Chris Paterson: Scottish oak putting down new roots at Gloucester

Chris Paterson is set to become his country's most capped player this summer – but Scotland's golden boot is not one for statistics. Chris Hewett finds him focusing instead on enjoying rugby life after transplanting from Edinburgh
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The Independent Online

Facts and figures can never provide a complete and definitive account of human endeavour, but some statistics tell better stories than others. There is a chap in Luxembourg who holds the world record for lifting a beer barrel with his teeth – he managed to hoist it 124ft, which suggests that he was either standing on something or is unusually tall – and a bloke from the States who survived 718 car collisions while working as a "human crash-test dummy". By comparison, Chris Paterson's 100 per cent goal-kicking performance at the last Word Cup was kids' stuff.

All the same, it was more than a fellow by the name of Wilkinson managed. Some 30 per cent more, actually. Saint Jonny generally banged over the ones that mattered – there was a penalty from halfway that broke Samoa's spirit just when the islanders were threatening to turf the champions out of the tournament at the round-robin stage – but his overall strike-rate was sufficiently low to provoke a full-blown public argument about the standard of the match balls, followed by learned discussions about optimum air pressure, the physics of trajectory and the malign effects of meteorological fluctuation.

Life would have been a whole lot easier if Wilkinson had kicked the bloody thing properly – certainly, we would not have been subjected to all that balls about the balls had he been the one unable to miss. But it was Paterson who disrupted the natural order by emerging as the marksman with the deadest of dead eyes and the most reliable technique. Seventeen shots, 17 strikes. Might he by any chance care to offer an explanation for all the fuss he caused?

"I remember walking past a kit room when we first arrived in France, seeing a bag full of balls and thinking: 'Ooh, they look different'," said the 29-year-old Scot, who can expect to become his country's most decorated player at some point during his country's two-Test trip to Argentina this summer. "That was about the extent of it, though. Maybe the balls were a wee bit lighter than some others I've used, but it wasn't something I worried about, or particularly noticed, during the tournament. I just used what I was told to use and thought no more of it."

Neither did he make a big issue of the 100 per cent business. "It's all too easy to get yourself bogged down with that stuff," he said. "Before the previous World Cup in Australia, I had consciously set out to go through the competition without missing. What happened? I lined up my first penalty in the opening game against Japan, and missed. This time, I didn't say anything to anyone about my targets. I kept my thoughts entirely to myself, and if I felt I needed some extra motivation, the memory of that mess-up in Townsville in 2003 did the trick."

Paterson will be on kicking duty at the Memorial Ground tomorrow, when Gloucester visit Bristol, and if he performs as well in this latest round of West Country trouble and strife as he did in the Bath-Gloucester derby just after Christmas, he will endear himself still further to the Cherry and White faithful. The long-range try he scored in the Recreation Ground swamp that night was as good as anything seen all season – alert positioning, flypaper handling, a classically proportioned outside break and a sharp turn of speed. Pound for pound, as they say in boxing, he is one of the best players in the British Isles, and if he fails to make the cut for the Lions tour of South Africa next year, it will be an affront to common sense. How Edinburgh must wish they still had him on their books.

"There was a year still left on my contract at Edinburgh, but circumstances forced me to leave early," he said, reflecting on his decision to seek pastures new at the end of last season. "The club was independently owned at that point, and when the chairman of the board calls the players to a meeting and says 'Look, we can't afford to pay you, so if you can find somewhere else to play, do it', there isn't much of a decision to be made. Things didn't look great, to say the least, but Gloucester came in for me and I jumped at the opportunity. It was a disappointing way to go, but the overriding emotion was relief, mixed with a sense of excitement at playing Premiership rugby after spending so long watching it from the outside.

"To be honest, I had made up my mind to leave at the end of this season anyway. I'd been at Edinburgh for nine years, and deep down, I knew I couldn't live with myself if I rejected all the challenges rugby offers, to stay with the same club for the whole of my career. I'd spent a good deal of my time playing a big role in helping others while trying to develop my own game and make it as good as it could be. I don't see myself as a selfish person – I'd like to believe it's the last word people would use to describe me – but I can't deny that I'd decided to move for selfish reasons. I wanted to play my rugby at a club where someone else was doing the helping and telling me what to do, for a change.

"It's precisely the kind of environment on offer here. There are dozens of reasons why a professional would want to play at Gloucester: the heritage, the cosmopolitan make-up of the squad, the intense competition for places. The crowd alone make it worthwhile – especially when you're used to playing your home matches at an empty Murrayfield. Have I benefited from it in the way I'd hoped? Absolutely. When I joined up with Scotland before the Six Nations, I felt like a different player."

Ah, Scotland. Despite Paterson's continuing excellence on the marksmanship front, the first two rounds of the Six Nations were not exactly a triumph for a team many thought might do rather well for themselves this time round. Two defeats, both comprehensive? Pick the bones out of those, Chris, if you will.

"Frustration – that's the word I'd use to describe the feeling in the squad," he replied. "We're at a low ebb, but at least people can't say things that will make us feel worse about ourselves than we do already. There's no one thing I can identify that explains the way we played against France and Wales, and there's no magic switch to be flicked. We look bad to the spectators, which hurts, and while we know we're a far better side than we've appeared to be – we've put in all the effort, made all the sacrifices required to make the best of ourselves – it doesn't mean much unless we put it together on the big occasion."

Might the current problems be symptomatic of the wider issues affecting rugby in Scotland, where a financially challenged national union disbanded the Borders team before finding themselves obliged to take Edinburgh back under central control; watching helplessly as a number of senior players, Paterson included, headed off into a wide yonder that was any colour but blue?

"It's been a tough old time for us Scots," he agreed. "I'm the first to acknowledge that every rugby-loving guy in the country wants to see three professional teams, or maybe four, operating there. But it was equally obvious that the old three-team structure wasn't working, and until we get the player and financial bases absolutely right, the two-team format will stay with us. It won't be like this for all eternity. The performances of Edinburgh and Glasgow in this season's Heineken Cup have taken us a step forward – I know that I left, but I'm genuinely delighted that my old club have recruited a coach as outstanding as Andy Robinson – and provided we show a little patience, the Scottish domestic game will sort itself out."

Which leaves us with the Lions. Paterson should have been picked for the tour of Australia in 2001, even though he believes he was too soft-boiled for a series of such magnitude. "I was playing for Scotland at the time, but not particularly well," he said, in that profoundly self-effacing way of his. "Basically, I wasn't a good enough player to feel hard done by." He was anything but soft-boiled four years later, however. He must have felt seriously hacked off at missing out on the trip to New Zealand

"That was different," he agreed. "I felt I'd had a decent World Cup in 2003, and believed I was playing some of my best rugby in the lead-up to the tour. I'm not the sort to go around expecting things and I don't mump and moan when I miss out, but it's certainly fair to say I was disappointed on that occasion.

"The squad was announced during the morning, and I had to make some kind of public appearance that same afternoon. Everyone was asking what the hell had happened, and I didn't know quite what to tell them." He will not be overlooked again, surely. "Who knows?" he said. "If the phone rings, fantastic. If not, I'll get over it. Anyway, there's a lot of rugby to be played between now and then."

Happily, he will play much of that rugby in a Gloucester shirt, quite possibly at the business end of major club tournaments – an experience denied to him thus far. Few players would deserve it more, for Paterson is one of rugby's 100 per centers. And not just in goal-kicking terms, either.