IT is much too early yet to say whether Phil Goodlad of BBC Radio Scotland is the finest rugby broadcaster the Island of Yell has ever produced but I'll allow that he is probably edging into the top four or five.
Granted, as he reads outs the Saturday results, Phil's distinctive Shetland tones might lull you into thinking that you are actually listening to that day's market report from the Lerwick fish quay - "round whiting 24, gutted haddock 15" - but his Viking background found another expression recently when he revealed a certain talent for mounting an ambush.
I can say this with some authority as it was right up my creek, so to speak, that he paddled his longboat. Having invited me on air to pass judgment on Scotland's prospects against Italy the weekend before last, Phil then thrust his microphone forward like an Up Helly Aa guiser wielding his flaming torch and asked me to defend my friend and sometime colleague Paul Hayward, the Daily Telegraph scribe who had just made himself about as popular as Dr David Starkey in these parts with his suggestion that Scotland should be thrown out of the RBS 6 Nations Championship.
"Eh, mea non culpa," I blurted, a line that would probably have provoked a weary sigh from Mr Goodall, my old Latin teacher, but at least we were in Rome at the time. But it was all downhill from there, as I blabbered on about broad churches, the importance of widening debate, everyone having a right to an opinion, blah bleedin' blah.
What was actually running through my head was a rather different response, along the lines of: "Oy, Hayward, you wrote that kak - why are you not here defending it in front of this mad-eyed Norseman?"
Paul's piece had been written in the immediate aftermath of a Calcutta Cup encounter in which Scotland's performance could scarcely have looked more like a dog's breakfast had they sprinkled it with Winalot and provided a bowl of water on the side. Yet his central argument was that Scotland had not just been dire in one game; they had been pretty consistently dreadful since the turn of the millennium.
Cue much indignant claymore rattling in Scottish rugby circles. What of all those games in which England had been awful? What of the fact England had managed to lose to Wales by a bigger margin less than a year ago, but nobody called for them to be jettisoned? What of the dips Wales and Ireland suffered in the early 1990s?
All true and all very pertinent. But the most persuasive arguments centred round the fact that the Six Nations, like the Five Nations before it, has never been a tightly circumscribed meritocracy. It is the tournament that happened by accident, a series of one-off games that only came to be seen as a championship many years later. Anyone who complains that its structure is illogical, that it has the wrong teams or that it is a sporting anachronism is clearly missing the point.
Yet, while Paul unquestionably hit a few nerves with his piece, he also hit a few Scottish nails firmly on the head. One of his central points was that Scotland takes far more from the Six Nations than it puts in, and it is a difficult argument to counter. Do you think broadcasters pay eye-watering sums to cover the tournament because they have a particular regard for Scotland's potential audience of just over five million souls or because they want to get into the living rooms of England's 53 million?
Home truths are often hard to swallow, but there's nothing wrong, as Robert Burns famously suggested, with the occasional reminder of how others see you. The fact is that Scottish rugby is hugely fortunate to have a foothold in, and a share of the revenues of, the Six Nations - and European club competitions for that matter - when our commercial and competitive contributions are so meagre. To outsiders, we must look like the bloke who turns up at a party with two tins of supermarket own-brand lager and then spends the evening quaffing the host's finest Rioja. Yet I've lost count of the number of senior Scottish Rugby Union officials I've seen strutting the corridors of rugby power parading an overbearing sense of entitlement, particularly when broadcasting and sponsorship deals are being worked out.
It is a fortuitous quirk of history that has given Scotland a seat at the sport's top table but the direction of travel of most of the game's current trends suggests they will have to work harder and harder to justify their place there. Thankfully, Scotland's players made a better case for themselves against Italy. Let's hope they can make it more forcefully when France come to Murrayfield on Saturday.
AND ANOTHER THING
When I hang up my laptop for the last time and head off to my retirement quarters at Dunfilin Towers, I suspect I'll pause to reflect on a few highlights of this rugby scribbling life. And I'm pretty sure the emergence of Glasgow Hawks in the late 1990s will be one of them.
Only rarely has Scottish rugby experienced the kind of buzz the Hawks created back then. They had barely come into being when they hosted the mighty Toulouse at Anniesland - and beat them. While the SRU tried to make a professional game of their unwieldy district structure, the Hawks were flying high with players such as Glenn Metcalfe and Tommy Hayes lighting up the Scottish firmament.
Those early years were recalled by the Hawks' estimable former secretary Hugh Barrow in a short but fascinating documentary that popped up on YouTube a little while ago. Watching it recently, I was reminded that the Hawks name was actually a (sort of) acronym, formed from the initials of its proposed feeder clubs: Glasgow High, Glasgow Accies, West of Scotland and Kelvinside Accies.
West pulled out of the arrangement - their call, their right. Last weekend, though, the Hawks all but secured their continued RBS Premiership status with a 38-31 away win over Heriot's that also netted them the Bill McLaren Shield. West lost 28-15 at home to Greenock Wanderers and are second from bottom of Championship Division A. Wonder how they'd vote now . . .