The Scottish Review of Books Review: The Grudge
17 March, 1990: Scotland v England at Murrayfield. “Us against them, boys,” said Jim Telfer, “it’s ours for the taking: the Calcutta Cup, the championship, the Triple Crown and the Slam”. “Nae worries, Jim,” said the Scotland hooker Kenny Milne, “we’re bound to win one of them”. It was a rare moment of humour in the run-up to what was arguably the most intense and emotion-charged international match in the long history of Scottish rugby.
For England and the English players, it was indeed only a rugby match, though a mighty important one. For many in the Scottish team it was only that too. They had their resentments, sparked by the assumption of the London Press and, they suspected, a number of the English players too, that England had only to turn up to win, a suspicion strengthened an hour before kick-off when they saw wives and girl-friends of the England team taking photographs of the players and each other on the pitch. English confidence was well-founded. They had been playing brilliantly and had destroyed Ireland, France and Wales in succession, scoring 11 tries in the process and looking better with every match. Scotland meanwhile had scraped victories in Dublin and Cardiff, and, though they had beaten France 21-0 their tries had been scored when France were down to 14 men.
But for many in Scotland it was much more than a rugby match. It was a feverish time. Nationalism was on the rise, the SNP boosted by Jim Sillars’ by-election in Govan. Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister and loathed by many Scots. It was the time of the Poll Tax. Anti-English feeling flourished, nastily, to the discomfort of many in the Scotland camp, Jim Telfer, and the captain, David Sole, among them. The atmosphere was intense, gripping or poisonous according to your opinion.
For many of us who were at Murrayfield that day, the politics were irrelevant – after all, the Murrayfield crowd probably included a higher percentage of Tory voters than you could find in most Scottish assemblies then. But they were passionate too. It was the belief that England had come north certain not only of victory but of a sweeping triumph that stoked the feeling.
Tom English has written a marvellous book, in its way as gripping as that season and the match itself. He is ideally placed to be its author, being not only the chief sports writer of Scotland On Sunday, but an Irishman and therefore neutral, or sort of neutral; not only Irish, but a Limerick man and steeped in rugby.
It’s about more than rugby, and not only because of the political element. He offers a series of brilliant and revealing character sketches. As he says in the page of acknowledgements, the book “couldn‘t have been done without the support of the England team”, and chief among them their captain Will Carling and the hooker Brian Moore, who were, for many Scots, the chief villains: Carling as the epitome, it seemed, of English arrogance, Moore as the pitbull, hammer of all things Scottish. Both come out of his story very well, both more insecure and also generous than their image then. Incidentally relations between the pair were edgy at best.
On the Scottish side, Tom English has spent most time with Jim Telfer and John Jeffrey, and his portraits of them are brilliant. Some of the players remain enigmatic, notably David Sole. Though Sole stoked the atmosphere by his insistence that his team should follow him on to the field at a slow, martial walk (which incidentally most of the English players claim not to have been aware of until the huge roar with which the crowd greeted it alerted them), Sole, like Kenny Milne, was disturbed by the “anti-English feeling that went beyond a healthy sporting rivalry” – not only – perhaps even not at all – because, like two of his teammates, Paul Burnell and Damian Cronin, he was himself qualified to play for England as well as Scotland.
English’s account of the buildup to the game is as riveting as his account of the extraordinary match itself. About it he gets everything right, concentrating on the series of scrums close to the Scottish try-line towards the end of the first half. Scotland was leading 6-4. England chose to take scrums and tap penalties when David Sole was penalised for collapsing the scrum, and there was the suspicion, which the book confirms, that the decision not to kick a goal was taken by Moore rather than Carling. Arrogance? Perhaps not. Nowadays a referee would almost certainly have awarded England a penalty try, and the New Zealand referee, David Bishop, might indeed have done so – if some of the English forwards hadn’t asked him to make that decision. Thereafter there was Tony Stanger’s try – perhaps the most famous in our rugby history (even if a video referee might have disallowed it – but, happily, there was no such person then) and Scott Hastings’ matchwinning tackle on the flying Rory Underwood, and then defiance, defiance, defiance, till the final whistle and the moment of triumph.
If you were there, you will want to buy this book to bring the mood and match to life again. If you weren’t and were too young, buy it to know what it was like, for we will never see quite such a day again – for good reasons as well as bad. Finally, Carling and Moore had their revenge. Neither ever lost to Scotland again, and indeed we had to wait ten years for another victory over the Auld Enemy.
- Paperback - Yellow Jersey
Murrayfield, the Calcutta Cup, March 1990. England vs. Scotland - winner-takes-all for the Five Nations Grand Slam, the biggest prize in northern hemisphere rugby. Will Carling's England are the very embodiment of Margaret Thatcher's Britain - snarling, brutish and all-conquering. Scotland are the underdogs.