The wilting flower of Scotland

Borders rugby, once ahead of its time, is now a borderline case. Owen S lot discusses the effect of its decline on the nation
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The Independent Online
SCOTLAND'S win over Canada last weekend may have brought to an end an appalling run of nine games without a win, but it was with relief - rather than confidence for the future - that most spectators left a half-empty Murrayfield stadium. Had they witnessed Scotland's revival? "No. Just a second division team beating one from the third," one said And afterwards, down at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh Academicals' clubhouse, they were laughing into their pints when the Five Nations came up for discussion . "We'll definitely win something," said another. He was referring to the wooden spoon.

There is a saying in Scotland that if the game in the Borders is strong then the national side will follow suit. Two months previously, Raeburn Place had witnessed a Borders side playing the stuff of which wooden spoons are made. Hawick had come for a league fixture and sunk to a soulless, 14-0 defeat, the manner of which surprised everyone. Hawick, winners of the Scottish league 10 times in its first 13 seasons, were renowned for big packs and proud performances and this side showed neither. Tam McVie had scored on the hour, driving over from the back of a line-out - just the sort of try Hawick never concede - and Hawick barely managed a reply. The penultimate kick of the game was when Derek Turnbull, primarily out of frustration, booted Jeremy Richardson, the Accies' captain, and was sent off. When someone told Jim Renwick, the Hawick coach, that it was the worst game he had seen this season, he replied: "You're joking. It was the worst game of the century!"

Renwick was one of many on Hawick's international production line in the 1970s and 1980s. The town has a population of 15,700 and is served by five primary schools, each of which was coached one day a week by Bill McLaren, the television commentator and former Hawick player. By the early Eighties, so many international forwards had been produced they adopted a rota system to give them all a game. "The game there was so serious," recalls Colin Deans, one of McLaren's pupils who, with Renwick and Gavin Hastings, holds a record 52 Scottish caps. "If you missed a night's training, you had to get a letter from your mum. And if you got beat playing for Hawick, you were scared to show your face in the high street on the Monday."

Four Hawick players were in the Grand Slam side of 1984, 11 Borderers in all. Last Saturday, there were four Borderers and, for the first time in decades, not one from Hawick. The production line has faltered, Deans explains, as players have moved out oftown and into the cities in search of employment, and those who have stayed are now brought up on a school sporting curriculum that goes beyond rugby and football and embraces windsurfing and mountain-climbing. And in Hawick, youngsters are no longer instilled with Bill McLaren's enthusiasm. He retired in 1987 and was not replaced.

Of the seven Borders clubs, only Melrose have not mirrored Hawick's decline. Scotland has always laboured with the problems of its small playing population: there are more players in Yorkshire than there are in the whole country. The introduction of leagues over a decade before England and Wales meant that Scotland did well from its small playing base and, with the development of the game in the Borders ahead of its time (only twice in 20 years has the league not been won by a Border club), Scotland sustained its international standing.

Restructuring of the other unions, particularly in England, has denied Scotland this advantage; indeed the league structure is now lumbering by comparison. "The best players are spread over too many clubs. We have to bring them together more often," saysJim Telfer, Scotland's director of rugby, who carries the nation's expectations of revival.

Telfer is hugely respected and has the strength necessary to survive the anguish that the changes he advocates will cause. His vision is an increase in district rugby: fewer teams with better players. He talks admiringly of the provincial rugby played inNew Zealand and Australia and strongly advocates the Super Twenty idea whereby the best Scottish districts would compete with the top clubs in Europe.

Telfer's opponents are not short on the ground. The fans have more affiliation to clubs than to districts, and the clubs themselves know that if they lost their best players, then gate receipts and sponsorship money would go too. The clubs also each get a vote in the SRU and they opposed an attempt to step up district rugby three years ago. "The clubs would say: `We've had this system before and we've won two Grand Slams in 15 years,' " says Telfer, himself a former Melrose player and coach. "But what Isay, and what Ian McGeechan would say, is that we won them despite the system and not because of it. We'd probably require a run of about 35 defeats before they realised something was wrong. And then they would blame the coaches - or me. The officials of my own club were the ones that made the biggest noise three years ago."

The Telfer blueprint is forward-looking. "At present," he says, "we're short on one or two outstanding personalities like Calder, Irvine and Jeffrey." Why? Some cite the influx of English players: if the team is shorn of the traditional national fervour,then it is already a few points down. As David Sole, captain of the 1990 Grand Slammers, says: "The mixture of accents would suggest that the connections with Scotland are pretty tenuous and I know that grates with a lot of players at home."

However, the easy target is Dougie Morgan, the national coach, who has overseen the decline since McGeechan's retirement. Many are looking with anticipation to his own retirement after the World Cup when David Johnston, Scotland's A team coach, is expected to step in. Johnston, one of the 1984 Grand Slammers, has had impressive success with the A team, so much so that many of his charges were promoted for the Canada game.

However, when it comes to defeats such as those by the All Blacks, Wales and South Africa recently, Sole says, you can look no further than the players themselves. "There was a distinct lack of passion and a lack of pride and that, to my mind, is unforgivable."

In his day, Sole explains, the senior players would lead the juniors, and gradually himself, Jeffrey and Finlay Calder took the reins from the likes of Rutherford, Laidlaw and Deans. "What has disappointed me is that the senior players have not become the leaders. Craig Chalmers, Gavin and Scott Hastings, Kenny Milne, Doddie Weir; they have all got 20 caps or more, yet there is only a handful who are playing like it. They've grown up with success in a Scotland shirt without necessarily appreciating whatgoes into achieving it. If you take these things for granted, then you are going to fall by the wayside."

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