Tait's mantra: 'It's not about the big tackle, it's about the right tackle'

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The Independent Online

It is 18 years now since Alan Tait earned his living as a roofer in the Scottish Borders. It's a safe bet that all the slates he laid are still securely in place. In his latest job, as defence coach of the Scotland rugby union team, the Kelso man left not so much as the chink of a gap on show at Murrayfield eight days ago. The measure of his work was etched in the faces of Martin Corry, Lawrence Dallaglio and Co at the final whistle. They looked as though a house had fallen in on them.

It was actually the wall of blue shirts that left England so thoroughly stunned. It took the Roman emperor Hadrian eight years to construct a defensive barrier to keep the Scots out of England. In took Tait eight months to build the Scottish wall that kept out the English at Murrayfield. It was England's first defeat since the November visit to Twickenham of the All Blacks - an All Black side who failed to register a shut-out.

Yes, Scotland have come a mighty long way since they shipped seven tries and 43 points at Twickenham in what proved to be Matt Williams' finale last spring. Frank Hadden, of course, has been the chief driving force in the Caledonian rugby revival, but a vital key to the head coach's success has been harnessing the domestic talent that has been available to him, not just on the field but off it too. The match video of last weekend's 18-12 overture shows just how immense the contribution of Tait has been.

"I've seen the tape and done my analysis on it," the former Great Britain rugby league full-back and Lions rugby union wing reflected. "You look at the game and it was astounding. The thing about England is, everybody's saying they're predictable but you've still got to stop them.

"We talked all week about double tackles and we did drills, putting two men in the tackle and stopping the offload. And the guys just did everything they possibly could to stop England scoring.

"I've been saying this to players for years: if you make it hard to score against you, you're always in the game. Defence does win games. That's why England will always be capable of beating the top sides. They've led from the front in the northern hemisphere since Phil Larder took over as their defence coach. They've been outstanding. We've taken all the praise for our defence last weekend, but England didn't let any tries in either.

"There are plenty of coaches who'll still say that defence is a negative thing, but it's been part of my game since 1988, when I went to rugby league. I played for some of the best attacking sides in the world - Widnes, with Martin Offiah, and Leeds, with Ellery Hanley and Gary Schofield - but the whole week was built around the defence rather than the attack.

"It is hard work, but the bunch of players we've got all have an exceptional work ethic. Hogg, Taylor and White are probably the form back row of the Six Nations. They've been outstanding. And they lead the defence - like Dallaglio, Hill and Back did when they were together for England. The whole of Scotland is talking about defence now. That's never been heard of."

Maybe so, but it was not so long ago that one notable figure was talking about how Scotland were unable to defend - and about how they lacked basic skills and weren't fit enough. And that was Matt Williams when he was in charge of the national team. No wonder the Sydneysider was unable to galvanise the players beyond victories against Samoa, Japan and Italy in his 17 matches as head coach. Still, he was adamant last week that he should claim some reflective credit for the Caledonian revival - for putting in place the conditioning and defence programmes.

This drew an ironic chuckle from Tait, the defence coach whom Williams discarded and Hadden restored. "Obviously, I wasn't used in his system," Tait said, "but I was working for the Borders and I had a little laugh when I saw players trying to do the drills he had given them. I think he got a bit obsessed with big-hit tackles from rugby league. The thing is, a lot of union players are just not big enough to pull those tackles off.

"I played both games and I was never a big hitter, but I was a clever defender. It's important just to be in the right place at the right time and make the right tackle. And if that means going low because you're a smaller fellow, well, go low. As long as you stop the guy, it doesn't matter." As the 12st Chris Paterson ably demonstrated when he dragged down the 17st Lewis Moody by the ankles just before half-time last week.

So, the new Caledonians have felled the giants of England and of France, both on home soil. The challenge next Saturday is to beat Ireland in Dublin, a feat Scotland last achieved in 1998, courtesy of a try by their outside-centre Alan Victor Tait. "Ireland pose a different threat again," the clever midfielder turned astute coaching assistant pondered. "They've got danger all over the place - O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Horgan, Murphy. We're going to have to be right on top of our game to shut that down. And obviously we're away from home as well. It's going to have to be a big effort to win away."

Scotland's last Six Nations success on the road dates back to April 2002 and a 27-22 win in Cardiff. Still, they have got Murrayfield back in fortress fashion, thanks to the professional craftsmanship of the Kelso roofer.