Six Nations 2018: Scotland's memories to cherish and forget
It began in calamity in Cardiff and ended in relief in Rome.
A season of extremes; embarrassment against Wales and euphoria against England, a sense of what-might-have-been against Ireland and the same feeling, but for different reasons, against Italy on that last heart-stopping Saturday, when Scotland were just a minute away from a defeat that would have dynamited their season and delivered them into a profound rugby depression.
The good and the bad, the beautiful and the beastly, the memories you won't want to forget and the moments you wouldn't care to remember. Seven weeks in the life of Scotland's Six Nations Championship.
Player of the season
- John Barclay: Consistently excellent. Possibly his greatest Test performance in the 25-13 win over England. Made 28 tackles in the 28-8 defeat by Ireland. Scored against Italy.
- Stuart McInally: Runs Barclay very close. At times, world class. Some of his darts went awry, but he was immense. Came off the bench into a maelstrom in Rome and made a difference in the 29-27 win.
- Stuart Hogg: Not a try-scoring machine this championship, but mountains of fine work amid heavy opposition scrutiny. Made 134m more with the ball in hand than anybody else in the championship.
- Ryan Wilson endured the longest comeback (from a disciplinary hearing in London, after being cited for "alleged foul play" in a clash with England's Nathan Hughes) since Vasco da Gama decided he'd had enough and kicked for home. On Twitter, Wilson kept us abreast of the weather-related travel chaos that befell him as he tried to return to Scotland. A funny man in a serious world.
- Scott Lawson's three-and-a-half-year wait for another cap ended. The pity for him was that it ended in Wales, as did his active involvement in the rest of the championship following the 34-7 defeat.
- The return of Jon Welsh after the nightmare of the closing minutes against Australia in 2015. Pitched into another nightmare in Cardiff. A bittersweet comeback. Mostly bitter.
Quote of the championship
- "I knew what was happening…" - Finn Russell on the wonder pass against England that made Murrayfield gasp in shock and awe.
- "I felt like a bit of a boy in a man's world" - Simon Berghan recalls his Six Nations debut for Scotland against France last season.
- "Against Wales, everybody hyped us up. 'Scotland are going to win, Scotland are going to win' and we obviously believed that. We believed we could just go and win and just needed to show up" - Gordon Reid on the humbling in Cardiff.
The Eddie Jones Award for getting it wrong
- Eddie Jones: "How excited do people get when the ball goes from side-to-side with Scotland?!" A disparaging remark on the eve of the tournament. Answer: Very excited indeed.
- Eddie Jones: "Test match rugby is about winning, it's not about entertainment. Don't ask me about style, because style is irrelevant." The England head coach in the week of the Calcutta Cup, which was won with entertainment and style by the Scots.
- Eddie Jones: "Scummy Irish." No explanation necessary, although he did apologise for "any offence caused" by remarks he made at a sponsors' talk in July 2017.
Try of the championship
Sean Maitland against England. Sixty-one seconds of breakdown brilliance in his own 22 from Barclay, daredevil risk-taking from Russell with his pass of the century, forwards and backs linking in a wondrous blur before Maitland was put away on the left wing. As good a try as Scotland have ever scored.
Putdown of the championship
Warren Gatland's post-match jibe that he always knew his Wales team would "batter" Scotland. Made a bad day in Cardiff even worse.
Poor against Wales and taken off early against France, much of the build-up to England centred around the state of Finn Russell's game and Russell's mind. He answered the doubters with a majestic display that lit up Murrayfield.
- Cornell du Preez at No 8 in Cardiff ahead of Ryan Wilson, Dave Denton and the forgotten man, Josh Strauss. Why? Du Preez wasn't capped again for the rest of the tournament.
- Huw Jones at 12 in the same match. In the wins over Ireland and Wales in last season's championship, Jones played at 13. In the wins against Samoa and Australia and the near-miss against the All Blacks in the autumn, Jones played at 13. Gregor Townsend moved him to 12 to accommodate Chris Harris at 13 with grim consequences. He reverted to Jones at 13 and Pete Horne at 12 for the 32-26 win over France and the victory against England.
The shooting yourself in the foot award
- Huw Jones' coma-inducing pass to Stuart Hogg when things were going Scotland's way in Dublin.
- Ali Price's intercepted pass that put Wales ahead early in Cardiff.
- Ali Price's crooked feed that helped put Wales further ahead in Cardiff.
- Pete Horne's intercepted pass that sent Ireland on their way.
- The lineout overthrow at the end of the first half in Dublin that cost another seven points.
- Pete Horne's miscued pass in Dublin when a cool head would have seen the score become 21-13 and possibly 21-15 with 25 minutes left to play.
- Let's not go on…
Just like everybody else, Jonny Gray had a rough day in Cardiff. He's a magnificent player, though, and motored on to have a fine tournament.
He finished top of the Six Nations tackle count with precisely 100, an average of 20 per game. That's a huge work-rate.
The excellent Hamish Watson was second on that list with 80 and John Barclay was fourth with 69. It's a tribute to their endeavour, but it's also reflective of the amount of time Scotland spent without the ball. Too much time.
They made 230 tackles in Dublin. Some of them had to be scraped off the grass and put on a plane to Edinburgh and onwards to Rome a few days later. It was brutal.
Crisis management award
Scotland were in an almighty hole in Rome and had to get out of it. Their final play was impressive.
Word has it that the backline wanted the ball released from the maul, but the forwards made the right decision under ferocious pressure in keeping it tight and winning a penalty.
It gave Greig Laidlaw the chance to boot over for a precious three points - and he did it with steely calm. On a day that produced so much disappointing stuff, that last act was clinical and decisive.
The biggest challenge that Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend faces is obliterating his team's weakness away from home. Everybody in the Scotland camp denies that it's psychological, so what is it? Why do Scotland morph into an error-ridden shadow of themselves in the Six Nations whenever they set foot outside Murrayfield?
Eleven tries conceded in three games on the road is bad enough, but look at how many of those tries came about. They were eminently avoidable. Ludicrously soft.
At home, you can almost bank on brilliance from this improving team, but away there is a collective uncertainty that brought humiliation in Cardiff, self-harm in Dublin and took them to the brink in Rome.
Rest is required
There's a summer tour coming. That's three Tests and a truckload of travel as Scotland trek to Canada, America and Argentina. After that, they'll have about 15 minutes to recuperate before going again in the new season: Pro14, Champions Cup or Challenge Cup, autumn Tests, Six Nations 2019, World Cup 2019.
It sounds like Townsend is going to show some mercy, and common sense, by resting some of his big names. That's not just important, it's critical.
As much as they would like to travel, none of Stuart Hogg, Huw Jones, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw, Stuart McInally, Jonny Gray, John Barclay and Hamish Watson should be on the plane in the summer. They've done enough, they need time off. A novel concept in the murderous intensity of professional rugby, for sure. But it should happen.
Get them rested and get them fresh for 2019. Instead of Hogg - Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham. Instead of Jones any one of five or six others.
Instead of Russell, why not Adam Hastings. Ali Price and George Horne for number nine? Fraser Brown and George Turner for hooker? Richie Gray needs rugby. Let him take his brother's place. No Barclay or Watson? There's Dave Denton, Matt Fagerson, Josh Strauss, Luke Hamilton and more.
Townsend needs no telling about shaking things up. He's a master at it. The summer tour is a nice expedition and a chance to have a look at some who've been on the periphery. The big stuff happens again in February and then on to the autumn and the World Cup in Japan.
Ireland are worthy Grand Slam winners, Wales finished a fine second given all the stars they were missing at various times. Scotland deserved third. A good season - and there is hope ahead.