If Scottish Rugby chief Mark Dodson handed out report cards to those in charge of Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh at the end of last season, his judgement on their performance may well have read “must do better”.
Scottish sides spent years aimlessly wandering the back alleys of underachievement until Gregor Townsend took Glasgow on a journey that culminated in a title win in 2015.
Dave Rennie kept the show on the road and reached a Pro14 final in 2019. Semi-finals and final appearances were not just expected, but demanded.
In 2017, Richard Cockerill arrived in Edinburgh to jolt the capital side to life after years of gazing up the table. They became a force to be reckoned in all competitions.
But the momentum in the Scottish club game stalled last season. Danny Wilson replaced Rennie and, amid the Covid chaos, struggled to get any traction.
Cockerill’s abrasive style was just what the doctor ordered when he boarded a rudderless Edinburgh ship. Four years later, and with results going in the wrong direction, the whispers of dressing room unrest became louder, and it was deemed best for all parties the Englishman move on to be replaced by former Scotland scrum-half Mike Blair.
So ahead of the start of the United Rugby Championship – the latest incarnation of the Celtic League/Pro12/Pro14 – what does this season have in store for Scotland’s pro sides?
‘Our challenge is to fill the stadium every week’
It’s a new era in many ways at Edinburgh. The team will be playing for a new coach and in new surroundings.
After a nomadic existence during which they played matches at Easter Road, Meadowbank, Myreside and Murrayfield over the past two decades, they now have a place they can call their own.
The 7,800-seater DAM Health Stadium is situated in the shadow of Murrayfield, with Edinburgh looking to create the sort of experience Glasgow fans have enjoyed at Scotstoun for years.
“I played for Edinburgh in 2001 and there was talk of where we should play – we could play here, we could play there,” Blair said ahead of his first match as head coach at home to Scarlets on Saturday.
“We had a nomadic experience dotting around all over the place, but now we know this is where we perform.
“Part of my introduction presentation included the history at the club, talking about our achievements. I showed a video of Edinburgh v Toulouse in 2012 and we had 38,000 fans there. Edinburgh v Munster in 2019, another huge crowd.
“There’s an appetite for quality rugby in Edinburgh, so our challenge is to play a brand and quality of rugby, winning rugby, that means we fill this stadium every week and we’re chapping on Mark Dodson’s door saying we need a bigger stadium.”
While Cockerill left the club under something of a cloud, Blair recognises it would be a mistake to throw the baby out with the bathwater and dismantle everything he built.
Edinburgh are in a better place than when the Englishman arrived, and Blair’s challenge is to take the best of Cockerill’s team and make it evolve.
“We’re going to try and do some stuff a little bit differently, but those foundations are valuable,” said Blair, who has served time as Gregor Townsend’s assistant with both Glasgow and Scotland.
“I want to bring some tempo and excitement to our attack, but I also understand that you’ve got to be adaptable to the conditions, the players that are available to you to get the best out the team and put you in a position to win matches.”
The loss of British and Irish Lions duo Rory Sutherland and Duhan van der Merwe to Worcester is an undoubted blow but, after their summer exploits and with the autumn Tests on the horizon, it’s unlikely the pair would have seen much Edinburgh action this side of Christmas.
The arrival of Ben Vellacott, James Lang and Henry Immelman should offer more variety to what has often been a pedestrian backline.
‘Glasgow will take a step forward this season’
At points last season, Glasgow head coach Wilson was naming players on his bench so unheard of you were left to wonder if introductions were being made on the pitch before kick-off.
Many were prepared to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt, given he took over in the most difficult of circumstances. Scotland players kept in a bubble and unavailable to their clubs, injuries, no Super 6 to dip into for players, plus outbreaks of Covid – it was an almighty mess in which to regularly put out a competitive side.
However, the 46-19 humbling to Benetton in April, with many of Warriors top stars back in the team, was so bad, so pitifully inept, that some Glasgow fans questioned whether Wilson was deserving of a second season in charge.
A strong end to the campaign brought some renewed hope, but the coach knows allowances will not be there this time.
“The tale end of last year, we got most of our boys back in the building and with a bit of time together we had a great run, including beating Leinster at home in the last game of the season,” said Wilson, whose side start at Ulster on Friday. “We finished the season in a far more positive place than we started.
“I think we’ll take a step forward. We’re in that pool of four that in terms of European qualification, we need to be finishing top of ahead of Edinburgh, Benetton and Zebre. That’s going to be a goal.
“We obviously want to qualify for the latter stages [of the URC]. We know what that will take in terms of points roughly, but we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves. Just now it’s about building performances and results.”
Adam Hastings and Huw Jones departing for the English Premiership means Glasgow are losing a lot of flair behind the scrum, but Wilson believes his business has left the squad in a stronger place, with the likes of Duncan Weir, Jack Dempsey and Josh McKay coming in.
“I think we’ve recruited well, some exciting talent that will balance with our younger players that we blooded last year,” he said.
“Those younger players will go again now and fight for places. Look at the number 10 jersey, you’ve got Duncan Weir and Ross Thompson battling it out and Domingo Miotti still to arrive.
“We’ve probably got another eight or nine players to come back around the end of this block which is very exciting and will give us another injection, the returning Lions [Ali Price and Zander Fagerson] and Argentinian boys. That will be a real chance to build our squad.”