Wednesday, 1 March 2017

1983: England v Scotland (Rugby Union)

Scotland's record at Twickenham left a lot to be desired, but in 1983 they were able to take advantage of a mentally fragile England.

Michael Jackson was number one in the hit parade with Billie Jean; Britain was slowly getting used to waking up to breakfast television; the press were extremely excited that Prince William had two new teeth; and Arthur Scargill's call for a miners' strike was rejected by NUM members. March 1983, seems a million years ago. To any die hard Scottish rugby union fans that yearn for success at Twickenham, this date, from a different age, represents the last time their country won at England's headquarters.

Historically, Twickenham has not been a happy hunting ground for Scotland. Before their 1983 victory, only three Scottish national teams had left England's home ground celebrating a win over their old rivals (1926, 1938, and 1971). Despite this appalling record in England, and the three losses that Scotland had suffered in the 1983 Five Nations, there possibly wasn't a better time for the visitors to record their fourth victory at Twickenham. For English rugby in 1983 was spinning out of control.

Installed as pre-tournament favourites, England were making the bookies look a little bit foolhardy as the Five Nations championship unfolded. An opening defeat to France at Twickenham saw Maurice Colclough ruled out for the rest of the season, as another 1980 Grand Slam pack member was removed from England's plans; Bill Beaumont, Fran Cotton, Roger Uttley and Tony Neary had all retired. England may have left Cardiff undefeated for the first time since 1963, but the 13-13 draw was seen as a missed opportunity, and the search was on for scapegoats.

It would be skipper Steve Smith that would initially pay the ultimate price. Dropped from the squad completely, chief selector Budge Rogers announced that Nigel Melville would make his debut at scrum half in place of Smith, a move aimed at speeding up the service to England's backs division. "I'm not bitter but I'm sad, because leading England is a great honour," Smith said. "I'm certainly not retiring and will be available whenever my country needs me." It was a good job Smith left the door open.

The chaotic nature of England's 1983 season was emphasised when Melville broke down in training, only for Smith to be recalled to the team, with Nick Youngs, who had been named in the original squad, ignored completely. The captaincy baton had already been handed on to No. 8 John Scott, his leadership skills at Cardiff seen as an ideal qualification for the job, although many felt the returning Peter Wheeler may have been unlucky to miss out on the role.

Scotland were also experiencing a season of frustration. The progress being made under coach Jim Telfer had been encouraging; since his appointment in 1980, Telfer had led Scotland to five victories in twelve Five Nations matches, which may not have seemed a stunning return, but when you consider that Scotland had won one match between 1977-1979, then it was obvious that the team were moving in the right direction. So when Scotland narrowly lost their opening three matches in the 1983 championship - 15-13 to Ireland (h), 19-15 to France (a), and 19-15 to Wales (h) - the wooden spoon was looming on the horizon.

Like England, Scotland's scrum half would lose the captaincy, but the talented Roy Laidlaw kept his place in the team, with prop Jim Aitken given the task of trying to join Dan Drysdale, Wilson Shaw, and Peter Brown as winning Scottish skippers at Twickenham. "My career has hit an unexpected new high," Aitken admitted, a player who had not toured Australia in the summer of 1982, and wasn't even in the side for the Five Nations opener. However, Aitken's new earned status of pack leader, made him an ideal candidate for the captaincy, allowing Laidlaw to concentrate on his own game with stunning effect.

The side was also handed a huge boost with the return of fly-half John Rutherford. Fully recovered from a shoulder operation, Rutherford's recall saw him reunited with Laidlaw in their sublime partnership, as a key building block towards the success of 1984 was put in place.

The half-backs would play a crucial part in the victory at Twickenham, as would locks Tom Smith (on debut) and Iain Paxton (moved from No. 8), as the experienced duo of Bill Cuthbertson and Alan Tomes were dropped. Many felt centre David Johnson was unlucky to miss out on the expected service from Rutherford, with Keith Robertson moving in from the wing, and Jim Pollock selected. But Johnson, along with Cuthbertson and Tomes, would still have a big part to play in the future of Scottish rugby.

