Wednesday 13 December 2017

Glasgow's steady rise has Scots clan sweet on success

Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw aims to send coach Vern Cotter off in style Picture: Sportsfile
Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw aims to send coach Vern Cotter off in style Picture: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

They say a rising tide lifts all boats but sometimes it pays to make sure you're not stranded in a leaking dinghy.

Scottish rugby once held irrational fears for the Irish; even those days when it appeared as if the Jocks were all at sea, Paddy tended to be having his own struggles keeping his head above water.

It was a familiar feeling but its distance removes much of the sensation for contemporaries for it was in a previous century where amateurism reigned; in the last 14 years of the 20th century, Ireland won just once in the championship against Scotland.

They would assert themselves in the professional era that ushered in a new century as the tide shifted dramatically; now Ireland routinely won the fixture, ceding victory just three times since the millennium.

And so, while the overall record between the two countries still has Scotland marginally ahead in the championship duel - 63-59 (excluding World Cup and friendlies) - Ireland have comprehensively rewritten the rules of the engagement in contemporary times, as a 14-3 championship record in favour of the Irish vividly illustrates.

Much of that millennial momentum was propelled by Munster's emergence as a European force after reaching their maiden quarter-final in 1998; much has been made of how Warren Gatland front-loaded his side with Munster players for a seminal championship clash in 2000.

Glasgow had also reached a quarter-final in Europe a year earlier than Munster - albeit a play-off - but their still evolving regional structure could not sustain permanent progress.

Edinburgh would reach a quarter-final in 2004 but when former Ireland scrum-half Michael Bradley brought them within two points of the final eight years later, there were high hopes the national side could piggyback on the success, particularly when the Corkman led Scotland's second string to a pre-Six Nations 35-0 thumping of England's reserves.

Some Scots even reckoned Bradley was a candidate to follow Andy Robinson into the top job; unfortunately, Edinburgh's steepling decline and a Scottish wooden spoon served both men their P45s post-haste.

Fast forward to 2017 and, eight days from the renewal of a fixture whose anarchic history would once have Irish fans squirming behind their sofas, Scottish rugby is once more riding the crest of an optimistic European club rugby wave as Glasgow storm Europe's last eight.

"I know how important a day this is for us a club, but also for Scottish rugby," coach Gregor Townsend said in the aftermath of his side's demolition of Leicester last Saturday.

"This is a seminal weekend. It'd be great to build on this, in the next few weeks during the Six Nations, but also over the next few years."

Ironically, the man surfing the wave may not be in a position to take immediate advantage; Townsend is the incoming national boss but doesn't start until the summer. Until then, the gimlet eyes of Joe Schmidt's old Clermont mucker, Vern Cotter, will steer the ship but the Scots are impatient to accelerate while his hand remains on the tiller.

"The players all want to send Vern off with something special," says captain Greig Laidlaw. "We respect him, he has brought the team forward and done a great job.

"We want to show him how good we can be and win as many games in the championship as we can.

"We're probably more confident going into the championship than we have been for a while.

"It's not an over-confidence. We understand we have done nothing yet. We are setting high standards this year. We won two games in the last championship and we want to win more than that."

While Glasgow's attack seems to be the main foundation for Scottish optimism, their defence is also improving, with Matt Taylor, Glasgow's assistant with that responsibility, straddling the Cotter/Townsend transition this summer.

"It will be needed against Ireland, who are a very strong attacking team," he observes.

"I think the Glasgow boys have defended really well lately. If you defend well, you've got a really good opportunity of winning.

"I think maybe in the last couple of years, it's been tough. A couple of years ago at Murrayfield, obviously they had to run in a certain number of points to win the title and we had a few injuries.

Executed

"Last year was a wee bit similar. So getting them at the start of the tournament is better than getting them at the end.

"I think they're a really good side and, on both occasions, they executed really well. We probably didn't execute as well as we should have."

And yet for all the strident Tartan talk, Glasgow have already lost three times to Munster this term, twice at home, which may undermine their argument. Taylor remains unbowed.

"At Glasgow, we might have two-thirds of the Scotland team," he adds. "Three-quarters, maybe. Sometimes you play those Irish provinces and it's not quite like that for them.

"We're excited that we're playing at home and playing them first, which gives us two weeks to prepare for them."

There are only four Scots drawn from outside Glasgow - Harlequins' wing Tim Visser, Newcastle prop John Welsh, Scarlets' number eight John Barclay and Stormers' centre Huw Jones - but Cotter urges caution given Munster's recent pre-eminence.

"We're really conscious that Munster went to Glasgow and won," he says. "That gives you an indication of how the Irish game is going to be.

"There is a dose of realism as well. It is going to be tough, a few good performances doesn't mean the opposition are going to give you games."

For now they are in calmer waters. But a familiar Irish storm awaits them.

Irish Independent

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