Scotland arrive in Dublin today rarely having felt so good about themselves, or with Ireland so respectful and wary of the genuine threat they provide. At last they appear to have emerged from their largely self-imposed doldrums. This time, they look like the real deal.
By dint of overcoming Italy away and France at home, the Scots have won back-to-back matches for the first time in three years, when they beat Italy and Ireland in successive rounds at home.
Only once since Italy's advent to an expanded Six Nations in 2000 – when announcing their arrival by beating Scotland in Rome – have the Scots won three matches in a campaign when, admittedly, Frank Hadden's team beat England and France at home before winning in Rome a decade ago.
As they seek a third successive championship win for the first time in 20 years (when England denied them a Grand Slam on the final weekend in 1996), today does, admittedly, represent something of an acid test.
Scotland’s revival comes on the back of Glasgow’s Guinness Pro12 success last season, the first title by a senior Scottish team in the professional era. Granted, one could describe last season’s Pro12 as a decidedly non-vintage one, as evidenced by the failure of any of its representatives to reach the knockout stages of the European Cup for the first time ever.
“I think it is genuine,” says Craig Chalmers, the former Scottish and Lions outhalf who augmented a successful stint coaching Melrose as an assistant coach to an improved Scottish Under-20s side in 2008 and ’09, as well as the Scottish As in 2010.
"I've coached a lot of these boys in the past at under-20 level – Richie Gray, Rob Harley, Matt Scott, Duncan Taylor, Henry Pyrgos, John Hardie. There's some good players there and good lads. Duncan Taylor has been a revelation in the Six Nations. He's a confident player coming from Saracens, who are winning games, and has shown some really nice touches.
Mentality and skills
“These things come in cycles. Alex Dunbar was playing age-grade rugby with the likes of Matt Scott, Duncan Weir, Henry Pyrgos and others, and they’ve been developed. It’s taken time for the mentality and skills that they now possess, and Glasgow and Edinburgh should take a lot of credit for it.
“Alex Dunbar is a sponge. He just wants to get better, and he was like that as a 19-year-old, and these guys can grow and challenge for championships. I didn’t think they’d win it, but I thought they’d finish in the top three and they have that opportunity now.
“I think it’s a team that will not be fully developed until the World Cup in Japan in 2019. That’s when you’ll see; a lot of these guys will be 27/28 at that point and you’ll see the best of them. They’ve got to start winning more of these tight games that they’ve lost.
“The big difference for me has been that the set-piece has been much, much better. The set-piece has the glue to match the best teams, whereas in the past it’s been bullied by teams at the maul and the scrum. Our lineout had been poor but that’s tightened up.”
The emergence of South African tighthead Willem Nel has helped to lock their scrum, although Chalmers says that “the long-term worry” is the lack of depth in this position.
"Glasgow have been a revelation in the Pro12," adds Chalmers, "and last year's title was a big boost for Scottish rugby in general." By dint of being bulk supplier to Scotland's World Cup, à la Leinster, Chalmers believes they've suffered a hangover.
Leo Cullen attributes much of Scotland's rejuvenation to the work done by Glasgow Warriors over the last decade.
"You could see that even say before Gregor Townsend came in, there with Sean Lineen. They were making steady progress all the time. I think Gregor has pushed them on again. You can see how that's translating into the form of the national team as well. The brand they play is good to watch. It's high-tempo. They've got some big, strong ball-carriers. All of their players are comfortable on the ball."
Townsend had always been very open in his admiration for the work Joe Schmidt did at Leinster and made little secret of his desire to use that as a blueprint.
“I listened to Gregor speak at a Six Nations coaching conference last summer,” says Cullen, “and the emphasis that he places on skills and on that off-loading game. They practice it all the time, so it’s no coincidence that you see it all the time in their games. This season has maybe been a bit trickier to get that game going in the conditions, but the drier ground suits them.”
Yet, according to Chalmers, it is “too simplistic” to credit Lineen and Townsend with the lion’s share of the credit for the revival in Glasgow’s fortunes and by extension that of the Scottish team.
“Sean had a different style from Gregor, and Gregor was with Scotland for two years under Andy Robinson when they weren’t doing so well. But he got the job with Glasgow and a lot of money was ploughed into Glasgow when Gregor got that job. Sean was probably a bit unlucky because they finished in the top four and reached the playoffs in the last year and then he lost his job.”
