A na­tion rises

The flow­er­ing of Scot­land’s rugby teams

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - SIR IAN McGEECHAN

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

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