Why All the Fuss?

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. 

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25 comments on “Why All the Fuss?

  1. CSC on

    Excellent piece. A really stylish piece of writing: funny, analytically astute, and without the least trace of hubris. Hugh MacAllvanney comes to mind.

    Reply
  2. wabster on

    Brilliant writing. Fully captured the long history of blighted hopes that balances the rare moments of ecstasy.
    I have to agree this has been coming; we must now push on. The noises coming out of the camp give me the sense that they are grounded and just want to take it one game at a time. Glad to see the end of the silly over optimistic interviews from players in the days leading up to matches has ended.
    Can’t think of a reason not to pick the same 15/23 for Wales – when did that last happen?!
    Wales, despite their injuries are dangerous. Their spine – Owens, Jones, Falatau, Tipuric, Davies, Biggar and Halfpenny – have plenty of positive history in the bank vs Scotland.
    Another worry – I hope ref Carney is objective and doesn’t enjoy his chats with Jones too much. He needs to watch out for: scrums – soft engagements, mauls – messed up with multiple illegal entries, rucks – hands on the ball until asked to ‘leave it’ (Tipuric), aerial game – jumping into the kick chaser and histrionic dives (Biggar).
    It is the (boosted) hope that kills you!

    Reply
  3. JohnMc on

    That was a good read, capturing very accurately the rucksack of hope and suitcase of disappointment we’ve toted around as Scotland supporters for decades.

    I’m old enough to remember the crushing disappointment of John Taylor’s brilliant conversion of Gerald Davies’s try in 1971; Clive Woodward dancing through the Scotland defence at Twickenham in 1981; Paul Thorburn’s incredible 60 metre + penalty in 1986 to beat us after we’d basically bossed Wales all day; losing in Auckland in 1990 to Grant Fox’s boot in a game that marked the end of Buck Shelford’s career having been outplayed by Calder, Jeffery and White;and losing a 1995 RWC group stage Test against France in the dying seconds after we’d basically dismantled their pack for 80 odd minutes.

    Still, I also remember the joy of 1984, 1990 and 1999 and quite a few other good days in recent years.

    It’s a tough gig being a Scotland rugby supporter, and this piece captures the load eloquently.

    Reply
      • Tam tm on

        I remember the 96′ game we were up for the grand slam and championship. england turned up in bullish fashion, fans shouting “deano” as he just held the ball it seemed till the death . I was a young boy. My dreams were smashed. I was left crying my heart out. A stranger patted me on my shoulder whilst everyone left the stadium and he said ” don’t worry we’ll get them next time”. He was right in a way. My next game against the English was 2000. We certainly did get them!

    • Campbell B on

      Good read in Wales on Line . It is Nigel Owens discussing how referees are aware of some players cynical tactics. He confirms POM has been sent off for the same infringement previously. He demostrates the point by discussing POM and Connor Murray.

      It might be fortuitous having Adamson on the 6 nations panel (assuming he can have an off the record chat with the coaching team.). I have read comments in here about the need to have a ref on the panel before, I think they have a point.

      https://www.walesonline.co.uk/sport/rugby/rugby-news/nigel-owens-reveals-conor-murrays-19796493

      Reply
    • Saint4805 on

      Most of his previous offences have been ‘dark arts’ and so he hasn’t been punished until now. If he does this again then he won’t get off so lightly. With so much focus on head injuries I hope they start to increase bans so thugs like him and Farrell get what they deserve.

      Reply
      • Sam Laycock on

        He has been caught tho! He did something very similar in the Pro 14 against Scarlets threw an elbow into a prone Jake Balls face as munster scored a try and got red carded for it.

      • septic 9 on

        he got a 2nd yellow against Scarlets, therefore red. How he only got a yellow for the shoulder into the head of a prone player after the score had been made, ball dead and play stopped is serious question
        Thug cheap shop of the highest order is only a yellow apparently.

    • Alanyst on

      The tribunal system is a complete joke. Did you ever hear of a successful not guilty plea? I can hardly even think of a not guilty plea being made…

      It seemingly exists as an opportunity for players to prostrate themselves before the alter of world rugby, make the expected confession, and receive the blessing of a reduced ban.

      No doubt seen as a win-win by players, clubs and unions to get it out of the way.

      Anyone that dares fight the system gets a longer ban and no remorse. Just ask Joe.

      My apologies to Chris for souring his very enjoyable and optimistic article!

      Reply
  4. Saltire62 on

    Well written piece and really enjoyed it!
    Really captured the emotions of the many lows and occasional wonderful highs of following the Scottish rugby team!

    Reply
  5. Bulldog on

    In 1999 we won the 5 nations but lost to England. I was at that game, met my bestie after work on the Friday and stayed at his. travelled to the game next day, bumped into many acquaintances on the way, the English made us very welcome.

    I saw the team bus arrived, felt we could do it and it was close, but no cigar. 3 points in it. Gary Armstrong was magnificent , sorry Ali Price fans, but we should give Price another number because for me , there has only ever been one Nine. Yes Nicol was good, a leader , all others filled the jersey, but Armstrong was the best all round Scrummie , brave, talented , tenacious , respected. Those memories are forever.

    After the game, everyone felt we were unlucky , even our hosts, the best team on the pitch and yes, probably a few bad calls by the ref. The rest of the day/ night/morning was amazing. Went to the Winning Post after the game, English fans bought us drinks, (they obviously have expense budgets ) finally got out and onto a train, met yet another old acquaintance ( just a coincidence ) and he had his boss in tow. As it turned out they were entertaining client and you have guessed it, they had an underused expense budget and they were only too keen to have a knees up.They took us out for a bit of real London hospitality and we never paid a penny. They are brilliant hosts IMO and I never expected that, been many times, never won, always enjoyed it.

    Great day , great memories and we remain the 5 nations champions.

    Reply
  6. Ade on

    Really nice piece, and one that resonates with the ups and (mainly) downs of following Scotland for the last 40 years.

    Have to disagree with your perception that Finn Russell was “merely OK”

    He managed the game as you would expect from an international 10. Overall his tactical kicking kept England on the back foot, stuck well off the Scots red zone. Imagine the internal grins being sported by the likes of Gray, Watson and Turner to get up from a ruck and see the backs of their opposite numbers as they have to turn and trot back to yet another lineout 20, 30 yards behind them.

    Imagine the sinking feeling in the stomachs of Itoje, George, and Vunipola – already blowing due to lack of match fitness – and now having to start from their own half again. And then watching in horror as Farrell kicked possession away aimlessly yet again.

    There may not have been the array of tricks we know he possesses, and there were a couple of off moments, but I’d be buying my 10 a pint after the game for that performance.

    Reply
    • Chris Murray on

      You may be right, though I think by Russell’s high standards he’ll have expected more of himself. However well Scotland weathered it, leaving your teammates to play with fourteen for ten minutes is never good, there was a (relatively) easy miss from the tee and the crossfield kicks didn’t come to much.

      Though of course “okay” from Russell is still something most teams would choose to play with. The way he fired the ball away while Itoje swung him round like a dance partner was yet another, “how on earth did he manage that?” moment that we’ve almost come to take for granted now.

      Reply
      • Ade on

        I agree that he will be critical of his own performance. He seems to be that type of player, and he will be aware of the opportunities to improve.

        The control of the pass you mention was top drawer. The other was the moment in the first half when Scotland had penalty advantage on their 22. As he got the ball Russell stepped the rushing defence and tried to put Redpath away. I think the English player concerned was Wilson, who must be glad there was no close up of it as he sold him completely.

        It will be interesting to see how Russell approaches the Welsh game with Lang inside him rather than Redpath.

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