Scottish rugby starts 2018 in a better place than almost any time since professionalism caught us pretty much on the hop 23 years ago.
The national team are ranked higher than ever before, coming off a record thrashing of Australia with clear and justified optimism to challenge for the Six Nations title – if not this season, then certainly in 2019.
Glasgow are out in front of the Guinness PRO14 and despite disappointments in Europe, seem to be moving ahead, especially in terms of developing a new set of young stars.
Edinburgh’s transformation from the moribund, often hapless team of last season has been most startling, and while they remain very much a work in progress, under Richard Cockerill there seems to be a true club culture developing there.
Optimism in Scottish rugby is contagious, and more often than not it’s a bug with severely unpleasant side-effects. But here’s where I think we are as we enter 2018.
As usual, the euphoria of the Autumn successes has quickly passed. Fresh injuries, the worrying fact that we haven’t seen Stuart Hogg since the warm-up for the Australia game – save for his bourgeoning career as a Sky Sports analyst – and Glasgow’s losses in Europe have blunted the optimism a little.
There is still a crisis at prop, with Jamie Bhatti the only loosehead candidate who has not had any injury issues. Thankfully, Bhatti continues to improve in all areas in what is – remember – his first pro season, thanks to Dave Rennie’s preference to play him as often as possible.
Gordon Reid is coming back after concussion problems, but Rory Sutherland’s shoulder has been re-injured, Darryl Marfo hasn’t played since his surprisingly effective Autumn Test campaign and there is still no sign of Alasdair Dickinson or Allan Dell.
Tighthead is less of a problem even with WP Nel out and Simon Berghan suspended but a knock to Zander Fagerson or Jon Welsh in the next month will create a problem on the other side as well.
Stuart McInally is slightly ahead of Fraser Brown at hooker, but either one would be a quality choice at a key position.
With Richie Gray making a full 80 minute comeback for Toulouse last weekend, Scotland have their strongest collection of locks maybe ever. Richie’s speed and ability to pinch lineout ball would have him renewing his partnership with brother Jonny in Cardiff for me, ahead of Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist and Tim Swinson.
No real issues in the back row either, with Ryan Wilson injured at the moment but a wealth of possibilities to slot in beside sure starters John Barclay and Hamish Watson.
Ali Price’s form has shaded a little at scrum-half, but he’s still the lead man. Greig Laidlaw hasn’t returned from his broken leg, and maybe Sam Hidalgo-Clyne has forced his way into the bench spot, although George Horne, the best scrum-half in Scotland this season so far, would be a bold move. Finn Russell is the 10 if he’s still on two legs.
Mark Bennett is about to make his comeback from nearly a year out with injury but it’s hard to see where the elusive and quick centre gets in past Alex Dunbar, Huw Jones and the fit-again Duncan Taylor, with Pete Horne the valuable utility option off the bench to play 10 or 12.
Tommy Seymour’s lack of form is down to a nagging toe injury but he’s being rested now. There are no shortage of candidates for the other wing slot – Sean Maitland is in pole position, but Byron McGuigan proved his worth against the Wallabies.
Scotland showed they could score plenty points without Hogg against Australia, but of course they’d much prefer to him to be there. It seems extra care is being taken with his recovery from a hip problem, which is indicative of his importance to the cause.
Munster’s four defeats in Irish inter-pro matches means that Glasgow’s humiliating loss in the first 1872 Cup match is basically irrelevant. The ten-win start to the Guinness PRO14 means the Warriors are clearly going to win Conference A and get home-field advantage for a semi-final.
That allows Dave Rennie some wiggle room to address issues in his team which have been uncovered by the Inter-City matches and the European failures. Glasgow are giving up too much turnover ball and far too many penalties which allows their maul defence to come under pressure.
The Warriors have suffered as many – perhaps more – key injuries than most of their rivals. The recent absence of Calum Gibbins has been keenly felt, but perhaps more so Ryan Wilson. The back rower wouldn’t be in anyone’s top five Warriors but his importance to the team and club can’t be understated.
Rennie has excelled in giving young players opportunities, and he’ll give more of a look to Adam Hastings and George Horne during the Six Nations window. The head coach arrived late but has had four months to stamp his blueprint on the team, and we’ll see a bit more of that in the second half of the season.
Securing Richard Cockerill for Edinburgh is probably the best pro team signing by Murrayfield in the last few years. Not just because the combative coach has restored respect to Edinburgh, but because they are making far more of a contribution to Gregor Townsend’s national squad.
Cockerill has got Edinburgh to a competitive edge and done so without really adding anyone significant to the squad he inherited from Alan Solomons, all while missing six frontline props and losing two key back rowers to unforeseen disciplinary issues. He’s been canny and inventive, and he’s trusted in young players when Solomons only played them when forced to.
But they’re still trailing Ulster by some distance in the race for a European qualifying place, and the fixture list is tough in the second half of the season. One also suspects Edinburgh are more affected by international calls than the Warriors, simply because their internationals are so important to them and they don’t have the depth of squad at Scotstoun.
There is possible immediate reward in the European Challenge Cup where Edinburgh seem likely to have a home quarter-final and they’re clearly a better team than reached the final of that event three years ago.
And if a full strength Edinburgh reach the final weekend of the season needing to beat Glasgow in the third 1872 Cup game to get into a European qualification play-off, I’d favour them to do it. In one-off games, they’ve already proved they’re more than capable of getting results.