Wednesday, 30 January 2013

1981: England v Scotland (Rugby Union)

If in music terms 1980 had seen England enjoy a smash hit success, then 1981 was always going to be the equivalent of that difficult second album. The 2003 World Cup winning side, and indeed the 2005 Ashes cricket success, have been relatively recent examples of teams reaching their peaks, only for the combination of retirements, injuries, and loss of form leading to a decline in the team's fortunes, as inevitably anything that follows feels very much after the Lord Mayor's show. In this respect, 1981 was never going to be easy for English rugby. The Grand Slam success enjoyed by Bill Beaumont's men in 1980 was their first in 23 years, and only their second since 1928, so it was unrealistic to expect them to repeat this success a year later. The retirements of Roger Uttley and Tony Neary certainly didn't help, leaving a gaping hole in terms of experience within the English pack, and before the Scotland game at Twickenham on February 21 there was more of that to come. By then though, it had become apparent that for England, the only way was down in 1981.

Although the Daily Mirror's Chris Lander had bullishly predicted an English victory in Cardiff - under a headline 'DRAGON SLAYERS' - his words would soon be thrown back in his face. We really shouldn't have been shocked by Wales' 21-19 win; Wales had not been beaten at home in the Five Nations since 1968, and the last time England had returned home with a win from Cardiff was in 1963. The loss of both the Triple Crown and Grand Slam titles was bad enough, but the crushing nature of the defeat, combined with the fact that another vital cog of England's pack had just played his last game, made 1980 feel like a distant memory. Leading 19-18 with just eight minutes remaining, England's Clive Woodward fell for a Brynmor Williams dummy, and the subsequent penalty kicked by Steve Fenwick gave the Welsh a lead to defend in the closing stages. England could still have snatched a win, but Dusty Hare - who already had a try and five penalties to his name - missed a last minute penalty (unlike the previous year at Twickenham), and England's Cardiff hoodoo would continue. Afterwards Woodward was distraught: "I feel terrible, not just for me, but for the rest of the team", and when England were hit by the news that Fran Cotton, who had left the pitch due to a hamstring injury, had decided to retire, everything seemed to be collapsing around them. "How do you replace a guy like that? He has commanded respect all over the world," stated Beaumont, who had now lost over 100 caps worth of Test experience from his Grand Slam winning pack. England had more than a month to lick their wounds before the Scotland game, and after their Welsh trauma they probably needed the break.

At the time, Scotland would most probably have happily swapped places with England. With only one win in their last seventeen internationals, and three wooden spoons between 1978-1980, Scottish rugby seemed to be as low as the depths of Loch Ness in comparison to England's Scafell Pike. As England were losing in Cardiff, the same fate was befalling the Scots in Paris, although their 16-9 defeat under new coach Jim Telfer was hardly a shock. Not many gave Scotland a chance in the next championship match against the Welsh at Murrayfield. The Daily Mirror's Tom Lyon, writing before the encounter, was predicting more Scottish woe: "I cannot see Scotland's mediocre pack standing up to the relentless pressure of the Welsh eight....Wales should be capable of resisting Scotland's opening onslaught and notching yet another decisive win in their quest for a centenary season Triple Crown." Obviously this is easy to say with hindsight sitting next to me, but it was becoming evident that Russell Grant could rest assured that his job was safe from the clutches of the Mirror's rugby correspondents in 1981. In Lyon's defence, Scotland's 15-6 win was a surprise, yet as Scotland's pack destroyed the Welsh eight, he must have recalled his pre-match assessment with horror. "It was one of the best performances I've seen from a Scottish pack," noted Scotland skipper Andy Irvine, adding "And if we can play as well at Twickenham, we can beat England too." All of a sudden, it appeared as if the forthcoming Calcutta Cup clash was going to be a lot closer than many could have foreseen at the start of the season.

Before the two teams would meet, a lot of attention in the press zoomed in on the structure of the domestic game. Hard to believe, but it took as long as 1987 for a formal league competition to be established in England, and in 1981 a committee led by John Burgess met to agree on a way forward for English rugby. Inventively given the name the Burgess Plan, the committee proposed a new system involving two divisions of twenty premier clubs, along with a third division. Rumours that the already popular John Player Cup was to disappear under the new regime was quashed by Burgess, and it was generally seen as a positive move for the future of the game. As ever though, it would take a long time for a league system to get off the ground in England, and by the time it did, the national team was in a pretty sorry state, as their showing at the 1987 World Cup emphasised.

