Whisper it quietly but there is a feeling that Scottish rugby could finally be emerging from an utterly dreadful spell of two decades in the international doldrums.
A supremely proud nation’s supporters have had to endure misery, heartache and plenty of embarrassment since winning the last ever Five Nations Championship back in 1999. Since the introduction of Italy to the fold in 2000, Scotland have failed to win a single Six Nations title – in 17 years. The only surviving country of the old Five Nations committee not to have done so.
They are the not so proud owners of four wooden spoons in the Six Nations era, second only to Italy’s 11. They also own the following, quite astonishing stat – in 17 campaigns there has only been one in which they’ve won more games than they have lost. That was 10 years ago in 2006 when they won three and lost two.
Three of their wooden spoons have come in the last decade, but under the leadership of scrum-half Greig Laidlaw there is finally cause for optimism. Scotland have won eight of their last 14 games and really impressed at last year’s 2015 Rugby World Cup where they were only robbed of a place in the quarter-finals by a hugely controversial 35-34 loss to Australia in what was arguably the game of the tournament.
They carried that momentum into this year’s Six Nations. Although the Murrayfield outfit lost three of their five games and finished fourth, the Scots posted a points difference of +7 and their biggest defeat was a close 35-25 loss to Ireland.
Laidlaw broke a 24-year-old record in that game by winning his 26th cap as captain, surpassing David Sole. Though he acknowledges the landmark, Laidlaw would much rather be known as the captain which led Scotland back to glory.
“It means a great amount to me to be the most capped captain but I want to be a successful captain too and that’s ultimately how I’ll be judged,” the 30-year-old Edinburgh-born schemer tells Sport360.
“I’d love to win something with the national team. The sooner I do that the better so we’ll be pushing next year in the Six Nations. To win something with Scotland would be special.”
The Gloucester half-back was in the UAE last month, holding coaching sessions with Abu Dhabi Harlequins youngsters and pupils at the British School Al Khubairat.
Laidlaw, an ambassador for the Harnser Group, is excited by the future for Scotland following encouraging signs at the World Cup and Six Nations, especially considering they began 2015 with five defeats and the tournament’s wooden spoon.
“Things are looking good for Scotland for the first time in a few years,” said Laidlaw, who believes the success of the country’s two club sides Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors are aiding the national team’s improving fortunes.
“We feel as though we’ve changed the mindset of the group. We had a good World Cup and after a tough start to the Six Nations we bounced back strongly.
“You can see we’re moving forward. We’ve got some good young players coming through, playing consistently well at Edinburgh and Glasgow, and that’s giving us consistency in the national team under a very clever national coach in Vern [Cotter], who’s starting to get the best out of the group.
“The future’s certainly looking brighter. We finished fourth this year [in the Six Nations]. We wanted to finish higher but it’s better than fifth and it’s better than sixth. So we’ve moved it forward.
“Next season we want to try and finish third, second or first, inch it forward and start building something in that Scottish jersey. There’s a really good feeling within the group. The environment’s been set, it’s a no excuses culture and it’s a fun environment to be in.”
Laidlaw has earned huge praise for his leadership skills since fortuitously having the captaincy bestowed upon him on the 2013 tour to South Africa following injury to Kelly Brown. Ross Ford, the third most-capped Scottish player ever (97), labelled him one of the country’s greatest ever captains earlier this year.
He is 14th on the list of most successful skippers to have led Scotland on at least 10 occasions, with a 42 per cent win ratio (11 wins, 15 defeats). It is some way behind Dan Drysdale’s 73 per cent mark but is bettered only by Sole, Gavin Hastings, Gary Armstrong, Bryan Redpath, Jason White and Alastair Kellock of the 12 men to captain Scotland in the last 25 years.
He is quick to praise head coach Cotter though for turning Scotland’s fortunes around. The New Zealander has won 12 of his 26 games in charge since taking over from Australian Scott Johnson in 2014. Cotter’s 46 per cent win ratio is the best of any Scotland coach since Ian McGeechan’s 58 during his first reign between 1988 and 1993.
“He’s had a big impact,” Laidlaw said of Cotter. “He’s stripped it back to the bare bones and gone back to the values of what it means playing for Scotland.
“Vern gets the best out of the group. He knows us extremely well. He doesn’t let a lot of people see what he’s about, just the group. His knowledge of the game is second to none. The way he coaches he puts us under pressure to get the best out of us day in day out so when we need to pull it out of the bag we can.”
Laidlaw has only just turned 30 but knows the end of his career is closer than the beginning. He still has plenty of goals, like leading Scotland to glory, as well as earning selection on a maiden British & Irish Lions tour. If he is to make that dream a reality, he knows next year’s daunting trip to world champions New Zealand likely represents his last chance.
“The Lions is the pinnacle of rugby,” said Laidlaw. “The Lions is an incredible establishment, an incredible thing and anyone involved would be delighted to pull on that jersey. It’s a personal aim for me. It’s an aim for everybody.
“It’s something I’m extremely passionate about. I want to be the best player I can be and if that gets me on that tour it would be absolutely brilliant.
“It’s a long way away. There’s a huge amount of rugby to be played between now and then. I’ll take each game and each competition as it comes. But you want to put yourself in a position to get selected and need a bit of luck too.”
Luck is something that deserted Laidlaw in 2013 when he didn’t make Warren Gatland’s squad despite being in good form for former club Glasgow and Scotland. Ireland’s Conor Murray, Wales’ Mike Phillips and England’s Ben Youngs were the three scrum-halves, and Laidlaw admits it’s a big gap on his CV.
