THE game going open was a difficult period for Scottish rugby, but there was a few soaring highs in there, alongside the lows. This fourth instalment of the The Offside Line’s list of 50 rugby matches that defined Scottish rugby takes in the first ever cup final, the creation of a pro structure based on a regional format, success in the last ever Five Nations, heartbreak at the beginning of the Six Nations era, and the death of the Border Reivers.
11th May 1996 – Hawick 17 Watsonians 15
There was a sense of inevitability about Hawick (winners of the first Border League in 1902 and the first National Championship in 1973) being in the inaugural final of the Scottish Cup – 24 years after England and Wales had pioneered the concept of national knock-out competitions – and it was a major boost to the fledgling tournament because the Borders town’s unparalleled passion for the game and deep sense of civic pride ensured a bumper crowd of over 22,000 descended on Murrayfield for the showcase event.
But it wasn’t looking good for the ‘Robbie Dyes’ when they found themselves 15-0 down after half an hour. The comeback began when second-row Alistair Imray snatched a try just before the break, and further scores by Colin Turnbull and Scott Welsh in the final quarter secured the dramatic victory. An open-top bus paraded the squad through Hawick the following day.
50 games that defined Scottish rugby: part one
50 games that defined Scottish rugby: part two
50 games that defined Scottish rugby: part three
31st August 1996 – Melrose 107 Stirling County 10
A stunning result on the first afternoon of the new league season showed how professional Melrose had become at a time when most other clubs were unsure of how to proceed in rugby’s open era.
County, who had been runners-up to Melrose the previous year and champions the season before that, were badly hit by injuries and illness in the run-up to this game at the Greenyards. Even so, the sheer scale of the home team’s triumph was remarkable, and provided a glimpse of how the club game might have developed had the SRU not gone down the district route instead.
12th October 1996 – Bath 55 Edinburgh 26
This was Scottish rugby’s first foray into Europe, with districts instead of traditional clubs deemed the most suitable vehicle for this new challenge. It was a baptism of fire against a star-studded Bath outfit, which included Mike Catt, Adebayo Adebayo, Jeremy Guscott, Henry Paul, Jason Robinson and Jon Callard across the backline.
Four early errors cost the visitors 28 points, they were 38-9 down at half-time and did well to escape The Rec with some respectability on the scoreboard thanks to two late tries from Derek Lee and Duncan Hodge.
The Borders, playing in Pau that same day, were not so lucky – slumping to an 85-28 defeat. Caledonia were the best of the three Scottish representatives in the tournament, keeping it to 34-41 against Ulster at McDarmid Park.
“The problem for us is jumping from our club rugby to that level in one week,” said beaten head coach Graham Hogg afterwards. “It is impossible to do that but we’ve learned a lot and it gives us a platform to work on.”
All three teams finished bottom of their respective pools and the Borders were the only Scottish side to win a game that year.
17th January 1997 – Scotland A 56 Emerging Wales 11
The sizeable and voluble Welsh contingent at a packed Goldenacre was stunned into silence by this performance, masterminded by Alan Tait. Newly returned from rugby league in the week of union’s going professional, the centre gave notice of how valuable a player he would be to the senior side over the next few seasons, culminating in his pivotal role in the 1999 Championship-winning side.
West of Scotland winger James Craig scored a hat-trick and would go on to make his full debut in the autumn. Tait returned to the senior side a few weeks later for the Five Nations match against Ireland, scoring the first try in a 38-10 win.
6th December 1997 – Scotland 10 South Africa 68
Scotland suffered a few heavy defeats in the first years of professionalism, but none as humiliating as this record loss to the reigning world champions. Winger James Small became the Springboks’ record try-scorer, full-back Percy Montgomery ended up with 26 points, and the home team were left to contemplate how far they had fallen behind in the international game – just as they had done after losing to the same opponents in 1951.
21st March 1998 – Scotland 6 England 5
A mere five years after their first ever international, Scotland Women completed the Grand Slam with this tense victory over England at Inverleith. Attack had been to the fore in the 15-0 win in Ireland which began the campaign, and in the victories over France and Wales which followed, but this triumph relied to a large extent on defiant defence against a powerful English pack.
