FOR the first time in a long while, Scotland’s four senior sides – the national women’s and men’s teams, Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh – can go into a New Year with genuine grounds for optimism.
All made tangible progress in 2021, and all can rightly feel there is a lot more to come from them in 2022. Now comes the difficult bit: turning promise into achievement.
For Bryan Easson’s Scotland team, the immediate goal is qualification for the Rugby World Cup to be held in New Zealand in October, and it is eminently achievable. They won through to next month’s global repechage in Dubai thanks to two gutsy victories against Ireland and Spain in European qualifying, and now face a semi-final against Colombia then hopefully a final against Samoa, Hong Kong or Kazakhstan.
The squad have yet to meet up formally since the death last month of back-row forward Siobhan Cattigan, and that tragedy is something they will have to come to terms with before travelling to the Middle East. More mundanely, as the repechage is a knockout tournament – unlike European qualifying, when they lost heavily to Italy first up – they will have to be at the top of their game from first kick-off if they are to claim the last place in the finals.
Of course, mere qualification for the World Cup should be a minimal goal for both our teams. But, having failed to get there at the last two times of asking, winning through this time will represent significant progress for the women’s side. With senior players such as Jade Konkel and Chloe Rollie now approaching their peak, they can keep up their impressive recent improvement for some time to come.
For the men’s team, the primary aim is to put the near miss of 2021 behind them and win the Six Nations Championship for the first time. Gregor Townsend’s team were fourth last time out, but won three of their games – England and France away and Italy at home. They lost to Wales by a single point and to Ireland by three: two narrow margins that could easily have been the other way round.
So can Scotland win the tournament this time? Of course they can. For one thing, they traditionally do better in even years, when England and France are the visitors to Murrayfield. But more substantial reasons for optimism lie in the present day rather than in history, because this, too, is a team that is steadily getting better.
Finn Russell remains the pivotal figure, Stuart Hogg has matured as a player and as a leader since becoming captain, and the pack as a whole can trade blows on equal terms with the opposition in a way that even some of the vintage Scotland sides of the past were unable to do.
We saw something similar from Edinburgh’s forwards last month, when they won at Saracens in the Challenge Cup. Up against an eight that included Maro Itoje and Mako and Billy Vunipola, the visitors’ pack steadily got the upper hand in the set piece.
The foundations for that dominant performance up front were laid during Richard Cockerill’s four years at the helm of the capital club, but it is now abundantly clear that Mike Blair has started to build a far more complete side since he took over as head coach in the summer. Buoyed by first-class recruits such as Emiliano Boffelli and Ben Vellacott, Edinburgh have lost only one competitive match this season – and that was by a single point to Benetton with the last kick of the game.
They are just a point off the top of the United Rugby Championship after seven rounds of fixtures – although it should be noted that they have yet to play any of the four Irish sides, one of whom, Leinster, remain the team to beat in the URC. Blair has taken his squad a considerable way in a fairly short time, and it would be unfair to burden them with too much expectation at this stage of their evolution. But they are certainly on their way to being contenders in the league, and after that victory at Saracens there is no reason why they cannot have a good crack at the Challenge Cup.
In the Champions Cup, Glasgow should qualify for the last 16, and thereafter much will depend on the draw. They are not too far off the pace in the URC, and like Edinburgh have made some excellent signings, with No 8 Jack Dempsey the pick of the bunch so far. You would have to rate them the least likely of the four Scottish teams to win something this season, but they too are definitely heading in the right direction.
As Townsend found en route to winning the PRO12 with the Warriors seven years ago, you often have to learn from a couple of near misses before going on to claim your first trophy, and that factor could tell against our teams this year. But they are getting closer all the time.