“It’s missing from a lot of players’ careers,” he said. “It’ll be my last chance. I won’t be playing probably the next time it comes around, well I might be, you never know, but I’d love to be there (next year).
“My form needs to be good at the right time. I need to be fit and playing well, so until the time comes I won’t think too much about it. It’s going to be tough because we’ve got great players in that position. I think to go to New Zealand also is the hardest test.
“What stands out for me I feel is my knowledge of the game, my skill-set, a good temperament, so hopefully all these things add up and the coaches select me. We’ll wait and see.”
There’s something very special happening right now with an English rugby team who have gone from World Cup turkeys to the scourge of the Wallabies in the space of just nine months.
On Saturday they resembled a formidable unit, glued together by a collective belief they could not be beaten – an inspired defensive effort repelling their hosts and sealing an unassailable lead in the Cook Cup series Down Under. Their coach, Eddie Jones, can simply do no wrong at the moment.
Whereas the tweaks in style and strategy were abundantly clear a week earlier when they won by a record margin in Brisbane, their series-clinching triumph was underpinned by the psychological shift he has orchestrated.
Previous England teams would have folded. This one found a way to win even in the most testing of circumstances. And when you consider how the Red Rose were thoroughly outclassed by the Wallabies on home soil and ignominiously sent packing from the group stage of their own World Cup, the transformation is nothing short of miraculous.
Jones’ leadership qualities have been evident from day one, as has been his insistence on doing things his own way. That single-mindedness has clearly rubbed off on his players.
Jones has moved back in the direction of embracing traditional English strengths: a game built upon solid fundamentals, a well-oiled set piece and a murderous pack.
The latter has been achieved and then some, starting with his highly-controversial choice of captain.
Dylan Hartley’s qualities as a player have never been in doubt but his rap sheet had made him English rugby’s ultimate pariah. But Jones wanted an edge to his pack, some bite up front, while if you want a perfectly functioning line-out then Hartley’s delivery is without equal.
The Northampton hooker has flourished with the extra responsibility, all that talent finally being harnessed by the national set-up. He replaced Chris Robshaw, a man synonymous with last autumn’s failure, but Jones’ decision to retain him as a foot soldier has proven a masterstroke.
England have done it. History makers. The series sewn up with a game to spare. Eddie Jones the miracle-worker continues his work...— Tom Hamilton (@tomESPNscrum) June 18, 2016
Moved back into his more accustomed blindside berth, a player traumatised by World Cup heartache and losing the armband enjoyed arguably his best-ever display in an England shirt at the weekend.
Filling his old No. 7 spot is James Haskell, a 70-cap veteran but previously viewed with trepidation as a disciplinary timebomb all too likely to detonate once the pressure gauge lurched into the red.
Yet he is another reborn under Jones, emboldened by his trust and blossoming with the new Red Rose. And it’s not just in the pack that his coaching mastery has been at work.
Predecessor Stuart Lancaster plainly failed to exploit the talents of George Ford and Owen Farrell – two fly-halves of tremendous potential that any coach would be lucky to have at their disposal. But Lancaster chopped and changed, robbed both of confidence and ultimately neither performed consistently at their best level in and around last year’s tournament.
Jones, however, has provided a clinic in man management, alternating them effectively, at times using them in unison with Farrell outside of Ford, and the end result was both producing outstanding displays in Saturday’s second Test.
That result left Jones with eight wins from eight, a Grand Slam, a southern hemisphere series triumph under his belt and a 3-0 whitewash of the Aussies in his sights.
Of course the honeymoon will end eventually, and there will inevitably be ups and downs on the road to the 2019 World Cup. But the evidence that English rugby is once again in safe hands is completely and utterly overwhelming.
England laid down a serious marker with a hugely impressive result against Australia in Saturday’s first Test in Brisbane.
Both sides will have things to improve on ahead of next Saturday’s rematch in Melbourne, but here are five things we have learned so far.
England side is built on solid foundations
Despite a shaky opening 15 minutes for the tourists, England’s defence rose to the occasion with James Haskell, Maro Itoje and Chris Robshaw proving a menacing threat to the Australians at the breakdown.
In the line-out, the Aussies lacked an imposing athlete to take command and this is where Itoje terrorised the hosts with a number of outstanding fetches.
At maul time, England’s front row was utterly dominant and forced mistakes from the Aussies which resulted in kickable penalties for Owen Farrell to convert.
Discipline a huge factor
Though Australia held the upperhand in areas such as possession count and metres run, their poor discipline proved costly.
Repeated infringements around the ruck area led to the concession of a number of soft penalties (15 in comparison to England’s eight) and this effectively had them chasing the game for much of the second half.
With three minutes remaining and Australia trailing 25-32, captain Stephen Moore and Bernard Foley opted to go for the posts from 40 metres when a kick to the corner seemed a better option to chase a converted try. Foley did slot the kick to cut the deficit to four, but could the Aussies have barreled over under the posts to level it up?
Kicking is crucial
England’s dominance up front was backed by the unerring boot of Farrell who kicked 24 points in a virtuoso display at out-half. In contrast, the usually reliable Foley miscued three out of six efforts, two of which could have taken the gloss off the visitors nine point win.
Haskell is a beast
It would be criminal not to give Haskell a mention for what was his best display in an England shirt. At 31, the Wasps man has been reborn under Eddie Jones and looks a real livewire in attack and defence.
His ability to contain David Pocock – viewed by many as one of the best backrowers in the game – was allied with workrate, leadership and huge hits. Haskell will be a central figure in Melbourne if England are to clinch the series.