Some random facts from the rugby international season of 2021…
The No 1 side in the world at the year’s end are South Africa, and you’ll find few arguing that ranking. Yet the Springboks lost five test matches (out of 13 played) this year.
New Zealand finish the year, most agree, in a state of transition. Even panic, amongst some of their more demanding devotees. Yet they lost just three of 15 matches.
Two of the losses were the last two they played, in Dublin and Paris. The All Blacks had just three home games this year (against Tonga and twice against Fiji).
They played their last 12 matches on a gruelling three-month road trip that took in Australia, the USA and Europe. Tough paper round.
Ireland lost just twice in 2021, the best record of anyone. England, France, Wales and Scotland lost three times. All five ended the year on a high, but…
Autumn leaves lie thick and still(?)
— Autumn Nations Series (@autumnnations) November 24, 2021
It’s always a good idea, if history is any guide, not to get too focused on Autumn Test results.
Especially midway through a World Cup cycle. Ireland in particular have made a regular habit of peaking 18 to 24 months out from a World Cup, and then never getting past the quarter-finals.
But November results don’t always translate even to the following spring. For years Wales were hapless in the autumn, losing to Australia in particular with comic regularity. Yet somehow they played like titans in the Six Nations almost every year.
Similarly, England impressed many going unbeaten this November. Well, those with decent memories will recall they were unbeaten last November as well, and went on to finish fifth in the Six Nations.
But let’s focus on Scotland, because that’s what we’re here for. The three defeats in 2021 were all, oddly, at “Fortress Murrayfield”. Yet six wins and three losses in 2021 still constitutes the single most successful season since rugby went professional in 1995.
The best Scotland team in the pro era
— Autumn Nations Series (@autumnnations) November 23, 2021
I don’t think there can be any argument that right now Scotland have their strongest team of the pro era. It’s a low bar, yes, but Gregor Townsend is now by far the most successful coach since 1995, and the team actually score more freely than they have at any time since defences got serious.
Defensively, Andy Robinson’s team of 2009-2012 maybe were better statistically, but that team barely were able to bruise the try-line. They also lost a test to Tonga.
I’m not generally one for if and buts and couldas and shouldas. But had Scotland got a penalty award in the dying minutes of the epic match against Wales (they fervently believed they should have) and defended a late restart against Ireland competently, they might have won a Grand Slam.
Fanciful? Absolutely. Scotland didn’t remotely deserve to beat Ireland on the day (the Welsh game was another matter). But the fact remains they were THAT close.
The question now to be asked is: was that evidence of continuing development, or a historic opportunity missed?
Wins in London and Paris this year, even before empty houses, were a sheer delight. But they are extremely rare; this was the first time it had happened in the same season since the 1920s.
Are those two games the defining mark of Scotland in 2021? Or are they instead the games against Ireland and South Africa, where old failings of setpiece struggles and losing contact collisions loomed large?
A need to visibly advance in the Six Nations
— Stuart W Hogg (@StuartWHOGG_) November 21, 2021
The discrepancy here is not as great as it was. And it is puzzling that Scotland apparently handle physical teams like England and France okay but not consistently the Irish or Springboks. But those are the two teams in our World Cup pool, and a solution to them has to be found.
Scotland added 12 new caps this November, won three of four games, but you’d struggle to say they really advanced much. For all the autumn caveats we mentioned above, there was plenty of evidence Ireland, France and England have.
Maybe the difference between Autumn Tests and Six Nations is the 10 weeks we’re in now. In the gap between these two international windows, there’s really something concrete to study; teams have tactically shown their hands. I happen to think Townsend and his management team are quite good at this poker game.
They certainly kept their cards pretty close to their chests in November. Scotland will strengthen with the returns of Cam Redpath and Jonny Gray particularly.
But we definitely need more evidence that Scotland are moving on when England and Eddie come to town in February.
The Murrayfield crowd: an apology
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) November 20, 2021
I may have given the impression in my regular irascible moments that I’m not terribly fond of the Murrayfield crowd.
My defence is that I’m not fond of Flower of Scotland (for artistic, not political reasons), the Wave is really, really naff, and I’m always wondering where all these thousands of people are at week-to-week rugby games. Also, watching Scotland from 2000 to 2014 was enough to make anyone irrevocably grumpy.
But a whole 600 days of silence convinced me otherwise. Murrayfield was a miserable place during Covid. The return of the full houses this November was an utterly joyous thing.
Quite the best part of it is that the numbers of women and girls attending Murrayfield international games continues to grow. I’ve been aware of this for a while, but it’s at least a 70-30 sexes split now, possibly even more equitable than even that.
I’m still not sure why this is. It can’t just be the numerous gin outlets.
With this in mind, Murrayfield needs a little adjustment. The queues outside the ladies’ on the main concourses are ridiculous. There are never queues outside the (more plentiful) men’s facilties.
There are obvious reasons for that I don’t need to go into. But they badly need to convert some of those men’s facilities to the major growth audience.