Rugby Union / Calcutta Cup: A nation on the borderline: A Scottish veteran bears the burden of directing a Caledonian revival - Chris Rea analyses why there is a crisis of confidence in the Scottish game

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The Independent Online
'IT'S that 'Flower of Scotland' dirge I blame,' one disgruntled Scottish supporter said last week. 'You know that line about proud Edward being sent homeward tae think again? Well, the thing is that he bloody well did think again and has been coming back to kick hell out of us ever since.'

Everything from the rugby anthem to the league structure is being held responsible for Scotland's spiralling decline since the end of last season when, with a largely reconstructed and untested side, they finished in a respectable second place behind the champions, France.

Now, after two defeats, 80 points conceded and their pride in tatters, there is talk of a crisis in Scottish rugby. But is it really that serious? In the late Seventies, Colin Deans, the country's most capped hooker, played 10 internationals before he was on the winnning side. And there have been sequences much worse than that. Between 1951 and 1955, the Scots went 17 matches without a victory. It was during that most dismal interlude in Scottish rugby history that cartoons appeared in the press depicting men in grass skirts and carrying spears, queuing up outside Murrayfield in anticipation of winning a cap.

So why, after two defeats, albeit shattering ones, should the country be in the grip of a deep depression? The most simplistic explanation of Scotland's present misfortunes is the cyclical nature of sport and that, following the feast of the previous decade when Scotland won Grand Slams in 1984 and 1990, and a share of the championship in 1986, they are now experiencing the famine against which they may not have made sufficient provision. But who, save Nostradamus, could have seen the calamitous decline in the numbers playing rugby in the schools?

There is, of course, no single reason for Scotland's plight. More an unfortunate combination of events and circumstances. It is quite unrealistic to expect that a country with such limited resources in manpower could recreate the 1984 vintage in such a relatively short space of time. Jim Telfer, the recently appointed director of rugby in Scotland and national coach in 1984, makes the point that the Scots were not only blessed with their fair share of world-class players, but that they were playing in the key positions. That is true, but it is also the case that, 10 years ago, the Scots had an entire squad of players of genuine international class. David Leslie, their uncompromisingly combative flanker, recalls that when Steve Munro, the Ayr winger, was injured, the man who replaced him was Keith Robertson, a player of elegance and guile whom most other countries would have regarded as a first choice.

Nor is it entirely irrelevant to point out that the Scottish side which secured the Grand Slam against France 10 years ago contained no fewer than 11 Borderers against the four who were originally selected for the Welsh game two weeks ago. Border rugby has forever been the pulse of the game in Scotland, supplying a steady flow of craggy, raw-boned forwards and artful backs to the nation's cause. It was, after all, around Border conditions and the temperament of its inhabitants that Telfer adapted a style of play to suit his Scottish side. But nowadays the heart of the Border game, although beating still, has lost some of its vitality and the days when the very mention of Mansfield Park (the home ground of Hawick) induced fear and loathing in visiting sides have long since gone.

Telfer and his successor, Ian McGeechan, were also important influences in Scotland's success, their depth of knowledge and tactical awareness being superior to that of most coaches in the home countries. Furthermore, the Scots had been given a head start by the establishment of a league stucture. But in all these areas they have been caught and, in most cases, overhauled; hence today's bleak pessimism.

Now that England have established a network of clubs playing in a competitive environment and a chain of command from top to bottom, now that Wales are beginning to pull in the same direction and now that the Irish are taking a serious view of hopeless situations, it is a different story. The Scots have a ruinously cumbersome national league embracing more than 90 clubs, a district championship which falls woefully short of bridging club and international rugby and, in order to help balance the books of a few Border clubs, they have surrendered April to the frivolous irrelevance of sevens.

The Scottish Rugby Union has for long been advocating a reduction in the number of national leagues from seven to two, underpinned by a regional structure, but has run into vested interest and self-preservation. Scottish rugby is run by the clubs and very few would willingly relinquish their national league status. That is why the SRU in desperation has been striving to upgrade and extend the inter-district championship which does come under its control and which it now sees as the salvation of Scottish rugby.

But that is easier said than done in a season which is already crammed to overflowing. In one of the weeks leading up to the international against the All Blacks, Kenny Milne, the Scottish hooker, had the following schedule: Sunday, national squad session; Monday and Tuesday, club training; Wednesday, national squad session followed by Edinburgh District squad session; Thursday, club training; Friday, off; Saturday, league match; Sunday, Edinburgh District squad session. That is a burden of commitment which would be unacceptable to a professional sportsman let alone one who must also find time to build a career, and was a burden which Gary Armstrong decided to lay down at the end of last season.

Even so, a way has to be found to accommodate the needs of all the interested parties. The first tentative and faltering steps have been taken towards bonding the inter-district championship in Scotland with the Irish inter-provincial championship, which could be extended further to incorporate the leading Welsh clubs should the Anglo-Welsh initiative founder. There is now a cup competition, but, without the particiption of some of the top clubs, it lacks the quality, status and profile required to improve standards. But in contrast to the wasteland of the Border sevens circuit, a Scottish cup with its final held as one of the showpieces of the season at Murrayfield would be a step in the right direction. The Melrose Sevens are unique and, as part of the country's rugby heritage, should remain, but the satellite events which proliferate around it should be scrapped or at least switched to Sundays. The World Sevens last season offered conclusive proof that the Scots are no longer masters of that art, even in their own backyard.

In Jim Telfer the Scots have the ideal revivalist. It is one of his concerns, given his remarkable track record to date, that too much will be expected of him too soon. His job is a long-term one, although it would be surprising were he not to be called to the aid of the Scottish forwards in the weeks ahead.

Telfer knows that the task ahead is Herculean. In recent weeks the Scots have lost to Welsh teams at four levels from the schoolboys up to the full international side, and there is an increasing danger that running may no longer be enough just to stand still.

But for the present the most that the Scots can hope for is respectability following their indignities against the All Blacks and Wales. For the Calcutta Cup match they have at least been spared the selectorial aberrations of the last two games. They will go in with a conventionally manned line-out, specialist jumpers at the front and in the middle, and a proven ball-winner in Doddie Weir at the tail. Alan Sharp has survived well enough in the infinitely more demanding arena of the English game and Peter Walton has his supporters on both sides of the border, although there must be a degree of sympathy for Derek Turnbull, one of the few Scottish forwards to carry his head high in Cardiff.

With the return of Andy Reed, the Scots have eight of the side who played against England last season. What seems to have been forgotten amid Caledonia's lamentations is that the Scots' disintegration did not come until the final match of the season at Twickenham and only after the injury to Craig Chalmers. Up until that point they had performed creditably, losing a game they could have won in Paris and beating Wales handsomely.

It is one of the most serious of Scotland's present problems that so much of the impetus of last season, when the team was supposedly in transition, appears to have been lost along with the tactical control and authority implanted by Telfer and McGeechan. But it is not the fault of their successors, Douglas Morgan and Ritchie Dixon, that so many of last year's side have been struck down either by injury or poor form. Nor has the selectors' work been made any easier by Armstrong's return to family values. As one of the highest achievers in Scottish rugby his self- imposed absence from the international game has been critically damaging not only to team performance but also to morale. David Leslie who, in his commitment and zeal to Scotland's Grand Slam 10 years ago, was rugby's equivalent of the Hizbollah, believes it is this fanatical fundamentalism that Armstrong, an intensely shy but proud man will take with him on the pitch next Saturday. 'And that', Leslie says, 'is what the English fear most. It is an attitude they don't have and one they will never understand.'

(Photograph omitted)

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