Ahead of this weekend’s matches that kick off of the Six Nations 2016 we take a look back to the genesis of the current Scotland team and how it has grown to a squad that was a whisker away from the semi-finals in the 2015 World Cup; a team that were crushed emotionally in that great, bittersweet battle against Australia, a game that will live on in infamy in every Scotsman’s memory.
This extract is from Behind the Thistle: Playing Rugby for Scotland, and is from Chapter 25 and starts with the 2013 season:
RETURNING TO THE TOP TABLE
2013 and 2014 saw another period of transition. Scott Johnson had been employed by Robinson as a skills and attack coach at the start of the 2012 season and took on the head coach role after the Englishman’s abdication. Johnson in turn employed the services of former England international turned Sky TV analyst Dean Ryan on a short-term contract as his forwards coach for the 2013 Six Nations and the hurriedly assembled coaching team pulled a rabbit out of the hat in leading Scotland to third in the table – the highest finish they have enjoyed since occupying the same position in 2006 (although the 2013 team recorded just two wins to the 2006 team’s three – and one of these was a daylight robbery one-point win over an otherwise dominant Ireland at Murrayfield).
Johnson came to Scotland with a mixed reputation as a popular skills coach but with mixed results as a head coach. After negotiations with the SRU following the 2013 Six Nations, it was revealed that he would remain as temporary caretaker coach and would, in time, move ‘upstairs’ to the SRU’s Director of Rugby position, last occupied by Ian McGeechan in 2005. With the announcement of Vern Cotter as his long-term successor as head coach, a whole new controversy ignited when Cotter’s employers, Clermont Auvergne (who had been unaware of the SRU’s advances), blew a gasket and insisted that Cotter see out his contract to the summer of 2014. So Johnson remained in charge for the 2013 summer tournament in South Africa with the host nation, Samoa and Italy, the autumn Tests against Japan, South Africa and Australia and the 2014 Six Nations before handing over the reins to Cotter for the summer tour to north and south America and South Africa – and the road to the 2015 World Cup in England. Clearly, for a team that had struggled to string a series of victories together in the professional era, the foundations on which the team was trying to build consistency were manifestly unstable. But the players simply had to accept the coaching merry-go-round and get on with things.
Despite this instability and sense of uncertainty in the coaching structure, some of the attacking play during the 2013 Six Nations was exceptional. Against England in the opening game, Sean Maitland marked his debut with a try down the blind-side wing after some wonderfully ambitious attacking play, before a turnover on the Scotland line by Kelly Brown unleashed a counter-attack normally only seen by the classic French teams of the ’80s and ’90s. The ball went from Brown to Stuart Hogg to Ruaridh Jackson to Matt Scott, whose quick hands unleashed David Denton – and all this done behind the five metre line. Denton carried the ball just beyond the twenty-two and very nearly ended the move when he ignored supporting runners. But as he was felled by Mike Brown he popped the ball from the floor to Jackson, who showed the same dexterity as Scott had done just moments before to slip the pass wide to Maitland. Maitland found himself in space but was aware of the covering defence tracking across to close him down; he was also aware that he had Hogg to take his side into the lead with just four minutes remaining on the clock on his inside, so carried the ball up field to the ten metre line and stabbed a grubber into space for his fullback to chase. Hogg put on the afterburners, showed fabulous footballing skills to hack the ball on and then beat the despairing cover of Toby Flood to score in the corner. It was to be voted try of the tournament.
The attacking intent was wonderful, but the defence was often stretched and the set-piece creaked under pressure from a dominant England eight. In the end, those were the margins that decided the fate of the match and England won 38-18, a scoreline that was more than a disservice to the Scottish efforts.
Mike Blair: I decided to retire shortly before the 2013 Six Nations. It was a hard decision to make, but it’s one that I felt lucky that I was able to do. Every time I pulled on the Scotland jersey it was an incredible honour and a privilege.
There’s a plaque in each players’ cubicle in the Murrayfeild changing-room which bears the name of greats from the past who have previously worn the shirt. Seeing those great names, I was always reminded of something that Jim Telfer once said: that the jersey is never really yours; it belongs to the nation and to the history of the team . . . you are only ever borrowing it for a time.
I used to recreate David Sole’s slow march of 1990 in my garden, used to hear Bill McLaren’s voice commentating as I ran around with the ball. I think that when any player pulls on their international jersey, they wear it for their friends and family, for all the fans that support them around the world, for the great players that have worn it before them, for their school teachers and for their club coaches and so on; but they also wear it for that boy inside of them who has played a thousand games in his head, and for those who even now run around their gardens with a dream that they might one day wear that same jersey. For me, that was what playing for Scotland was all about. Forget all the lows. It was an amazing ten years; I lived a dream.
