Scotland ready for 'next level' under Gregor Townsend, says Mark Dodson
For much of rugby's professional age, Murrayfield has been a whirling vortex of disappointment, a place where, at the beginning of nearly every Six Nations and nearly every November series, almost 70,000 were fed into the place in an optimistic and joyful frame of mind only to emerge two hours later like the man on the bridge in Edvard Munch's Scream.
Murrayfield's capacity to darken the mood is well established, but this past year has seen the picture change a little. Meaty wins against Argentina, Ireland and Wales. The best showing in the Six Nations in a decade.
More tries than in any year since 1999. A world ranking of five for the first time ever.
Mark Dodson, Scottish Rugby's chief executive, doesn't have much hair, but the bit that's there was on fire for the early years in the job when debt and rancour ruled against a backdrop of a game, and a business, in crisis.
Dodson doesn't exactly come in the door at Murrayfield every morning singing Hakuna Matata, but things are better than they used to be.
'Gregor's the right guy at the right time'
Ian McGeechan ran out of support and gave up his post as Scotland coach without so much of a murmur of protest from fans. Matt Williams, his replacement, was run out of town. Frank Hadden lost authority long before his exit. Andy Robinson lost it spectacularly after defeat by Tonga and resigned the next day.
Vern Cotter's departure was unique. He was serenaded out the door. All of Murrayfield applauded him on that final Six Nations Saturday against Italy. The big man, for whom expressing emotion is akin to pulling teeth, almost cracked amid the love-bombing.
Dodson had a dilemma last summer. He knew that Glasgow's Gregor Townsend was being coveted by foreign clubs and he also knew that Cotter hadn't committed in writing to staying on until the World Cup in 2019. He felt he had a decision to make.
"I'm very proud of Vern, he's done a terrific job," says Dodson. "He's held in high regard by the players and you could see that from the finale he was given. But last summer, when the decision was announced, we were in a delicate place. We had the best young Scottish coach in Gregor, and we also had a successful Scotland coach in Vern.
"When I came here I promised the board that I would develop Scottish talent and I had, in Gregor, an outstanding Scottish coach. It was the time for me to make that decision and bring Gregor into the national fold.
"Gregor knows all these players, he's actually brought through a lot of them. We're going to build on the successful foundations that Vern has laid in place and I think Gregor will take the team on to the next level.
"There's gambles in professional sport all the time, but what we've done here is bring through the right guy at the right time."
'No interest in Edinburgh shooting star performances'
They might have made the quarter-final of the European Challenge Cup, but Edinburgh remain a project stuck in the starting stalls.
As a Pro12 team they are again in the midst of a failed season, sitting ninth in the table having lost 14 of their 18 league games this season, a dismal run that cost Alan Solomons his job earlier in the campaign and which did for Duncan Hodge's chances of succeeding him. Richard Cockerill will become their new coach in the summer.
Dodson doesn't sugar-coat how dismal Edinburgh have been. Since the beginning of the Pro12 they have finished eighth, 11th, 10th, eighth, ninth and they'll be either ninth or 10th again this season.
"Winning is everything and it's very difficult to get momentum unless they're winning consistently and what Edinburgh have done is win inconsistently," he says. "They've had wonder games against Stade Francais and Harlequins and made a European final (in 2015), but their bread and butter is the Pro12 and they've failed to deliver.
"We had to put our foot on the ball and regroup. We got Richard. He had to think really clearly about coming to Edinburgh and he had offers in France and England. This is a guy who has won three Premierships. He's chosen to come here with his family and that says a lot about his belief in what we can do.
"I'm not interested in the shooting star performances. They have no interest for me. Edinburgh have to start winning Pro12 matches.
"I'm in touch with Richard about two or three times a week. He's built successful sides so he understands what's required. He won't make any snap judgements on anything until he gets here. He wants to see what it looks like. The SRU board are very clear that Edinburgh have to be successful - and they have the resources to be successful."
'We have to make Scotstoun bigger, maybe 10,000'
Glasgow and Edinburgh exist under the same umbrella, but as organisations they're poles apart. Dodson reckons that Glasgow are three years further down the road.
He says there's no vast difference in budget between the two. The extras that Glasgow get have been earned on the back of their considerable success.
If they win their Champions Cup quarter-final against champions Saracens on Sunday, another £300,000 will be deposited in the SRU account. It would be a massive upset against a frighteningly good side, but Glasgow have won respect all around Europe.
They travel in hope - and in huge numbers. More than 5,000 fans are heading south; an unthinkable number only a few years ago.
"There will be a lot of nervous people down in Barnet on Sunday," says Dodson of the Saracens faithful. "And it's a testament to Glasgow - 5,000 travelling supporters is an extraordinary number. Their brand is growing all the time and we need to respond to that.
"We have to get Scotstoun bigger because we have the capacity 7,300 there for nearly every game this season and we could probably have sold 10,000 for some of the bigger games.
"We have to find a way of increasing capacity, we have to offer people in Glasgow who haven't been to a rugby game a way of coming to see us. We don't own the stadium, but our partners have been super-supportive so far. We're talking to them about how we can make it bigger and more permanent and they've been terrific.
"Hopefully over the next 12 months we'll be able to see more seats in that stadium. It's front and centre on our minds."
Dave Rennie, the celebrated Kiwi, will replace Townsend at Scotstoun next season. To say that his capture is a coup wouldn't be over-stating it. Rennie coached the New Zealand Under-20s to three straight World Championship wins from 2008 to 2010 and the won back-to-back Super Rugby titles with the Chiefs in 2012 and 2013.
He'll have current Scotland attack coach Jason O'Halloran as his assistant. It's a seriously impressive coaching ticket.
"If you talk to people who have played under him and people who have coached with him, this is a very special guy," Dodson explains. "Myself and Scott Johnson (SRU director of rugby) went to Cape Town to talk to him while the Chiefs were playing the Stormers. We said, 'Don't talk to anybody else, talk to us, this is our plan.' Nobody saw it coming."
'Some players turned down serious money abroad'
A mountain of business had to be done to keep many of Scotland's marquee names from being lured away to England and France. Some, like Josh Strauss, are leaving, but Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar, WP Nel and others have signed new deals.
The SRU have also negotiated the capture of Huw Jones for Glasgow. Smart work, that.
"It cost us financially, but players are buying into the Glasgow story and what we want to do with Edinburgh," adds Dodson. "Instead of just being told about it, they can see the changes, they can see that Glasgow are at the business end of Europe and have a coach of the calibre of Dave coming in. They can also see that Edinburgh is starting to have a different coaching outlook for the future with investment going into Myreside.
"We had to pay more to keep them in Scotland, no question about it, but we didn't pay as much as these players could have achieved by going elsewhere. Each of the major guys could have got hundreds of thousands pounds more at other clubs than what they've settled for here. There was real money out there for those players. They've decided to stay here rather than go in search of gold. That's a testament to the players."
Some of these players are going to be touring new territory from 2020. A deal just thrashed out has put Scotland back among the elite nations in summer tour terms.
The next decade has been mapped out, but the details haven't yet been published. Scotland, though, will tour New Zealand, South Africa and Australia for two and three-Test tours in those years, an undertaking they backed away from previously.
"We've got Scotland back on the tier one schedule, which is the best thing for the country," says Dodson. "We'll still be touring tier two nations but this means a lot more games against the top teams in the summer and it also means that they are going to come here more often."