Glasgow and Edinburgh can both reach the European quarter-finals, which should give national side grounds for optimism
There can be no question about the best rugby story of 2019 so far. For Scotland to have the chance of both its professional teams reaching Europe’s last eight going into the final round of Champions Cup pool matches is as unprecedented as it is great news for a tournament which thrives on diversity. Sure, the leading Irish, French and English candidates are still in the mix but a double-whammy of Edinburgh and Glasgow really would be a collector’s item.
It is not always an easy life as a pro rugby player in Scotland. There are bigger bucks available elsewhere and, until this season, their major teams have reached the European quarter-finals just twice and once respectively in 22 years of trying. When Gregor Townsend names his Six Nations squad this week it will be from a position of collective psychological strength unparalleled since Jim Telfer’s heyday.
Which, of course, begs a familiar question: does European form translate to the international stage? This time last year, when England were – as now – mostly underperforming in Europe, Eddie Jones was unimpressed by a headline in the Guardian – “Premiership’s faltering form in Europe could spell trouble for England” – suggesting it might impact on their 2018 Six Nations prospects. “If they’re not successful at club level, it doesn’t mean you can’t be successful at international level,” said Jones. Fair enough, but England’s fifth-placed finish in the Six Nations did not exactly explode the notion of a legitimate link between European form in January and Test form immediately afterwards.
This does not automatically mean that Scotland are about to win a grand slam, even if three of their first four fixtures are being played at Murrayfield this year. When expectations have been ramped up on Scottish sides in the recent past, they have not always responded positively. And yet. If a Lions party were touring this summer, Hamish Watson, Darcy Graham, Blair Kinghorn, Stuart McInally, WP Nel, Jonny Gray, Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell would all be legitimate contenders. Sam Skinner was excellent again for Exeter on Sunday. Mix in a dash of Edinburgh’s Richard Cockerill-engineered resilience and why would Scotland not be heading into the next couple of months feeling genuinely optimistic?
Was it totally coincidental, too, that Ireland won a grand slam last season when their provinces were also riding high? This time around both Munster and Ulster have stepped up a gear from last season and Leinster, the defending European champions, are nicely placed to grab their customary home quarter-final draw. No one who saw Joey Carbery’s masterclass at Kingsholm on Friday night will need telling that Joe Schmidt has rare strength-in-depth at his disposal.