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10 April 2000

A game to go down in history

New Statesman Scotland - Scottish rugby has been accused of being rotten to the core. Is th

By Tom Pow

When Lawrence Dallaglio dived behind the Scottish line, his huge forearms in triumph framing his perfect jaw, many photographers must have thought to themselves: it’s a wrap. After a tetchy opening quarter, the English supporters could now relax and warm up “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”. And the most vituperative of Scotland’s own rugby critics could once again this sorry season sharpen their pencils to excoriate a lacklustre team, badly selected, poorly coached, randomly substituted and pale in comparison with the majestic Slow Walkers of 1990.

And how many Scottish TV supporters, seeing Dallaglio’s imperious arc of a run through no-man’s-land, did not throw their hands in the air and exclaim, as the generations have before us, “Oh well, that’s it then”? We had, after all, been told that this England team was, man for man, so superior – the speed of Healey, the metronomic exactitude of Wilkinson, the indomitability of Dallaglio – that the only way rugby correspondents had been able to make a game of it was to talk up Scotland’s coach, Ian McGeechan; he who, without the abrasive Jim Telfer at his side, had been found wanting. The cerebral stuff is OK, but could he motivate a team?

Moreover, the week before, one of Scotland’s Sunday papers had trumpeted that Scotland’s rugby was “rotten to the core”. The jokes about Scotland’s Kiwis were not so affectionate now; pride in the bloodline was seen to be mere freeloading by talents unable to make it back home: “Coming over here and denying our lads a chance.” Once I heard a football supporter, utterly bereft of words powerful enough to damn the hopelessness he saw, yelling at the players on the pitch: “You, you fucking [pause] Scottish bastards!” I still can’t imagine any other nation using its own name as a pejorative descriptor. But at least he was right: they were all Scottish bastards. Not like this dodgy lot.

Sporting identity, or at least identification, used to be a much more straight- forward affair. In my youth, the rugby map of Scotland consisted of the Edinburgh fee-paying schools, whose key players spoke to each other at dances and parties; the few private schools, which made the touchlines thick with uniformed supporters; and a couple of schools in the west and skirmishing parties in the north added geographical breadth; but the real rugby power in grown-up Scotland lay below us.

The Borders seemed puffed up with the pride of hard men. Former players will tell you how they relished a trip to play the soft boys of the city; yet the best Scottish sides combined the uncompromising fierceness of players such as Telfer with the searing pace of Jim Renwick and the elegant skills of Pringle Fisher and Ken Scotland.

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Certainly, geography was important then. These players most often came from, and returned to, ordinary towns and ordinary jobs. I can’t recall the last time I heard Bill McLaren say: “They’ll be dancing in the streets of . . .” Yet who can deny that Gary Armstrong or Andy Irvine were exceptional sportsmen in any field and deserved commensurate rewards? The question is, did Scotland’s club scene have to be emasculated to provide it; and two super teams set up, from which the Scottish rugby public feels dislocated?

Last week’s Scotland v England game provided something of an answer. The requirements of speed of thought, mental toughness, an ability both to give and to take hits of incredible ferocity, ensure that this modern game is one for battle-hardened professionals. There were close games in other eras, but many of these were mind-numbing – nothing like the drama that unfolded in last weekend’s match. Here was a visceral understanding between the team and its fans; this one counts big time.

Dallaglio’s try had not led to the expected bloodletting. In fact, he was quibbling with the referee and the touch judges about their reading of the script. Towards the end of the first half, the English pack pummelled the Scottish line; one can barely imagine the adrenalin rush that players such as Leslie, White, Murray and Pountney felt holding the line and winning a penalty to boot. Rope a dope.

The second half recalled Kenneth Branagh’s rain-drenched Agincourt in his film of Henry V. Some day, the BBC will show us the highlights of this half in slow motion with an appropriate soundtrack. But only the event can catch the ratcheted drama as Scotland drove and defended and the English seemed to blur into the rain; until McIlwham pounced on a loose ball and Hodge made safe Scotland’s triumph.

In the end, Dallaglio’s early joy read like hubris. The important picture shows Andy Nicol, drenched and blood-soaked, lifting the Calcutta Cup like a warrior king. The event had shown that, for all the changes of the past decade, history works to a more capacious timescale: whatever enduring qualities enabled David Sole’s team to triumph against the odds in 1990 were on display again in 2000. And which game, in the pub conversation of the decade, do you think makes the better story?