Rugby Union: England heed Stanger signs

Simon Turnbull finds the long-time scourge of the English poised for a new hurrah
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The Independent Online
BILL McLAREN was certainly not lost for words on that occasion. John Jeffrey had picked up at the base of a scrum on Murrayfield's half- way line; Gary Armstrong had taken the ball on the loop, drawn Mike Teague and Rob Andrew, and passed on to his captain. The venerable voice of rugby picked up from there: "Gavin Hastings... a good kick through... on goes Stanger... Stanger could be there first... it's a try... a magnificent try for the 21-year-old."

It was not just any magnificent try, of course. It was the try that won a Grand Slam for Scotland, and at the same time snatched one from England's grasp. It has become one of the decade's two enduring images of Scottish blows being struck to the very heart of the auld enemy. Only Mel Gibson, with his Highland bouffant, celebrating the big-screen repeat of the famous home win at Stirling in 1297 has matched the sight of Tony Stanger roaring past Flight Lieutenant Rory Underwood and touching down in the shadow of Murrayfield's old West Stand.

Not that Stanger himself glories in the symbolism of his most memorable moment of national service. "Too much is made of the Scotland-England thing," he said as he prepared for today's instalment of the sport's oldest rivalry. "It's just a game, a sporting challenge. Our team is selected. Their team is selected. The challenge is thrown down and the best team wins. I certainly don't see it as Bannockburn revisited. That was life or death. This is sport, a game.

"Winning in 1990 was so special not because it was England we beat but because it was a great England team. They proved that by winning back- to-back Grand Slams the next two seasons. It was a great achievement for us because it was such a big challenge. Of course it's a wonderful memory. It was a great high. But it was too long ago to hang on to. I'm very much a forward-looking person. There are lots of challenges ahead, and this match is one of them."

It is indeed. For Stanger and for Scotland, the challenge at Murrayfield this afternoon is once again to beat England. They have not done so since 3 March 1990, the afternoon David Sole walked his team on to Murrayfield in slow motion and marched them off as Grand Slam heroes. For eight years now England have been invincible against their northern neighbours. Last year at Twickenham they extended their winning run against the Scots to eight matches - seven in the Five Nations' Championship, one in the World Cup. They did so, moreover, by 43-13, a record score in the 127-year history of Anglo-Scottish rugby union rivalry.

Having suffered record defeats in the three internationals played at Murrayfield this season (in the process conceding 156 points and 22 tries to Australia, South Africa and France), Scotland face a clear challenge today. Home pride needs to be restored. At least, since the flower of Scotland was cut down by 51 French points a month ago, green shoots of recovery have appeared. Against Wales at Wembley a fortnight ago, Scotland produced what could be described as a half-decent performance. They attacked with verve before the break before wilting to a 19-13 defeat.

"When you've had a lot of defeats and you've been getting a bad press it's very difficult to play with confidence," Stanger said. "But that's what we did in the first half against Wales. We took our chances early on. We had two or three in the second half, didn't take them, and the confidence shifted to Wales. To be successful these days you've got to play open, almost risk-taking, rugby. That's what we did against Wales but you've got to play that type of game regularly. You've got to take your chances too. Certainly, against England you're not going to get a barrel-load."

In eight years only three Scots have taken their chances and crossed the English line: Derek White in 1992, Rob Wainwright in 1994 and Ronnie Eriksson last year. If Stanger, the Hawick wing, does so this afternoon he will touch down in the record books. His try against France was his 23rd for Scotland. He needs one more to equal the Scottish record held since 1933 by Ian Smith, the Melbourne-born wing who became known as "the Flying Scotsman". Not that Stanger will have history on his mind at 3pm.

"I'm honestly not thinking about the record," he said. "Other people keep reminding me of it. I'm motivated by performance, not tries or records. You could play poorly and still score two or three tries. If I played another 20 times for Scotland and didn't score another try it wouldn't bother me, as long as my performances were good and I made tries for others to score."

A third-year student of sports science at Moray House, part of Heriot- Watt University in Edinburgh, Stanger is at 29 a clinical analyst of his game. So is his wife, Bid. "The good thing is her total honesty," he said. "If I haven't been up to scratch she'll hit me with it on the chin. Coming from New Zealand, she knows the game well." Coming from Hawick, the Borders town as famed for its rugby as for its wool, so does Stanger.

His headmaster at Hawick High School was a certain James William Telfer, now Scotland's head coach and director of rugby. But the coach who introduced him to rugby, at Wilton Primary School, is the man who will be behind the BBC television microphone at Murrayfield this afternoon. And if Tony Stanger repeats his try-scoring feat of eight years ago Bill McLaren will, once again, not be lost for a word or two.

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