The lead-up to the Calcutta Cup would entail a great deal of selection headaches within England's ranks. Both flanker Mike Rafter and fly-half John Horton pulled hamstrings playing for Bristol and Bath respectively, and of course the Cotton-shaped hole in the front row needed filling. Rafter's blind-side flanker role was handed to Nick Jeavons, usually a number eight for Moseley, but a recent convert to his new position. "I still prefer No. 8, but my future obviously lies on the flank," noted Jeavons, who would make his international debut at Twickenham. Another debutant would be fly-half Huw Davies. Davies had chosen to play for England two years previously, even though he had been trained and developed in Wales and his father was Welsh. Davies' proclamation that "I regard myself as 100 percent English" was obviously aimed at those questioning his commitment to the cause, but there was no doubting the ability of the youngster (he would turn 22 in the week before the Scotland match). England coach Mike Davis hinted that Davies' chance had perhaps arrived a little earlier than planned, but he was fully confident that Davies could cope: "Huw was being groomed as the England fly half of the future. He won't be overawed coming in against Scotland for his first international in this manner." The situation was far from ideal however; this would be England's 18th different half-back combination in the last 32 tests, with scrum half Steve Smith admitting that he and Davies were hardly well acquainted: "I've never given a pass to Davies in my life. The only time I've seen him play was in this season's trial." Newport's Colin Smart, who had been capped three times by England in 1979, was chosen to replace Cotton.

Scotland had less concerns, their only injury doubt relating to the shoulder of prop Bill Cuthbertson, but when he was declared fit before the match, the Scots were in an unusual position of being able to stick with a winning side. The Welsh victory had seen a black cloud of pessimism lifted from the Scots, and the performance of their pack, and fly-half John Rutherford in particular, led to a renewed hope that the future could be a lot brighter. Rutherford had given JPR Williams the run around in Scotland's victory with his precision kicking game, so much so that Williams was dropped for the first time in his career and never played for Wales again. Regardless of the new feelgood factor surrounding the Scots, their pragmatic coach Telfer was very respectful of England: "I thought before the Championship started that England were the best team and despite their defeat by Wales, I still believe it." Skipper Irvine, perhaps trying a bit of Campese-esque reverse psychology on the eve of the match, heavily complimented England's back line: "England have some magnificent backs. Mike Slemen, John Carleton, Clive Woodward and Paul Dodge have all played for the British Lions. What's the point in having them there if you don't use them? In eight years it is the best English three-quarter line I have encountered." Irvine was not alone in this opinion though. Inspirational Leicester coach Chalkie White - not to be confused with the "hilarious" Jim Davidson character of the time - indicated that the England setup and safety-first tactics were flawed: "They are wasting the potential of some of the best backs in British rugby." Both Irvine and White would be proved right at Twickenham, as England's backs revealed what they could do, although the former must have wished they had chosen another match to demonstrate this.

With just one win in their last seventeen visits to Twickenham, understandably Scotland were outsiders for the 97th meeting of the two teams. "Bill Beaumont's backlash will prove too much for Andy Irvine's Tartan Army at Twickenham today. The result has to be a home banker," was the verdict of the Daily Express' Tony Bodley, and so it proved. However, in a match of end-to-end drama, the England win was not without scares along the way, with the debutant Davies at the centre of most of the action.

The other England new boy was not so fortunate; Jeavons replaced after just twelve minutes due to an eye injury, allowing replacement Bob Hesford to gain his first cap. In a frantic first half, both the good and bad of English back play came to the fore. Dusty Hare was at fault for Scotland's opening try, slow to move back to a bouncing ball, dallying a split second too long and allowing wing Steve Munro to kick on for a soft try. But as bad as Hare had been defensively, Woodward showed the way going forward, proving that the words of Irvine and White had not been hot air. His try, described by Irvine as "a stroke of genius", involved a jinking, zig-zagging run past six Scottish defenders, and was so good that it was selected as England's fifth best try at Twickenham by Brendan Gallagher in this article. In this YouTube age it is astonishing that I have been unable to track down this try (now, if it's cats falling off TVs then I'm sure I would be fine), so we will have to take it as read that Woodward's score was as dramatic and exciting as it sounds. Hare converted, and England led 9-7 at half-time, yet in a pulsating contest there was even more nerve-wracking sporting theatre to follow.

