Scotland: World champions at being rugby's bridesmaids

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is just after 8am and the smell of bacon comes wafting through the main entrance to Mansfield Park. This is not the Mansfield Park of Jane Austen's creation, the one where the poor relation Fanny Price emerges as the heroine. This one is the home of Hawick Rugby Football Club, where the members are hoping to see Andy Robinson's underdogs overcome odds of 8-1 and make it through to the last eight of the 2011 World Cup.

In the Green Room, thebuild-up to the Pool B decideris already showing on the big screen – next to framed photographs of all 49 Scotland internationals the Borders club has produced in its 138-year history. There might have been 50 but their rampaging flank forward of the mid-to- late-1940s contracted pulmonary tuberculosis when he was on the verge of a call-up and was obliged to hang up his boots at the age of 23.

Still, Bill McLaren went on to make his name as the voice of rugby. As a primary school teacher, he also played a vital role in nurturing the talent that made Hawick one of the cradles of the game in Scotland's compact borderland.

"A lot of players came through Bill's coaching system," John Thorburn, the club secretary, says. "Tony Stanger, Colin Deans, Jim Renwick... they're all up on that wall."

Thorburn himself learned his rugby as a primary school pupil of McLaren, who died in January 2010, aged 86. He is clutching a framed copy of one of the giant prompt sheets McLaren used to draw up before every match he covered.

There are 700 of "Bill's Big Sheets" being auctioned to benefit the Bill McLaren Foundation, a charity founded by Thorburn and others who were close to the great man with the aim of promoting rugby and the values that McLaren fostered. This particular sheet was penned for the quarter-final encounter between Scotland and New Zealand at the inaugural World Cup in 1987.

Thorburn is unsure whether the Caledonian class of 2011 can make it through to the quarter-finals. "I think our final was last week, to be honest," he says, referring to the game that got away against Argentina in Wellington. "But you never know. I never thought Tonga would beat France in 100 years, so it shows what can be done."

Forty minutes later, following Dan Parks' drop goal at the end of the first half, Scotland are in the lead, 9-3, and deservedly so. There are worried faces all around.

"This is absolute bloody agony," Alan Beattie says. "Alan's come up from Yorkshire because he can't watch Scotland play England from down there," Thorburn explains.

"We're Scotland," Beattie continues. "We're good at snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. You saw that last week with the Argentina game. Thirty seconds of madness and it's lost... Here goes: another 40 minutes of sheer hell."

Fifteen minutes into the second half, Chris Paterson's second penalty sails over and Scotland are 12-3 up. They have their required cushion. It lasts for all of a minute or so, before – shock, horror, hold the back page – Jonny Wilkinson manages to land a drop goal, then follows it up with a penalty.

"It comes down to the 160,000 senior players that England have to pick from and the 12,000 we have," Thorburn says, sensing defeat. "We're punching above our weight here."

The sucker punch comes with three minutes to go, Chris Ashton crashing over in the right corner. Scotland finish in the familiar role of heroic losers, 16-12.

"Good bridesmaids we were," Thorburn reflects, as the end of the World Cup feeling settles on Mansfield Park. "We're the world champions at being bridesmaids."

Yes, sadly, when all was done and dusted, they were not dancing on the streets of Bill McLaren's home town yesterday.