Supporting Scotland is tough going at the best of times, but the last four-and-a-bit months — since that abrupt wake-up call delivered by Ireland on the opening weekend of the 2019 World Cup — has been particularly fraught.
While Gregor Townsend’s team recovered from that nightmare to secure solid wins against the lower level opposition of Samoa and Russia in their next two pool matches, they were then run off the park by host nation Japan in a winner-takes-all Pool A qualification decider, meaning they failed to make it into the knock-out stages for only the second time ever.
Up until that point, there had been a fairly strong whiff of self-belief — some may even call it misplaced arrogance — about Townsend and his squad, who had headed out to the Far East claiming they would be the fittest team at the tournament and play the fastest brand of rugby. When reality bit, and their physical limitations and tactical naivety brutally exposed by both Ireland and Japan, it had a devastating effect on morale.
Since returning home from Japan with their tails tucked between their legs, Scotland have lost influential senior players Greig Laidlaw, John Barclay, and Tommy Seymour to retirement, which is perhaps part of the natural evolution of a team.
Similarly, the unavailability of in-form winger Darcy Graham and powerhouse back-rower Magnus Bradbury for this weekend’s Six Nations game against Ireland [again!] is disappointing but unavoidable.
However, the abrupt departure of talismanic stand-off Finn Russell just under two weeks ago is an entirely different matter.
The 27-year-old walked out on the squad almost immediately after arriving in camp, having fallen out with a number of senior players and members of the management team over whether he could have a drink in the hotel bar as he tried to unwind following Racing 92’s defeat to Saracens in the Champions Cup.
The details of what exactly happened are well-rehearsed but vague — and often contradictory.
It is not necessary to revisit all of that here, suffice to say this flashpoint is the outcome of a longer-standing and deeper-rooted deterioration in the relationship between Russell and Townsend than the headlines about late night drinking sessions have suggested.
It was a tension which needed to be addressed properly before it got to crisis level. The fact that it wasn’t speaks volumes about the general dysfunctionality of Scottish rugby at the moment.
During the last two years, the Murrayfield machine has lurched from one humiliating calamity to the next, with trust in the people responsible for running the game being eroded by each and every misstep. This process has accelerated at an alarming rate during the last few months.
There was, of course, the Typhoon Hagibis fallout, when chief executive Mark Dodson decided to pressurise World Rugby through the media into rescheduling Scotland’s all-important match against Japan if the storm hit Yokohama.
Opinions are split in Scotland over whether this was a good or bad move, but it didn’t go down well elsewhere and resulted in the SRU picking up a £70,000 fine as a consequence.
The SRU may have persuaded World Rugby to dress it up as a ‘donation’, but that was semantics. It was a fine. Nothing more and nothing less.
Then there was a governance review conducted by Bill Gammell — a former Scotland internationalist, millionaire oilman and long-standing associate of Dodson – who came to the conclusion that concerns about the conduct of the board and paid executives at the top of the Scottish game should be addressed by giving them more autonomy to do exactly as they please.
Their proposal was meant to be pushed through a special general meeting by the end of March but now appears to have been discreetly shelved after a furious backlash from member clubs, who have belatedly remembered that it is them and not the hired help who own the business and all its assets.
Perhaps most galling of all, there was the outrage earlier this month at the revelation that Dodson had collected £933k [€1.1m] in salary and bonuses for the year up to the end of May 2019, more than doubling the £455k [€538k] he had picked up the year before.
This is a figure that dwarves, by some considerable distance, the emoluments paid to the CEOs of the other home unions, with Philip Browne, chief executive of the IRFU, apparently taking home in the region of £175,000 [€207k] during a similar period!
With Dodson’s three fellow executive directors at Murrayfield also doubling their income from £535k [€632k] between them to £1.18m [€1.39], those four suits at the top of the organisation accounted for 3.5% of the SRU’s £61m turnover last year, which is the equivalent of 73% of the total spent on grassroots ‘club support and development’.
All of this is relevant because it feeds into a general feeling in Scotland that the sport is being run by a small cabal of people who have lost sight [if they ever had it] of the core purpose of the business.
And it relates specifically to the national team’s current predicament because it looks like the focus has been so much on either empire-building or fire-fighting, and sometimes both those things at the same time, that they have not bothered themselves addressing potentially uncomfortable truths about the failed World Cup campaign.
The SRU were without a director of rugby from the end of the last Six Nations right through the World Cup and up until the start of January, when Jim Mallinder finally took on the role, meaning the relatively inexperienced Townsend — with only five years’ experience as a head coach with Glasgow Warriors before getting the Scotland job — had no senior rugby figure to bounce ideas off, ask for advice and to ultimately be held accountable by.
Furthermore, unlike Ireland [who at least made the last eight], there has been no official review of the World Cup. Townsend explained a few weeks ago that there had been plenty of internal discussion by the coaching and management team, which had then been passed upstairs – a bit like leaving the school kids to mark their own homework.
Had there been a director of rugby in place and/or a proper review of the World Cup, then the ticking time-bomb of the Russell’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with Townsend would surely have been identified and addressed before the almost inevitable explosion.
This lack of accountability has not helped Townsend, rather undermined him. Rumours are rife he has lost the dressing room and there is no way of proving otherwise.
It was Dodson who gave Townsend his big break at Glasgow Warriors in 2012 (which was a bold move at the time), and their careers have been aligned ever since. Dodson shared Townsend’s glory when he led the Warriors to the PRO12 title in 2015, but now they both find their respective positions under unprecedented scrutiny.
But all is not lost. We Scots love a crisis. It is when we are at our best — or so we believe — and the tartan hordes will descend on Dublin Saturday believing the darkest hour is always just before the dawn.
The silver-lining from the World Cup was the way in which relatively new faces such as Scott Cummings and Jamie Ritchie in the pack, plus the likes of Adam Hastings and Chris Harris in the backline, took over from the old guard after the Ireland game and injected real vitality.
They’ll be sick of all this negativity and desperate to give the nation something to cheer about.