Jim Hamilton (Scotland 2006-2015, 63 Caps): After the England loss Dean Ryan dished out a pretty brutal analysis. There was no crisis meeting but he spoke to every forward and asked us to tell him what we felt our primary role was as an international player. None of us did our job properly against England so we had to strip it back and sort it out. Rugby is a simple game and if you don’t do the basics right you won’t win the game; there’s no point looking pretty, running around and offloading if you don’t get the win.
Against England, we were a bit off our game and they were very, very good – they played a completely different game to what we had trained for and what we expected. You have to give them credit, though: they won the contact area so well that we had to go away and have a good long look at ourselves.
The backs had impressed at Twickenham and they continued where they left off when Italy came to Murrayfield, tearing the Italian defence to shreds as they scored tries through Tim Visser, Matt Scott, Stuart Hogg and Sean Lamont in a 34-10 shellacking.
Stuart Hogg (Scotland 2012-2015, 38 Caps): I really enjoyed my try against Italy because it was another length of the field effort and had been a bit of a gamble. Italy had broken through and they had a two-on-one against me – and I decided to go for the intercept. It was a pretty big call and I could have made a complete mess of it if Luciano Orquera had thrown a dummy. It was a fourteen-pointer, as they say, because if it didn’t come off then they would have scored under the sticks. Orquera had broken into space and I was set up pretty square against him, so it made sense for him to try and keep me fixed and then give the scoring pass to Tommaso Benvenuti. I had the option to either try and tackle Orquera man-and-ball to try and stop his pass, to slide onto Benvenuti but risk Orquera dummying and scoring himself, or to go for the intercept. Luckily it came off and eighty metres later I’d scored at the other end. It’s a great moment when you back your instincts and your skills and things like that work out for you.
Greig Laidlaw: We played Ireland next and with the way we were playing we felt really good about our prospects. We wanted to win and we wanted to win the respect of the Irish boys as well. We’d probably not given them much reason to respect us in the recent past, so we wanted to change that. Unless you beat them you can’t expect respect from them. It was a bit of a scrappy game; they went ahead after we let in a pretty soft try from Craig Gilroy, but we kept in amongst them and kept chipping away at the scoreboard. We showed some decent dog that day and hung in there and we managed to get our noses in front near the end and stayed there.
Jim Hamilton: It was a strange game, I think they had seventy-five per cent possession and I think we stole ten out of fourteen of their lineouts, which was obviously a huge base for them. Ireland are always very structured in what they do and rely on their ser-piece a lot. But if you can counter that you set yourself on the road to beating them and that’s exactly what happened in 2013.
Although the team continued to play in an expansive fashion in the next two fixtures, against Wales at Murrayfield and France in Paris, the defence was porous and small errors on the part of the Scots were ruthlessly taken advantage of by their opponents as Grieg Laidlaw’s team lost both Test matches 28-18 and 23-16 respectively.
In the summer, the team travelled to South Africa for a quadrangular tournament featuring the Springboks, Samoa and Italy. The opening match was against Samoa in Durban, where preparations were hampered slightly – albeit in a positive way – when prop Ryan Grant received a call up to the Lions tour in Australia. The late change in the front-row could not be blamed for the result that followed, however, as the big-hitting South Sea Islanders overpowered the Scots to win 27-17. The bruised squad then had to try to pick themselves up to face the might of the tournament hosts at Nelspruit, but they had picked up a number of key injuries in the squad and Kelly Brown, Pat McArthur and Geoff Cross were all forced to return home. The South African 372 media had written off the challenge of Scott Johnson’s side, but the match wasn’t nearly as one-sided as it had been predicted, with Scotland sparkling in attack to score some sensational tries through Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar. The injury woes continued, however, as Scotland lost not one but two stand-offs during the course of the match, with Ruaridh Jackson and Peter Horne both sustaining serious knee injuries, and in the end the greater power and experience of the Springboks told as they secured a 30-17 victory to meet Samoa in the tournament title decider.
Matt Scott (Scotland 2012-2016, 33 Caps): The South Africa game in the summer of 2013 was a big turning point for me. Scott Johnson had given me a hard time all week after we lost to Samoa, and one day he took me to one side and said, ‘Look, you’ve got thirteen caps now, you’re not new any more. If you don’t start growing up and acting like a player with thirteen caps, one who can boss the game and start believing that you are good enough to be here, then we’re going to pick someone else.’
It was a huge kick up the arse, but he was right; subconsciously I was still immature, still not being loud or assertive enough. Against Samoa I’d been too chilled, but before the South Africa game I wrote loads of notes and distilled them into five or six key points which I kept reading over and over. In the warm up I was very focused and animated, much louder and more vocal than usual.
I was so motivated and pumped – although getting up for that game was easy as the South African media spent the week speculating on whether we could keep the margin of victory to less than 50 points – and I had a very good game against Jean de Villiers, one of the best centres in the world. The way I played gave me a big confidence boost; I felt a genuine change inside of me, and I often reference that game in my own mind.