10 punch the air Scottish rugby moments in 2021 – number 10 to number 4

It’s been another strange 12 months. For a good chunk of it, Scottish rugby’s fandom could only experience the sport from the comfort of their living rooms rather than in person. After the drudgery of the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup, at least this year’s Six Nations demonstrated that even without spectators the auld yin among international tournaments could still entertain. Elsewhere though, all competitions took a noticeable step up in intensity with the return of punters at the start of the 2021/22 campaign.

Throughout the last 12 months, there have been times that demonstrated rugby’s ability to invigorate even in this challenging period. The 10 moments selected were ones from this year that brought about a visceral reaction from the depths of at least one sofa in Scotland.

10. Jack Dempsey celebrating in front of the East Stand

It was a moment that deserved its own Bill McLaren commentary. There’s no point pastiching it but one feels that Bill would have loved the way Glasgow’s big number 8, Jack Dempsey, rampaged his way through the Dragons’ defence at Scotstoun in early December, barely breaking stride as he bounced off would-be tacklers.

Starting from a scrum won by driving the visitors off their own ball, this try was an illustration of the change in focus for Glasgow, attempting to power up the pack and looking to play a more physically aggressive style of game. This approach would pay dividends against Exeter a few weeks later.

At the end of it was the (slightly scary) intensity on the face of Dempsey as he celebrated. Here was a player who had moved halfway around the world to challenge himself. Here was a player who had bought into the new environment, teammates, fans and who wouldn’t let his levels of application drop in his quest to make his side better and more successful.

9. Hoggy’s record breaking try

In 2021, Stuart Hogg scored 5 tries. In 2010, the last non-RWC year before Hoggy made his debut the collective output of the entire Scotland team was 5 tries. Scottish fans have had to suffer through hard times where it was an incredible struggle just to cross the line. That has made it all the sweeter enjoying more recent years with Hogg and Tommy Seymour pushing each other ever closer to the all-time record, ably supported by regular contributions from the likes of Sean Maitland and Huw Jones.

Throughout the last decade Hoggy has been the one constant for Scotland. From his five-pointer against France at Murrayfield on his first start, right through to try number 25 against Japan, he has scored some absolute worldies. The Hawick native has been at the heart of the dark blues attacking overhaul and is a central figure every time they take the pitch.

Here’s to many more tries to come but for now, it’s possible to just enjoy the moment when he broke the record and Hoggy’s sheer delight in standing atop the pile of Scottish try scorers.

8. Ryan Wilson brings up 50

Nearly 18 months after winning his 49th Test cap, Ryan Wilson finally bagged his half century against France in March. This was just reward for a man who had returned from the 2019 RWC and then started every single game Glasgow Warriors played from that point until the weekend he was in Paris with Scotland.

In 2010/11 Wilson was one of the youngsters who came through in difficult circumstances as part of a Glasgow side that finished second bottom of the league. A decade later he was the skipper for a similarly challenging 2020/21 campaign. His leadership, personality and sheer force of will dragged the club through one of their toughest ever campaigns and helped build the foundations with the next generation of young players.

A Scotland recall and a 50th cap were suitable recognition of what he had put into the Scottish game in those tough months. Seeing him cross the whitewash at the Stade de France was a joyful moment. Not only that but he was to the fore as the dark blues bagged a late try for a famous win – but more on that later…

7. Finn’s grin

While ultimately the series didn’t go the way of the Lions, there was a first opportunity for 24 years to see Scottish players starting and contributing heavily to Test matches. Seven Scots in all were involved, with Ali Price and Duhan van der Merwe featuring in all three games.

It was an early substitution in the final Test that provided the single defining memory though. With Dan Biggar only having thrown three passes the week before it felt like a change was a needed. When the Welshman was injured early in the game, Finn Russell was finally called into action. As he entered the pitch there was absolutely no hint of anxiety, no sign that this was going to be anything other than a chance to play his natural game.

Swaggering into the line, Finn’s smile across to long-time halfback partner, Ali Price, said it all. Nae bother pal, we’ve got this. The next 30 or so minutes were the best of the series for the Lions. By halftime, they should have had at least two tries on the board and been in complete control of the game. As it was, it was left to Russell’s flawless kicking to keep them in the match to the death.

The wrong result then, but at least the small crumb of comfort that the rest of the nations making up the Lions finally understood just what it was that made Scotland fans so happy watching Finn Russell play.

6. Saracens’ disallowed try

Much of 2021 hadn’t been kind to Edinburgh – even after kicking off the year with a victory against Glasgow (in a dirge of a match). Other than two victories against perennial basement dwellers Zebre, the capital club’s season petered out with one win from ten games against the rest of the league.

A new coach, in the shape of Mike Blair, plus some quality recruitment certainly reinvigorated Edinburgh for the start of the 2021/22 campaign. The rugged pack built by Richard Cockerill was still there but early season form in the URC showed they could open things up and the backs could really play. Even off the back of this, however, few gave the Scottish side any chance in their Challenge Cup encounter away to European royalty, Saracens.