8th November 1998 – Edinburgh Reivers 21 Ulster 23
England boycotted the fourth edition of the Heineken Cup, while the French were still trying to figure out what they made of the new tournament, which created an opportunity for the Celtic Nations.
After a high-scoring draw in Belfast, two big wins over Ebbw Vale, and two respectable defeats to Toulouse, Edinburgh hosted Ulster at Easter Road in their final Pool C match knowing a win would catapult them into the quarter-finals.
They were looking good at 18-6 ahead early in the second half, but Ulster battled back to make it a five-point game, and then with 13 minutes left on the clock thepreviously outstanding Iain Sinclair tied to release Cammy Murray for what looked like a try-scoring pass, but was intercepted by Ulster full-back Sheldon Coulter, who galloped home from 40 yards.
Edinburgh had one last chance to claim the win in the final action of the match, but Craig Chalmers’ long-range penalty attempt was just outside his range.
Ulster progressed to the knock-out stages, and then went on to become the first Celtic nation to win the trophy when they defeated Colomiers at Lansdowne Road in theFinal, heralding the dawn of a golden era in Irish rugby. Edinburgh and Scottish rugby will forever wonder if that was a sliding doors moment.
10th April 1999 – France 22 Scotland 36
After conceding a try after just two minutes, Scotland hit back with five of their own in an exhilarating first half. France had been badly hit by losing their playmaker Thomas Castaignede – injured while scoring that early try – but there was no denying the exuberant creativity of the visitors.
With the game won by the break, a Kenny Logan penalty was the only score of the second half. Scotland improved their record for the Championship to four wins out of five, their only loss having been by three points at Twickenham. The following day Wales beat England at Wembley, and Scotland were crowned the last ever Five Nations champions.
5th February 2000 – Italy 34 Scotland 20
This was an inauspicious start to the Six Nations era for the defending champions, who lost captain John Leslie to injury early on. The game in Rome’s Stadio Flaminio marked a triumphant debut in the tournament for the Italians, but was a troubling beginning to Ian McGeechan’s second stint as Scotland’s head coach, and was perhaps a harbinger of things to come for a nation which has had more than its fair share of struggles in adapting to the professional era.
Things got worse that spring with a heavy defeat in Dublin followed by losses to France and Wales, but a famous Calcutta Cup game in which Duncan Hodge scored all the points in a 19-13 win provided a silver lining to a clouded campaign.
12th May 2007 – Border Reivers 16 Ospreys 24
With a small and sparsely distributed population base – not to mention ferocious inter-town rivalry which had been one of the region’s great strengths during the amateur era –the Borders was always going to be fighting an uphill battle to run a successful and viable pro team. The argument was that one of the most fertile rugby breeding grounds in the world needed to be cultivated into the new world order, but SRU Chief Executive Gordon McKie – hired to battle down the organisation’s crippling debts – looked at the cold economic reality and pulled the plug just five years after the Reivers had been resurrected from their first head office cull.
The abruptness and general manner of the closure caused serious ill-feeling, and not just in the Borders, but the die was cast. The final game at Netherdale was played in front of 1,800 people – about 300 more than the average for the season – and witnessed the Ospreys (with Borders boy Nikki Walker in the No 14 jersey) clinching the Celtic League title, while the Reivers had already been cut adrift at the foot of the table several weeks earlier.
Read more about the demise of the Reivers HERE
Interesting to look back at the Borders references over this timeline- the strength of Hawick and Melrose (and Gala who also won an all Borders cup final v Kelso) playing league games in front of crowds of 5000, spiralling to the last Borders games and the loss of trust in the SRU. Rugby in the region has never recovered. Lived 1 mile away from netherdale and only knew about Borders games from Radio Borders and a poster stuck on a fence in town each week. Compare that to Glasgow’s media efforts now and you wonder what could have been. Easy for people to say now that it never worked because of the geography, but they forget that it did work when it was allowed to.
Good point well made.