De Barra: Flower of Scotland losing all its petals

SHANE DE BARRA
Last updated 17:28 14/02/2014
Scotland
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STUMPED: Scotland player's Tim Swinson, left, and Jim Hamilton come to terms with England's dominance at Murrayfield.

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OPINION: There's no hiding from it, Scottish rugby is dire and needs a miracle if the game's to be saved there.

It's always unpleasant to lose faith in something you've had a soft spot for since since your earliest memory but when push comes to shove - even with the heaviest heart - you have to call a spade a spade.

It's unlikely many Kiwis set their alarm clocks last Sunday morning to catch the latest instalment of international rugby's oldest rivalry - the Calcutta Cup - but if they did, most probably scuttled back to the comfort of their warm beds than bear further witness to the horror show on offer in Edinburgh.

Oh Scotland, how have you fallen so far?

In terms of scoreline, there have been worse defeats. 20-0 is not the biggest margin Scotland have ever lost to England by, but the manner of the loss made it their greatest submission to the Auld Enemy in a generation.

It's been coming a while. Perhaps last Sunday morning was the straw that broke the camel's back. On a pitch more suited to mud wrestling than test rugby, England put a woefully limited and hapless Scotland to the sword on their own turf without breaking a sweat.

The week before, in Dublin, it was the same story. Ireland simply rode out a ferocious Scottish forward effort in the first 40 minutes before smacking the Scots, again without ever moving out of second gear.

It doesn't get any easier for Scotland. Wales and France will view the Scots - arrogantly, but who could blame them? - as an opportunity to help their points difference come the business end of the Six Nations while Italy in Rome will expect to win, and win well.

The Six Nations has become a three-tier tournament with Scotland languishing alone at the bottom.

It's a far, far cry from the days of Hastings, Irvine, Calder, Tefler, Jeffrey and McGeechan.

When they played Scottish rugby was revered worldwide.

While never in danger of scaling the heights of the game's "big five", Scotland could at the very least command respect.

Had Gavin Hastings not missed a routine penalty in the semifinal of the 1991 Rugby World Cup against England, the Scots would have fancied their chances against Australia in the final.

The Scottish Borders were once rugby heartland. Heartland to rival the Welsh Valleys, the Canterbury Plains and the hard terrains of southern France. In townships such as Peebles and Selkirk the game was religion in a country where the old Catholic-Protestant question began to dominate rugby's main rival - football.

When the Border Reivers were disbanded in 2007 by the Scottish Rugby Union, professionalism had ripped the heart out of Scottish rugby's soul.

If local stars wanted to become national heroes they'd have to head for Scotland's only remaining professional outfits in Glasgow and Edinburgh - football cities true and true. In that time neither outfit has made any significant impression on their respective sporting landscapes.

In short, Scottish rugby is dying a slow painful death. It has been for a long time.

Last year, there were some in the New Zealand media who questioned the wisdom of taking the All Blacks to Murrayfield on their November tour. Scotland were no longer a test, they argued. All that was shared between the two sides was tradition and that, sadly, has little place in the modern world of professional sport.

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At the time I was angered. Many of this nation's most adored All Blacks are of Scottish descent - captain fantastic himself Richie McCaw even plays the bagpipes. To suggest the All Blacks should no longer play tests in Edinburgh was, I thought at the time, both arrogant and downright rude.

Then last Sunday I watched Scotland put in the most dire performance I've ever seen by an international side.

The thing is, it's hard to see any hope for Scotland. Playing numbers are dwindling, attendances are falling and in a country that remains so obsessed with football, rugby struggles to get little if any coverage in the mainstream tabloid media.

The toilet habits of an Inverness Caledonian Thistle right back are of more interest to the general populace in Glasgow. It's hard to see how the SRU, even with the help of the IRB, can do anything to stop the rot.

Italy has a vast potential fan base from which rugby's popularity can grow. The All Blacks even managed to sell out hallowed football turf in Milan's San Siro a few years back. Japan and the US also provide relatively untapped markets that can only improve as time moves.

That Kiwi coach Vern Cotter was able to take the Scotland job but not join the national setup until the end of his contract with Clermont Auvergne speaks volumes.

Let's remember Cotter is unproven at international level. He may have won a French title with Clermont but he's failed on numerous occasions to back it up or land Europe's premier trophy, the Heineken Cup - despite having one of the fattest chequebooks in world rugby.

Instead, he joins Scotland just one year out from the 2015 World Cup. Surely the SRU could have manned up and told Cotter if he wanted an international gig he had to skip to their beat, not his own or Clermont's. 

Either way, the Scots seem to think they've found their saviour. One thing's clear, they need one fast.

- Fairfax Media

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