are only two professional rugby clubs. Their top 20 players are brilliant but injuries can cost them.
That is why I would still like the SRU to explore the possibility of developing players in an extended environment. In 2004/2005, when I was the director of rugby for the SRU, we came very close to setting up an academy at London Scottish and I still think it has merits. I was shouted down because the SRU committee felt they wanted Scotland’s players playing and developing in Scotland. I can understand that point of view.
Truth is, that has never been the case. You can go back to most of the great Scotland teams over the last half century and a decent percentage of the players grew up or played their club rugby outside Scotland. A third of the grand-slam-winning team in 1990 played in England.
Generally, though, things are healthy. The system is working. I know Finn Russell is playing in Paris and Stuart Hogg is off to Exeter but most of Scotland’s top players are at Glasgow or Edinburgh.
Edinburgh travel to Toulon next weekend. They have beaten them once this season. That 40-14 win got things moving. Win in Toulon and Edinburgh would have a home match against Montpellier to guarantee their progress. Glasgow host Cardiff and then travel to Saracens. I don’t think they will win at Allianz Park. But Glasgow could progress as runners-up.
Two clubs in with a decent shout of qualifying? In many respects, they are in a healthier position than English clubs. When you are smaller as an organisation you can move and change approach more quickly, both on and off the field.
I still rate Glasgow as the better all-round team. When they get it right, they destroy teams
Step ahead: Darcy Graham of Edinburgh (left) evades Newcastle Falcons’ Sonatane Takulua during the Scottish side’s recent Champions Cup victory at Kingston Park