Scotland bidding to emulate 1983 heroes

Date published: March 9 2017

There is something special about the Calcutta Cup.

It may not always be the most important factor in deciding the eventual Six Nations champion or consistently prove to be the most competitive of fixtures, but it is imbued with a history of blood, sweat and begrudging respect that dates back further than any other international rugby rivalry.

Let’s be honest, it dates back well beyond the formation of rugby rivalries, to a time when England and Scotland would meet on the field of battle, not of sport, and that certainly plays a part in the ferocity of the fixture.

Since the advent of professionalism, England may have measured themselves more regularly against other rivals such as France and Australia, whilst Scotland have struggled for consistent relevance, but still, nothing raises the hairs on the back of the neck like the Calcutta Cup.

The balance of power is weighted heavily in England’s favour, with the Red Rose accounting for 74 victories in the fixture, compared to Scotland’s 42, with 18 games ending in draws. The win rate is even more impressive when you narrow down the games to just those played at Twickenham, where England have 44 wins to Scotland’s 14, and combined with seven draws, it adds up to a 67 percent win-ratio for the home side.

In fact, Scotland have not won at Twickenham since 1983, when Jim Telfer’s side consigned England to a fifth-place finish in the old Five Nations. Roy Laidlaw and Tom Smith both crossed the whitewash in a 22-12 victory that day and the boot of full-back Peter Dods helped the thistle take prominence over the rose in the home nations garden.

Now, 34 years later, as Scotland gear up to head to Twickenham for the 135th playing of the fixture, they would be wise to look back to that group of players for inspiration.

The romanticising of that 1983 fixture, Scotland’s only win at Twickenham in the last 46 years, perhaps glosses over the fact it was a poor championship for Telfer’s side, who ended up finishing fourth and the win over England was the only one they enjoyed in the competition that year.

It did, however, lay the foundations for one of the most successful seasons in Scottish rugby history, the 1984 Grand Slam. A year later, a very similar cast of players took Scotland to their first outright title win since 1938 and first Grand Slam since 1925.

Aside from the fact that the 1983 crop of players ended a long period of Scottish underperformance with a marquee result at Twickenham, and this 2017 class are seeking a similar flashpoint to look back upon and say “that’s where everything changed”, the two sides are not without their differences.

Where that ’83 side arrived at Twickenham devoid of confidence and facing the prospect of a wooden spoon, even against an underperforming England side, this current group head south on the back of two impressive wins against Ireland and Wales at Murrayfield. England may be undefeated in 17 games, but Scotland, under the tutelage of Vern Cotter, believe in themselves.

They will enter the game as underdogs, certainly, but not without hope or the confidence that they can rattle England on their own patch.

Another stark difference for Scotland is their opponent.

In 1983, Dick Greenwood’s England were pumped up as favourites for the title in the build-up to the tournament but it was a side that had lost its core.

The heartbeats of the team had moved on, with the likes of Bill Beaumont, Fran Cotton and Roger Uttley no longer part of the side, and though experience remained in the forms of Dusty Hare and Peter Wheeler, and the budding Peter Winterbottom was breaking through, it was a side far removed from the heights it had reached when lifting the 1980 Grand Slam.

Nothing could be further from the truth for this group of English players, who are not only riding that 17-match win streak but are also defending Grand Slam champions.

Further to this, where the England side of ’83 struggled to execute and get over the line in close games, the modern crop are becoming extremely adept at delivering when it most matters, even when they struggle to play to their potential for the full 80 minutes.

The Calcutta Cup of 1983 was the meeting of two down and out sides, playing for pride more than anything else, whereas the 2017 iteration is the coming together of two clinical and efficient teams, both of whom are gunning for top spot in the championship.

There are of course similarities to be drawn between the two Scottish sides and beyond the inspirational and emotional factors that Cotter’s men should take from Telfer’s side, there are a few tactical snippets in there also.

Today’s side have struggled in the scrum with the absences of WP Nel and Alasdair Dickinson and though the side of 1983 was built upon the broad backs of Jim Aitken and Iain Milne, sandwiching the ever-impressive Colin Deans, scrummaging was not a forte of that team, either.

They were a coherent, well-drilled team in attack, more than capable of running teams around and that’s something they did with abandon at Twickenham all those years ago. Between the sniping runs of Laidlaw, the power of John Beattie and the desire to play with tempo of that entire team, Scotland were able to hide their deficiencies and force England into an uncomfortable game.

It’s another similarity they share with today’s group.

Scotland out-tackled and out-worked Ireland in their tournament opener this year, out-ran and out-thought Wales two weeks ago and it was only against France, where they got sucked into a power game, that they have looked deficient.

England have had their own scrum and breakdown issues, the latter of which has been debated ad nauseam since their win over Italy, but it’s not an area where Scotland will want to stand and trade blow-for-blow with the home side.

Deans and Jim Renwick, one of the greatest backs to ever don the Scotland jersey, were key on that March day in 1983 and their modern counterparts, Fraser Brown and Huw Jones, will need to have similarly impactful outings to help Scotland upset the odds.

Neither Brown nor Jones should be put into the category of Deans and Renwick just yet, but Brown in particular has shone so far this year and has given Scotland the lineout consistency that they have not had year-on-year with Ross Ford over the last decade.

With the lineout more important than ever to any team’s ability to be successful, the elevation of the Glasgow man’s game to the next level could not have come at a better time.

Brown should be not only a leading candidate to make the British and Irish Lions tour later this year, but he has a growing portfolio that shows he can be a valuable asset to the Test 23.

Returning to the imminent match at Twickenham, however, Brown needs to maintain the smooth-running machine that is the Scottish lineout because with remarkably proficient defensive jumpers like Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes lining up against him, this will be the biggest test of his throwing so far this year.

As for Jones, he will be faced with the prospect of an English back-line that has yet to click fully in the tournament but will quite possibly be enjoying the front-foot ball that the return of the Vunipolas will bring, with both Billy and Mako included in England’s 24-man squad for the game.

Regardless of whether Jones is faced with Jonathan Joseph or Ben Te’o opposite him, with Owen Farrell pulling the strings from inside centre, the Scot will need to be on his toes defensively and though he could use some of Renwick’s experience, he may want to diverge from the 52-cap man’s defensive technique somewhat.

Channelling Renwick’s attacking verve will do Jones no harm whatsoever, though, as Scotland will need him to be the elusive dangerman that can make breaks and link with the outside backs, if the visitors are to catch an effective England defence on its heels.

John Barclay, Hamish Watson and Ryan Wilson will likely step into the boots of Jim Calder, David Leslie and Beattie, with Barclay also taking on Aitken’s role as captain.

The duel between Watson and James Haskell could be every bit as appetising as the one played out by Leslie and Winterbottom 34 years ago, whilst Stuart Hogg and Mike Brown, taking on the roles of Dods and Hare, should play just as significant parts in deciding Saturday’s outcome, despite neither being their side’s kicker.

It is fun to compare the generations and highlight similarities in personnel and tactics, but ultimately this Scotland side need to create their own legacy and lay the foundations for future success that means in 30 years’ time, Scottish players aren’t having to look back three decades to find inspiration.

There are things they can take from that historic game but being themselves and playing to their own strengths, many of which do match up to that ’83 side, is the only way they will taste success at Twickenham, a victory which would throw them right into the title mix heading into the final round.

In addition to the prospects of a Six Nations title, history, form, resources, player pools and the bookies all favour England in this match.

If that’s not the greatest motivation for Scotland on Saturday, then I don’t know what is.

by Alex Shaw