Chalmers is not alone in stating that Townsend was fortunate to inherit a good squad and at a time when “a lot of money went into Scottish rugby and we’re starting to see the rewards from that in academy systems and that”.
In particular BT, the telecommunications and television giant, signed a four-year shirt sponsorship deal with Glasgow and Edinburgh in 2013, a year into Townsend’s reign with the Warriors.
The Scottish Rugby Union subsequently agreed a deal for the naming rights to Murrayfield in 2014 which is reckoned to be worth circa €26 million over four years, and BT have since extended their investment into Scottish rugby further by taking over the shirt sponsorship of all of their national sides.
At the time Mark Dodson, chief executive of the SRU, vowed that extra money would be made available to strengthen both the Glasgow and Edinburgh squads.
“This is the most lucrative shirt sponsorship deal we have ever signed – by some margin. It dwarfs any deal we have signed in the past. We will always be looking for the best players possible. If that means the player budget rises as a consequence, that is what will happen. I’ve given both coaches [Gregor Townsend and Stevie Scott] the reassurance that if there is a top-class player out there that they want, who wants to come to Scotland, we will fund it.”
With this has also come a four-year injection into Scotland’s club game and an ambitious, nationwide academy system in four venues throughout the country.
“It’s been a pretty dire time, to be honest, since the start of the Six Nations,” reflects Chalmers ruefully. “The SRU have done well and have worked hard. A lot of coaches have come and gone, like Andy Robinson and Scott Johnson, and Scott’s still there working within the structure. I think the Scottish supporters are a bit more positive.”
Vern Cotter has seemingly come in at a good time, and is taking Scotland to another level.
“You only have to look at the margins,” says Joe Schmidt, “and the margins were there last year even though they didn’t quite get the results. This year it was a one-score game against Wales and even then Wales get a try at the start of the game that to me looked like a knock-on and it was picked up by a player who was offside. They could easily have got great field position as opposed to [conceding] seven points and standing under their posts.
“We all know those are the margins and they do fall either way sometimes. But losses like that have been very impressive, and then there’s the wins they’ve had, like what they did in Italy. It is tough to go to Rome. We found it really tough last year and we were a team that had really good continuity. “They are still building and did a great job there, and then as much as it was quite tight for a long time, it didn’t look like they were going to lose against France too much in that second-half – maybe if the ball broke and France broke out – but France didn’t sustain long periods of pressure on Scotland.
“Scotland are an incredibly resilient side. They bounce back at you really quickly. We all saw that stat after about 71 minutes in Italy; 142 possessions Italy had in the Scotland 22, Scotland had 28 possessions in the Italian 22 and yet Scotland are up by nine points at the time. I think the score was 29-20 at the time, so they don’t need too many invitations to spoil the party. They’ve got guys who finish really well. They’ve got guys who one-on-one will beat a player and will connect and get in behind you, and then very quickly they can start to hurt you on the scoreboard.”
Greg Feek, the Irish scrum coach, can detect Cotter re-producing some of the forward play with Scotland which was a hallmark of Clermont in his time there. "I had Vern as a coach back in Crusaders, and he's a good man. He drives the boys pretty hard, I think having had him and then Joe, you can see a correlation between the two. He's got some really good smart things around the physical side of the game that he likes to do.
“One of the things you always know is they’ll never back down physically – they will always contest the ball really well, and the set-piece is a big priority as well. He is quite good at making people feel a part of something, which Joe also is. As a player, when you have an environment where you feel connected to it, that’s the key to establishing everything else to go forward. Vern and Joe both have that as a strength.”
With their investment in an academy structure, Chalmers believes the future is brighter for Scottish rugby than it has been for some time. “There’s some more good talent coming through that you haven’t seen yet,” forecasts Chalmers, “and the guys that are there will know that as well.
“They can’t rest on their laurels. They’ve got to put a run of wins together and keep building that confidence, although France and Italy are not of a very high quality and the true test will be against Ireland.
“I don’t think the Irish are as good as they’ve been, but they’re still a well-coached, well-drilled team with some real talent up front and in the backs, and I think we’ll see two teams trying to play in the right frame of mind. I think it will be the best of the three games, and hopefully Scotland will win 39-38,” he says with a laugh.
Either way, seemingly regardless of the result today, after all the false dawns this finally looks like a true Scottish re-awakening.