Scottish rugby finds itself in heady days. These autumn internationals produced about as good a set of results as many could realistically have hoped: the loss to New Zealand, however bitter, is one that can still offer more positives than negatives. In my 23 years of life, I don’t think I can remember Scotland ever really being this good (yes, I said good) at rugby. The Five Nations title of 1999 was a bit early for my little brain to really recollect, and since then it has been a rather depressing slog filled with scarce wins, narrow defeats, and some absolute drubbings.
My first trip to Murrayfield was in 2004, where we were on the receiving end of a 31-0 hammering by the French. My next trip was three years later to witness one of the worst defeats Scotland has ever had inflicted upon them: after a disastrous start, the hosts suffered their first home defeat to Italy, 37-17. 2008; another year, another chance to finally see the boys in blue steal a win. But it was not to be as we fell agonisingly short against South Africa, eventually losing 14-10.
By this point I was beginning to think I would never actually see Scotland victorious in person. Rarely would we win more than one or two matches a year, with tries being rarer than enjoyable trips to the dentist, so choosing the match you went to was key if you wanted to revel in the luxury of victory. More matches, and more defeats. First Ireland, then France again, then Wales. In fact, it was not until the final week of the 2011 Six Nations that I finally saw Murrayfield rejoice in celebration at the final whistle, in the wake of a 21-8 defeat of the Azzurri.
In between all this pain however, there were moments to celebrate. Unexpected, and often ugly, wins against the likes of England and Australia were watched with knotted stomachs and gritted teeth. Never did a win come easy. Never did we get to a point where we could sit back and relax. Never were we ‘good’.
We had the players. The likes of Chris Paterson, Jason White, Chris Cusiter, Mike Blair, Nathan Hines, and Scott Murray to name but a few were all excellent players but it never ‘worked’. There would be penalties, there would be disallowed tries, there would be knock-ons (Oh, the knock-ons!), and there would be heartbreak. My mother frequently said that watching Scotland was not good for her heart, and I couldn’t help but agree; the stress alone was enough to give one palpitations.
Every new season brought a new dawn. Every new dawn brought disappointment. Every new disappointment brought a new coach and a new dawn. And so the cycle continued, so routinely that you could almost set your watch by it. But recently, there seems to be a change – a legitimate one.
Scottish clubs are performing, and those players are bringing that form to the national set-up. Vern Cotter, the New Zealander who you feel was more likely to punch one of his charges than congratulate them, brought in fresh faces, fresh tactics, and fresh belief. When he left there was scepticism. It would be typical for the Scottish Rugby Union to let their biggest asset slip away. Gregor Townsend has proved that his appointment was not premature however, and, if we ignore the Fiji blip, turned Scotland into a team that can seemingly compete (dare we say, beat?) with the best teams in the world.
He’s uncovered depth, except perhaps at the fly-half position, he’s given the team an identity, and he’s got the fans believing that a trip to Murrayfield no longer has to end in “well, at least we got a try”. Watching them play Australia, I felt remarkably relaxed. Like we had it all under control, like this was meant to be, like we belonged. It’s not a feeling I am used to, but not one I will complain about, not after all those painful years.
Of course the major test will be the Six Nations where England and Ireland are already looking like the major contenders, but for the mean time, let us rejoice in the optimism surrounding Scotland at the moment.
We’ve had enough of false dawns, let’s hope this one becomes reality.
Image courtesy of Chris Brown (flickr)