Although the press raved about Davies' debut performance, not all that the young fly-half did that day was good. A poor touch kick in the 48th minute resulted in another try for Munro, and Irvine's conversion nudged Scotland in front 13-9. After a Hare penalty, another superb backline move swung the game back in England's favour, Mike Slemen scoring a try against Scotland for the third successive match, putting England into a 16-13 lead. But back game Scotland. Davies' second crucial error - a misjudged drop out - gave flanker Jim Calder his first try for Scotland, and in a topsy-turvy afternoon which saw Scotland take the lead four times, there were just ten minutes to go with the scoreboard reading England 16 Scotland 17.

Luckily for Davies, his day was to get better. After a surging run by John Carleton through a tired Scottish defence, Davies was sent clear down the right and his try meant that for the sixth and final time on that thrilling afternoon, the lead had again changed hands. Hare again missed the conversion, but would make no mistake with a 40-yard penalty in injury time. England had won 23-17 in what Bodley described as "the finest advertisement for the game since the Barbarians victory over the All Blacks in 1973", and John Reed backed this up in the Sunday Express, reporting that "For sheer excitement, entertainment and tension, this was a marvellous battle of three tries apiece to saviour." High praise indeed.

The press naturally went to town over Davies' showing, although his errors were conveniently excused in the light of victory. The man himself was big enough to admit that his mistakes were stupid, but this did not stop the media and team-mates alike from waxing lyrical over England's new find. "Huw was marvellous. He looked as though he'd been playing international rugby all his life", was Beaumont's verdict, although how much the skipper could recall of the final twenty minutes of the match was debatable, as he bravely played on through concussion due to a lack of a specialist replacement on the bench. Even in the aftermath of such an encouraging win there was still one casualty however; Dusty Hare lost his place for the Ireland game, through a combination of his mistakes against Wales and Scotland, and England's wish to blood the more attacking Marcus Rose against the Irish. Time stands still for no man, even one that had accounted for 30 out of the 42 points England had scored in the Five Nations to that point.

Both England and Scotland would go on to record narrow victories over Ireland in the 1981 Five Nations, and although it was to be France that would secure the Grand Slam that season, there were plenty of reasons to be cheerful for both nations. England it seemed had uncovered a couple of new starlets for the future in Davies and Rose, and Scotland had ended their dismal run in the championship, with Telfer providing the strong coaching needed for the years to come. The fortunes of the two nations would take very different paths though. For Scotland, the foundations for their 1984 Grand Slam were gradually being laid during the early period of Telfer's tenure, whereas England appeared to have built their castle on sand. Within just three years of their Grand Slam, England descended from kings to paupers, picking up the wooden spoon in 1983 (losing three and drawing one), and only winning a paltry five championship matches between 1984-1987. For a young Englishman growing up in the eighties, it was not a fun time to be following the national team, and it would take until 1988 for any ray of hope to shine upon Twickenham.

Twenty years on from the wooden spoon of 1983, That1980sSportsBlogger could be seen celebrating heavily after England's triumphant World Cup win down under, as the early morning party evolved into a late evening blur (and a resulting hangover from hell - see kids, it isn't big or clever). The man who masterminded that campaign was none other than Clive Woodward, subsequently knighted for his services to English rugby. Woodward had seen the good, bad, and ugly of English rugby from his time as a player through to his defining moment in the sport. Back in early 1981 he was would experience enough highs and lows to cover a career, from his offside offence in Cardiff, to his mazy try in a nip-and-tuck Calcutta Cup match that had millions of viewers on the edge of their seats both sides of the Cheviot Hills. It's just a shame that there doesn't seem to be any footage of the 1981 England-Scotland clash on the Internet, so that millions more can enjoy it today. I'm sure that one of the tens of people who read this and manage to make it through to this point in the blog will be able to find something, after all, a match like the 1981 Calcutta Cup deserves to be cherished through the ages.

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