Who would have thought that when Scotland played England at Raeburn Place, home of the Edinburgh Academicals Football Club in 1871 in front of 4000 raucous spectators, that 150 years later these two teams would be slugging it out in Twickenham with not a single supporter present?
Thankfully the televised pictures on ITV and around the world on Saturday will be beamed to millions of homes but for the players this will be a surreal experience given that the last time these two teams met two years ago, it was the most bonkers match that I have ever witnessed.
That 38 all draw had everything; passion, skill, speed and all out brilliance from and England team in rampant form. Within 31 minutes they were 31 points up and Scotland were totally out of the game but Scotland’s hooker, Stuart McInally’s solo effort just before halftime cracked open the scoreboard for the visitors.
38 unanswered points later Scotland were in touching distance of a famous victory; the first time they would have tasted victory at HQ since 1983 but England’s resilience shone through as they carved open a try from George Ford with the last play of the game. His conversion from under the sticks to square the match put another chapter down on this extraordinary history.
The quills and keyboards will be twitching once again as the 150th anniversary match unfolds in this remarkable story but behind the backdrop of the Covid pandemic, you can not underestimate just what a brilliant match this is to play in.
I played in 11 Calcutta Cup matches and every one of them was very special apart from one in 1996. However, in my first match against England, 10 years previously in 1986 , Scotland played a fast attacking style of rugby that took England by surprise. Five of the Scottish pack had been playing No8 for their clubs that season; Ian Paxton, John Jeffrey, Fin Calder and John Beattie.
Our coaches Derek Grant and Ian McGeeghan, having laid a strategy to shift the lumbering English pack of forwards around the Murrayfield pitch worked a treat. Roy Laidlaw and John Rutherford orchestrated the backs and we had a field day. I managed to latch onto the final play of the game to seal my first try for Scotland for a record score and winning margin of 33 points to 6. Only one other team has gone on to score more points against the ‘auld enemy’ and that was the Scotland from two years ago!
In 1987 I was due to play the opening game of the 5 Nations against England at Twickenham but the match was postponed due to snow. Not only were the roads in a state around London but the terraces had frozen and it was deemed that the match could not go ahead on safety grounds. It was a real blow and as things turned out I didn’t get to play in the re-arranged fixture at the back end of the championship as I broke my cheekbone in the match against Wales that season.
I never won at Twickenham but in 1989 we travelled south in good spirits knowing that we had a real chance to claim victory. It was a feisty old game as the previous year the Calcutta Cup has been ‘pancaked’ in an incident involving John Jeffrey and Dean Richards following a dire game at Murrayfield. I again had missed that match through injury and thank goodness. It had been a truly awful game and the Scottish coach at the time, Derek Grant lambasted England as ‘a boring rugby nation’ whilst the headline that ran in the Glasgow Herald declared, ‘Black Saturday for Rugby Supporters’.
The 1989 match was not that much better but we played out a 12 all draw with John Jeffrey scoring the only try of the game for the Scots. Thankfully JJ never got his hands back on the cup but it set us up nicely for the return match in 1990.
The seeds of success in that game were sown on the Lions tour of 1989. Scotland had nine players selected for that tour and with Ian McGeechan as coach we learned a lot from our fellow tourists and realised that with all that knowledge we could impose our fiercely drilled game plan on our opposition.
The rest they say is history as Scotland went on to secure a famous Grand Slam but the words of Bill McLaren that day sum up what an amazing occasion it was. These are some of his commentary extracts when Des Lynam the then presenter of BBC’s Grandstand sports programme threw to Bill at Murrayfield;
“And welcome to the commentary box at Murrayfield. You will have already sensed the quite unique atmosphere here in the heart of Edinburgh on what is a quite unique occasion; the first time in the history of rugby union that two home countries have met head on for the Grand Slam…They’ve played international rugby here since 1925 but in all intervening time, I don’t think Murrayfield has ever buzzed with the same feverish anticipation at this very moment, as one of the great sporting occasions is about to unfold.”
I continued to have many a ding dong battle against England and played regularly against my fellow Lions, Jeremy Guscott, Will Carling, Brian Moore, Peter Winterbottom, Rory Underwood, Dean Richards and Wade Dooley to name but a few. After that Grand Slam game, I never tasted victory against England again!
The 1991 Rugby World Cup semi-final loss to England was a tough defeat to take as was John Callard’s winning kick at Murrayfield in 1994. It was a double blow for me as I had been carted off the pitch with an ankle injury 10 minutes from the end. Gregor Townsend had dropped a goal to put Scotland in front with 2 minutes to go but ironically the penalty awarded to England for handling the ball on the ground was a case of mistaken identity. It was in fact, Rob Andrew who had handled the ball but as England had blue cuffs on their jerseys, the ref thought the hand belonged to a Scottish player!
Many Scottish supporters revelled in the 1990 Grand Slam game but supporters are quick to forget that Scotland lost a Grand Slam in 1995. The team travelled to Twickenham with victories against Ireland, Wales and France where my brother had led the team to a famous victory in Paris. I played no part in that game having been dropped at the start of the 5 Nations but managed to get back into the team to play against Wales and in that Grand Slam encounter.
Like 1990, everything was up for grabs but England were an ever improving team and extremely well managed. The 24-12 score line in England’s favour gave them a third Grand Slam in 4 seasons. Of course they had learnt from their defeat to the Scots in 1990 but there is no denying the fact that England had their house in order.
In 1996, I played my final game at Murrayfield against England. As I write this blog, I have utterly no recollection of that game and indeed I had to check if I actually played in it! Given that this was the first game between these teams played in the professional era, I don’t even know if we got a match fee but I do note that from ‘Google’, Paul Grayson kicked 6 penalties to Scotland’s 3 penalties from Michael Dodds! It was obviously eminently forgettable! But I am sure Paul would disagree with me.
Finally the curtain came down on my Calcutta Cup playing experience in 1997 when I came off the bench at Twickenham. England were rampant that day and we were on the back end of a 41-13 hiding. Little did I know then but that was the last time I played for Scotland.
I was dropped from the squad for the following match and within a year I gave up playing professional rugby (I actually only played professionally for 18 months) and returned to the amateur club ranks and played out my days with my beloved club Watsonians in Edinburgh.
The Calcutta Cup has given me tremendous memories both as a player and as a spectator. On Saturday, I’ll be back at Twickenham commentating with ITV alongside Nick Mullins and Lawrence Dellaglio. If we get to commentate on as an exciting a game as we did 2 years ago it will be brilliant but with no fans present the players will be facing a match like no other in its 150 years of history!