Blair’s Babes had other ideas however with a combination of skill (Charlie Savala’s pinpoint kick for Ramiro Moyano to finish) and brutal power (WP Nel rumbling over for the 44th try of his career). The decisive moment though came with the drama of a TMO referral after a Saracens’ maul crossed the whitewash for a potential match-winning try with time expired.

It’s something rugby fans have had to get used to as TMOs and replays seemingly play an ever-larger part in matches. This was a particularly tense way for the whole game to be brought to a climax though, with no time remaining for any further changes to the scoreboard. Once the TMO confirmed no clear grounding and a penalty against Saracens, Edinburgh fans would have been jumping for joy. Even OTOTM could appreciate the scale of a win for a Scottish side against the evil empire.

Tough to find footage for this moment – this is the closest approximation that turned up:

5. Rufus McLean v Dragons

Sometimes rugby is a brutal collision sport where the winner is the player or side who is willing to go to the darkest places, to drive themselves harder than the opposition. It can often be what makes the game great but even for the hardcore fans there can be times when matches can become a bit bogged down in these confrontations and descend into a bit of a slog.

Sometimes though, rugby can also be high art, dazzling and breathtaking. Rufus McLean is a player who has already provided a lot of those type of moments in his brief career for Glasgow (and Scotland). Against the Dragons, at the Principality Stadium, he announced himself as someone who simply had to be watched, the type of player who provokes a buzz of anticipation every time they get the ball.

His recovery of a loose lineout take to slip through the Dragons pack was remarkable enough. It was the dancing feet to sit down Ashton Hewitt and leave the gap he needed to race to the line that was the moment that really made jaws drop though. Very few players can pull off that kind of individual brilliance and those that witnessed McLean’s sidestepping masterclass are unlikely to forget it in a hurry.

4. Lions announcement

As a Scot, supporting the Lions in the 21st century has often been a thankless task. The ironic applause when Gordon Bulloch finally provided some Test representation in the dying minutes of the 2005 tour. The complete absence of Scottish players from the series 12 years later. It’s been a hard shift trying to feel connected to one of rugby’s grand historic concepts.

It was with the usual trepidation then that long-suffering fans suffered even longer through the interminable buildup to the squad announcement back in April. With the backs named ahead of the forwards, Scotland’s first realistic candidate was Chris Harris. When the Gloucester centre’s name was read out, something like a wave of relief swept over a nation. This was going to be a serious contribution to the touring party.

By the time Hamish Watson’s bemulleted image came up on the screen three minutes later, few but the most relentlessly optimistic Scottish fans can have been anything other than staggered, excited, overjoyed. When you invest in supporting these players it’s just incredibly nice to see them rewarded for their performances. Recognition doesn’t come much higher than selection for the Lions.

Bonus non-Scottish moment of the year – Quade Cooper’s match-winner against the Springboks

It’s rare for a non-Scottish rugby moment to raise the hairs in the back of OTOTM’s neck but Quade Cooper’s penalty with time expired to win the game for the Wallabies against the Springboks certainly did the trick.

Recalled at the age of 33 after nearly four years in the wilderness no-one could have expected the performance level the former Reds’ player put in. Having gone 7 from 7 with the boot to allow Australia to lead the game for more than 50 minutes, a late South African try meant that Cooper’s final kick of the game would decide whether it was a win or a loss for the Wallabies.

After the challenges he faced as a talented but wayward young player; after leaving Australia to try and reinvigorate his career; this was a Quade Cooper who had made peace with himself and the world around him. As he stepped up to take the kick from 40+ metres out he seemed to be the calmest person in the stadium. When the ball sailed between the posts, all that was left was to salute an incredible personal comeback.

Honourable Mentions

Adam Hastings’ back door pass, leading to Kyle Steyn’s try against Leinster in the Rainbow Cup. A quality intervention and vital in helping Glasgow to their first win over Leinster for more than two years.

Niko Matawalu’s tap and go from his own line against Benetton at Scotstoun. Classic Niko with the Flying Fijian deciding straight after a heavy-duty, goal line defensive stand was the best time to take it on. It ended in a try for the Warriors of course!

Jamie Bhatti’s try 37 minutes into his second spell at Glasgow – after playing 47 times without troubling the scoreboard first time around!

George Thornton’s sidestep in the Super 6 Final at the Dam Health Stadium in October. The big Ayrshire Bulls’ prop danced like a butterfly but stung Southern Knights for the score that sealed the title.

The synchronised celebrations of Glasgow’s players reacting to Johnny Matthews’ try versus Exeter. Might well have ranked higher if OTOTM had actually been able see it happening through the mist…

Siobhan Cattigan forcing a penalty for Scotland with seconds left on the clock in their RWC qualifier against Spain, following five minutes of Spanish pressure in the Scottish 22 as they looked for the score that would win them the game and knock the Scots out of RWC contention. Siobhan tragically passed away in November and her loss has been felt across Scottish rugby. Donations towards a legacy in Siobhan’s memory can be made here.

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