Southern Comfort

By The Way - Weekly Columns


by Paul Chapman Nostalgia. It ain’t what it used to be. The impending arrival of The 6 Nations set my mind wandering the other night, it usually finds some excuse to avoid sleep. Where rugby is at now, how it was I came to be a fan and a few other things beside all passed the wee hours of the night. The professional game did several things, some of them were even positive. It allowed players to earn money from the efforts they put in to training and playing, and allowed them to be able to commit time to the game, rather than worrying about how they could take time off proper work. It also provided prize money for teams, which in turn convinced (especially in England and France) wealthy men to back teams in the hopes of winning some of that. How do you win at rugby? By gaining possession of the ball and using it well. How do you gain possession of the ball? Generally by having bigger, more powerful forwards. How do you use it well? Generally by having bigger, faster, more powerful backs. Thus began an arms race. Teams/owners wanted the biggest bestest players they could find, players who were now paid to train 7 days a week spent more time in the gym, getting bigger, heavier, more powerful. Somewhere in a lab, probably in France, some mad genius is genetically engineering “the perfect rugby XV”. Possibly. Slowly, rugby became a sport of violent collisions between men who’ve bench pressed to within an inch of their lives and subsequently spend increasing amounts of time sat in the stands concussed or bone bruised as medical science “discovers” the human body really isn’t built for that sort of thing. For a time, matches were a stodgy arm wrestle of a product to watch, and still can be from time to time. Thankfully though, the “our big blokes will run through their big blokes” approach of a few years ago is gradually being replaced by a new generation of “trying to run around people by creating space” type players. Heck, even England are showing an increased willingness to eschew the “up the jumper, win penalty, kick penalty, bore everyone to death” mentality of yore. Being of a certain vintage, the pictures of rugby in my head tend to be those of the old 5 Nations tournaments of my youth. The dancing feet of an Irvine or a Bennett, Slattery and Beaumont willing their teams on. Steaming packs of forwards in the gathering gloom and the race to see if the game would finish before it got too dark for the cameras. Having to watch Rugby Special on the Sunday to see highlights of the other game as both would kick off at the same time, and wondering at how it came to be that Nigel Starmer-Smith had that particular job. Coming from the Scottish Borders, you grow up with rugby in much the same way that New Zealanders do, it’s the "national sport". Most towns are within 10 miles of their neighbours, but, each has an identity of their own. Linguistically, stylistically or even in the bricks and mortar, but each is fiercely proud of their rugby club. It’s no coincidence that the oldest rugby union league competition in the world, is the Border League, started in 1901. There was no “National” league system in Scotland until the 70s, England didn’t start organised league play until the mid 80s. Almost every game is a derby of sorts, although as the national leagues have gained prominence, the Border League has become a more diminished competition. Traditionally, if you had hopes of playing for Scotland, you came from the Borders, or you attended one of the big private schools of Edinburgh, or to a lesser degree, Glasgow. If you came from the Borders and had hopes of playing for Scotland, the jersey you wanted to pull on was the red and white hooped shirt of South of Scotland, or “Sooth”. Back in the days when the “Autumn Internationals” were really a proper tour by one of the Southern Hemisphere sides, getting into the district side was a stepping stone to international recognition. For a time during my teens, getting into the South side almost guaranteed getting a game for Scotland. It wasn’t unusual for a majority of the squad to be Borders based. Something that always added an extra edge to a match with whoever happened to be touring that year. The high-point being the 1984 win against Australia with a team that provided the back bone of a more famous moment that year. Sadly, South are no more. With the advent of the professional game in Scotland, somewhat later than other parts of the UK, South became the “Border Reivers” in 1996, before merging with Edinburgh in 1998 as a lack of player depth and money in the SRU forced cut backs from 4 regions to 2. The Reivers returned in 2002, but were gone again by 2007. A short lived amateur district competition won be Scottish Borders in 2002 was the last competitive sighting of a South team, though there has been a couple of “one-off” games in the past 10 years. The district still plays at age group level, and the players find themselves making up the Edinburgh and Glasgow squads when reaching the required standard. There remains a modicum of support for resurrecting a senior side. Scotland probably needs a third squad of players playing regular top-class rugby at Pro14 level. With the increasing “importation” of grandparent and parent qualified, and indeed residential qualification prospects, the talent pool is perhaps not as thin as it once was. What would be needed is a “South man” to get behind it, we can still be quite parochial in the Borders. Part of the failure of previous Reivers projects was that they were run from the SRU, meddling outsiders, and where the South would traditionally rotate fixtures around the main Border grounds, the SRU invested in Netherdale in Galashiels as the base. Financially it made sense to upgrade a single “home” ground, but, it’s a circle that needs squaring. Getting fans of existing clubs on board, or finding a way to tap into that swathe of the population that may not be tied to a club but could be persuaded to go see some current or future stars, is a must. The SRU have become pretty good at putting on “a show” before international matches, they may need to find a way to do that at a lower level. Edinburgh and Glasgow have large city populations on their door steps, albeit ones that are largely in the football camp, the Borders biggest town is Galashiels, at around 15,000 heads and persuading people to travel, even the smallish distances between Border towns, is the eureka moment. Somewhat uniquely, my little home town of barely 4000 souls “owned” the number 9 jersey for Scotland for the thick end of 20 years, Roy Laidlaw being the incumbent from 1980 to 1988 and Gary Armstrong from 1989 to 1999. The tradition was continued in 2011 by Greig Laidlaw. All would have a spell as Scotland captain and all would gain Lions selection. It was probably Roy Laidlaw getting into the national team that really fired my rugby following, it’s not often your neighbour is an international sportsman after all. I’d been to my first Murrayfield international in 1979, at the age of 8, when my dad took me to sit in the old West Stand to see Scotland and Ireland play out an 11-11 draw. Those were the days where 3 sides of the ground were terracing, I’d never seen so many people, heard such a noise, or smelt such a smell. The breweries of Edinburgh were very pungent. Having an actual local hero made the rush for tickets in the “schoolboy enclosure” (the first few rows of the terracing were benches, and tickets sold to schools) all the more fervent. It was a proper day out, two hours or more on the bus there, the same back, stopping half way to get served in a chippie ill prepared for a busload. Later, I stood on the old South Terrace in 1984 as we claimed a first Grand Slam in nearly 60 years with a victory over France, and on the North Terrace in 1990, surrounded by overly confident and Grand Slam attire bedecked "Nigels" as David Sole walked us out, Tony Stanger gave everyone chills and Will Carling abdicated captaincy to Brian Moore who promptly lost the plot and ran every penalty awarded. Oh to have bottled that day in the way England did. As a skinny kid who had the mental, if not the physical, capacity for the game (I was bad, so very bad, I could “see” the game, knew what I wanted to do, but lacked the composure, speed and grace to do too much with it) the sheer number of “happiest days” of my life that are wrapped up in the sport is to me, profound. There have been dark days too, as a Scotsman those are inevitable, but, this game, this glorious game retains the ability to bring this now over grown man to tears. Doddie Weir delivering a match ball at a packed Murrayfield in November made my living room incredibly dusty. Anyway, I’ve rambled enough, I’m not sure really, where this article has been, where it was going, or if indeed it got anywhere. I'm sure someone will let me know. Rest assured however, we will have a proper preview to the 6 Nations on this damn fine website in the not too distant future. Until then remember only to "Crouch", "Touch", "Set" when the referee tells you to.