I have only the vaguest memories of my first rugby match. Some time in the early Nineties I was taken as a lad to watch Kelso play Jed-Forest. It didn’t surprise anyone but me that Kelso were pumped. Whether true or an invention of my own psyche I remember being told to get used to defeat because it would be the norm going forward. Things would only get worse with the national team.
For whatever reason my love of rugby didn’t truly start to bloom until the mid-to-late 2000s. What a time to start. Yes, I was alive for the Grand Slam in 1990, but at four years old I can’t claim to have been paying a huge amount of interest. I recognise a few more names on the teamsheet for the champions of 1999, but not most of them.
No, I decided to truly embrace being a Scotland fan after this, when the game had settled itself as a professional affair, and Scottish Rugby most assuredly had not.
The good news was: after falling out of love with football after it emerged in a school training session that the next Ally McCoist I was not, I’d found something that I could vicariously live through. The bad news was: that “it” was international Scottish rugby and if you remember the 2000s (and really no one would blame you for blocking them out), it was not a pleasant experience.
Many’s the time I’ve sworn I’m done with the sport. It’s not healthy to get as upset as I did over an entertainment production that has pretty much no real world importance in the slightest. And that’s all rugby is. It’s no different from Game of Thrones or The Masked Singer; it’s entertainment. These men aren’t fighting to survive as the gladiators of Rome, or shooting for the hand of the Princess a la Heracles. It’s just, effectively, a TV show. If you don’t like it, change the channel.
If you can, of course.
For all the fear before games and the heartbreak during and after, I’ve never been able to pull myself away from even the most horrendous of car crashes; a certain Wales game in 2010 left particular scars. Why that is would be a matter for psychologists, though I’m fair certain the word “masochistic” would present at some point. It hardly matters in 2021 though.
We beat our oldest rivals in their home. That would be grand for any team, but for a smaller, poorer, rival it’s particularly sweet. Still moreso when you consider its rarity. Five times in what? A hundred and twenty years? The English might have a point when they say, “enjoy it while it lasts.”
Not that we need the encouragement. Most jokes are precisely that, and delivered and received in the spirit of rugby the more insufferable of us never shut up about. But those who are more snide with it completely miss the point. “Doesn’t happen often, does it?”
No. It doesn’t. We’re keenly aware of that. Scotland are not as good as England. Some wonderful occasions aside, we never have been. We’re supposed to lose these games, we’re used to losing these games, and indeed most of the time do lose these games.
And yet we still come back every year wondering if this time might be different. Presumably every small country with a plucky sports team feels the same way; this cannot be a phenomenon native only to Irn-Bru drinkers.
As their fans would also tell you it’s precisely because we so regularly fall apart, because the 80-minute performance eludes us, because the mistakes amount, the penalties multiply, and the magic fades, because we are almost every time in the modern era disappointed in the face of reality’s brutal embrace, that when we do slip any kind of a win past the eyes of the Gods it’s the most extraordinary feeling.
Really we should pity the English, to say nothing of the Kiwis, with their Championships and World Cups and successes. They can’t possibly know the boundless glee of winning a single match any more. That’s in their past. For sure they might enjoy beating Scotland, but it’s not an occasion. They don’t care the way we would in reverse. How could they? They don’t know what it is to be sired by failure.
This match means so much in part because it’s England, and there’s nothing wrong with that however much some would have you believe it’s only the vilest nationalism that could make one think so. They’re the auld enemy and they revel in it.
If you’re of a certain age there was no greater foe in the world than Brian Moore; if you’re younger it’s Owen Farrell or Maro Itoje. Even after the win, you suspect Ali Price will still wake up in a cold sweat thinking about the latter. Moore has frequently said how much he enjoyed playing the villain and Itoje has the same wonderful arseholic tendencies.
“A disgrace to the sport” in opposition; a bundle of mischievous joy in your own colours. He’s not alone. Few if any countries can match England for sheer bastardry. From their pantomime coach through their well-shouldered captain all the way down the team sheet there are names that will rile fans of other teams. And they love it. These players aren’t David Mitchell asking, “are we the baddies?”; these are born bullies who’ve suckled on the tears of lesser nations from birth and don’t care if you hate them because that’s just what losers do when faced with winners. It’s infuriating. It’s brilliant. It’s England.
And we absolutely smashed them.
Make no mistake, 11-6 is a lie. 11-6 is a closely fought game that could have gone either way. 11-6 is nothing to be ashamed about in defeat. 11-6 could happen to anyone. This match was not an 11-6. Scotland outplayed England in every way for the entire game. A stickler might say “78 minutes”. Fine. Short of two silly penalties to give England the 6 and a calamitous drop goal attempt, nothing went wrong.
They dominated the breakdown. There was only ever one team there. Their defence was impenetrable. England’s was good. It kept Scotland off the try line for most of the game. But Scotland’s was a Trojan Wall and the finest Odyssean trickery could not have breached it. The scrum was never in danger. The lineout record unblemished.
Stuart Hogg’s territorial kicking has always been excellent; on Saturday it was filth. You half expected Eddie Jones to call for a law change such was the unfairness of the Hawick man picking the ball up in his own twenty-two and banishing England toward their five metre line.
Jonny Gray will, you suspect, only truly be appreciated when he’s gone and the gaping chasm he leaves eclipses the Vredefort Crater. Hamish Watson is like a dog with the bone that insulted his favourite stick when he catches sight of the ball in another player’s arms. How appropriate that the game ended with him ruthlessly tearing it from an Englishman’s grasp.
You could go on and on.
Everyone impressed at the weekend. Perhaps the poorest performance was from superstar Finn Russell who was merely okay and it mattered not one jot. You could count the mistakes on one hand. Price’s lack of protection from Itoje. Russell’s trip. An abysmal drop-goal attempt. In the end, all irrelevant.
As a Scotland fan conditioned to failure, it was tense, nervy stuff. It wasn’t that way for the players. It wouldn’t have been that way for any neutral. Stripped of passion, a rewatch makes it blindingly obvious there was only ever going to be one team taking the Calcutta Cup home on Saturday. Scotland didn’t just beat England. They bested them in every way. They played them off the park. They humiliated them.
And it could be a flash in the pan. Perhaps it’s yet another false dawn. But maybe, just maybe, it’s something more than that. Because this has been building for a few years now. Scotland have beaten every top flight team in the world save the All Blacks, and that was a matter of inches at the death. 2017 saw Ireland fall. They beat England three years ago. They drew against them at Twickenham two years ago with the most extraordinary comeback you’ll ever witness. 2018 also saw us best the French and for the first time in two decades last year Wales were introduced to Scottish joy in their own back yard. Third place in the Six Nations is now the minimum expectation for a successful tournament.
Now, a hundred and fifty years after it first happened, Scotland have beaten England again. They’ve done it in England’s monstrous fortress for the first time in four decades. Consistency is key, but consistency cannot be bought; it must be built, and Gregor Townsend has assembled a team of artisans behind the scenes.
Maybe, just maybe.
It is, of course, sod’s law that our other away game this year is against a French team who have fully established themselves as one of the finest in the world. Bring it on. As the man said if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. This Scotland team has no fear. And while it may not last, for once at least, the same is true of this supporter. Fair notice to our Celtic, Frankish, and Romanic cousins.
Scotland are coming for you.