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Blunders at top behind swift descent from optimism to gloom

Kenny Murray is no Jacob Marley.

Beginning of the end . . .  Scotland line up against Tonga last month, but the 15-21 defeat proved the final straw for Andy Robinson, who resigned as national coach. Picture: SNS
Beginning of the end . . . Scotland line up against Tonga last month, but the 15-21 defeat proved the final straw for Andy Robinson, who resigned as national coach. Picture: SNS

He is alive, well and generous of spirit, expressing respect and admiration for his rival Premiership coach Craig Chalmers; the Scotland under-20s coach Sean Lineen; and Sean Holley, whom he had heard is a contender to join Scott Johnson, his former boss at the Ospreys, on the Scotland management team.

Yet my 10-minute chat with Ayr's head coach last weekend prompted deeper reflection upon the past, present and future of Scottish professional rugby as encapsulated in the events of the last year.

In particular, one phrase he used struck home. Having praised Holley's handling of a coaching seminar earlier this year, Murray expressed his belief that Scotland's unique rugby culture must be reflected in the national team's management. He said simply, and rather wistfully: "We are in danger of losing our Scottishness."

Everything that is wrong about the concentration of all wealth and power in the hands of the body running the game has been demonstrated in 2012 as appalling blunders on and off the field have killed the hope and expectation that abounded around this time last year. Then, it seemed we were reporting every week on new record crowd figures, with a combined total of more than 22,000 attending the derby matches as Glasgow retained the 1872 Challenge Cup ahead of a run which drove both them and Edinburgh on to ever greater heights.

By the end of January, the disastrous World Cup of a few months earlier had been all but forgotten as Edinburgh looked forward to a Heineken Cup quarter-final and Glasgow pushed on towards what would be the most successful season, in terms of wins registered, in the history of our professional game.

Yet a dismal RBS Six Nations campaign – Scotland were whitewashed for the first time since 2004 – was interspersed with the ill-judged persuading of Dan Parks to postpone his retirement from Test rugby; the sacking of Graham Steadman, the one member of the national team's management who had repeatedly matched and surpassed his targets; and the promotion to Glasgow head coach of Gregor Townsend, whose failed attack had just as repeatedly failed to take advantage of the defensive resolve Steadman had instilled.

Indeed, there were even suspicions at the time that the leaking of Townsend's appointment at the expense of the coach who was overseeing Glasgow's ground-breaking efforts, was designed to distract from that weekend's on-field events as defeat in Ireland set up a wooden spoon decider with Italy.

The meekness of the fare offered in Rome's Stadio Olimpico might have resulted, 2000 years earlier, in organisers of such an uncompetitive sporting spectacle being lynched by a mob, but the nature of Scotland's capitulation was in many ways an apt ending to their worst international rugby season.

Hope was engendered thereafter as fine wins by Edinburgh over Toulouse and in several Pro12 matches by Glasgow – the departing Lineen was accorded standing ovations to and from his seat at every home game – proved that, properly coached and inspired, Scottish players could still find ways to beat even high-class opposition.

However, the conclusions Scottish Rugby's administrators then felt able to draw from the Test matches that followed in June were staggering. As Ireland set off for New Zealand, England headed to South Africa, and Wales followed Scotland to Australia, Scotland's standing in the world game was summed up by the team's schedule: Australia in a midweek match in which a sub-strength Wallabies side warmed up for their weekend meeting with the grand slam champions; a runaround with sevens specialists Fiji; and a battle with Samoa to stay in the world's top 10.

Later that month we were told that those three brave, but far from inspiring, performances justified a strategic target of winning the 2015 World Cup. The sport's most senior figures were, incidentally, still publicly and forcefully maintaining that position the day before Andy Robinson departed last month. Since then, as well as the three autumn Test defeats, Glasgow, with a vastly improved squad, have lost more matches than in the whole of last season and both they and Edinburgh have exited the Heineken Cup without a whimper.

Scotland are, meanwhile, in 15th place among the 15 core teams in the sevens world rankings, and another chance to introduce someone who understands the Scottish game, and how to maximise strengths while minimising the effect of weaknesses, has been spurned with Scott Johnson's appointment as interim head coach of the national team.

Those, many of them lazy media men, who tell us we should stop comparing what is happening at Glasgow Warriors now with last season, or should disregard Johnson's past record in international rugby, exacerbate the problem. Failure to learn from, and so address, mistakes has been among Scottish Rugby's biggest failings as one new chairman, after another new chief executive, after another new head coach has demanded time to implement his methods while offering false promises of better things to come.

All this while following a provincial-style model for professional rugby that has allowed New Zealand, South Africa and Australia to dominate the world rankings in the professional era, Ireland to reign supreme in the Heineken Cup and Wales to claim three grand slams in eight years.

Strangely, Italy, who potentially have the resources to copy the ever underperforming English and French set-ups, have emulated the Scots in focusing their elite resources into two teams, but even they have managed to negotiate an involvement in Europe for their clubs that will allow players and coaches to thrive.

Amid all of this, a mood of resignation seems to have fallen over those who once cared most about Scottish rugby and that is the most dangerous thing of all. If they remain unprepared to confront the grimness of what has happened and continue to do so, then decline remains inevitable. Bah, humbug . . .

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