With changes aplenty, the press were split in their opinions on the outcome of the match:

"England versus Scotland is just about the biggest home banker in modern sport. I expect the sporrans to be at half-mast again."
Tony Bodley, Daily Express

"John Scott will take a victorious first step as an international rugby captain today."
Michael Bowen, Daily Mirror

"Reservations about England's effectiveness as an attacking unit and respect for Scotland's potential, should they play at their best, lead me to expect a narrow Scottish win."
Richard Streeton, The Times

England drew first blood in the match, when the recalled fly-half John Horton dropped a goal after just two minutes, yet on a trying day for anyone in an England shirt, this was one of the few highlights. Scotland were denied a try when Smith tackled Jim Renwick before he had received the ball, many questioning why New Zealand referee Tom Doocey did not award the penalty try. Peter Dods slotted over the penalty, yet it could and should have been more.

Dods and Dusty Hare would exchange two further penalties each, to leave the score at 9-9 at the break - the score clearly visible on the two new screens installed at Twickenham - although England squandered their best try scoring opportunities just as the half ended. As the second period progressed, these errors proved costly.

It would be Laidlaw that swung the match in favour of the Scots. A brilliant jinking run from just inside England's 22, saw the scrum half evade four men before crossing the try-line, during a match in which he put in a captain's performance one match too late, to borrow Fred Trueman's tribute to Ian Botham at Headingley in 1981.

Dods' conversion pushed Scotland 15-9 in front, and although Hare would narrow the gap with a penalty, in truth England never looked capable of winning. A Robertson drop goal extended the lead to six points, with Laidlaw involved yet again, and with time running out, Smith capped a fine debut, scoring a try after collecting from a line out just yards from England's line, to give Scotland a fully deserved 22-12 win.

There was no doubting who the star of the show had been. "Scotland's individual hero was their scrum half, Laidlaw, who deserves a statue on the Forth Bridge," Streeton wrote. "His quicksilver forays in attack, splendid passing and defensive work were the hinge on which all Scotland's efforts turned." Many of the Scots had done their chances of a place on the Lions tour to New Zealand no harm at all. The same couldn't be said of the England players.

The criticism came thick and fast, with Budge Rogers not backwards in coming forwards in regards to the players that he had actually selected in the first place. "Some looked as if they didn't want the ball. They looked tired and lethargic from the opening stages. Our midfield play was predictable. When we did work an overlap, we didn't use the extra man. We chipped the ball away, or the man in possession turned inside."

Streeton certainly agreed in his match report, calling England lackadaisical, slow, mundane in everything they did, and bereft of ideas, stating that they conceded possession at rucks, mauls and line outs far too regularly. It was inevitable that heads would roll, with winger Tony Swift, centre Huw Davies, and Smith all dropped for the next match against Ireland.

Smith would never play for England again, and hit out at Rogers after being left out of the Ireland fixture. "I'm not frightened to say what most of us have been thinking since the draw against the Welsh. We were on on a high note after achieving England's best result in Cardiff for 20 years. That was the time when selectors and players needed to pull together. But other players and myself were publicly criticised. The team's confidence has been destroyed since Cardiff. It's a great pity after all the work over the past three years."

Unsurprisingly, England went to Dublin and put in an insipid performance, going down 25-15 and once again failing to score a try. The wooden spoon was hardly the best way to end the era of coach Mike Davis, but he would not be alone in stepping aside. Rogers resigned in June, and under new coach Dick Greenwood, England managed to beat an under strength New Zealand in the autumn. But this papered over the cracks. Between 1984-87, England would win just five Five Nations matches.

Scotland, however, went from strength to strength, their Grand Slam triumph in 1984 completing a turnaround in fortunes for a rugby nation that had been struggling at the start of the decade. Undoubtedly the victory at Twickenham in 1983 played a significant part in the successes ahead, adding belief to Telfer and his players, even if the England team that they defeated on that day may have been at a low ebb.

Manchester United in the League Cup final, a female Prime Minister in her first term, and a new £1 coin coming out. Perhaps 1983 isn't as distant as we all thought? Try telling that to any Scottish rugby fans who have made the journey to Twickenham and back during that 34 year period, though. If the Scots do take the Calcutta Cup away from London on March 11, 2017, then they will celebrate long and hard into the night, and deservedly so. Ending 34 years of hurt merits an unforgettable party.

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