ONE of the greatest games between these two proud rugby nations was in 1973, which was a typically tight contest in which the lead changed hands a total of seven times. It was so absorbing, in fact, that when Scotland prop Ian McLauchlan came off with a cracked fibula just before half-time, he was sent to hospital alone in a taxi, because no member of the Scotland committee was prepared to miss the rest of the game.
It was a sagacious move from those old school alikadoos, because had they got in that taxi with McLauchlan then they would have missed a thrilling climax to the match. It started when Ian Forsyth handed off Mike Gibson and charged home from 20 yards for a fine try with just a few minutes left on the clock. That put the home team 16-14 ahead, but it was still too tight to call.
Ireland came back hard, as you would expect – but Scotland weathered the storm and then won a line-out 40 yards from their opponents’ line. The ball came back to Dougie Morgan at scrum-half, who swung his right boot for an outrageously optimistic shot at goal. The ball rocketed through the air, and as it sailed over the bar Tom Kiernan looked up and raised a hand in acknowledgement of an exceptional piece of individual skill.
Kiernan was playing in his 54th and last international for Ireland, and had toured with the Lions in 1962 and in 1968, when he was captain. So there wasn’t much he hadn’t seen or done on a rugby pitch – and he knew this was the stuff of legend.
Remember, these were the days before high-tech synthetic boots and aerodynamically tested balls.
‘I think we all knew it was a pretty special moment,’ recalls Morgan. ‘It was a big game and it had been really tight all the way through, but we knew after that the win was ours.’
‘I kicked drop-goals like that later in my career, but that was only my second cap so I was pretty new to the international scene and I couldn’t quite believe what had happened.’
It had been a ferociously competitive match, but Kiernan’s gesture was a demonstration of the sporting integrity which underpins international rugby.
Not all of Morgan’s memories of playing against Ireland are as uplifting. By 1978 he was captaining the Scottish side at Lansdowne Road, and four minutes into injury time of another tight contest his team were awarded an eminently kickable penalty. With Scotland 12-9 down, Morgan opted to run the ball, but the move floundered when Mike Biggar knocked-on meaning that an almost certain draw became a frustrating and avoidable loss.
‘I remember Mike Gibson, the great Irish centre, told me a few years later that I was the first Scotsman to be elected as Ireland’s Sports Personality of the Year after that,’ recalls the rueful Morgan.
So, Lansdowne Road was not such a happy hunting ground, but that 1973 victory was the start of a purple patch for Scotland against Ireland at Murrayfield. Having lost each of the previous four home matches against Kiernan and co, they would not lose there again until Ciaran Fitzgerald’s Grand Slammers pitched up in 1983.
One of the great moments of rugby folklore came during the 1981 match, when an interception try from the late great Bruce Hay set the home team on their way to a narrow 10-9 victory. Hay was one of the toughest and well respected players of his generation but he was not renowned for his blistering pace, and his great pal Jim Renwick could not resist a playful dig as the full-back-cum-winger trotted back into position after that score.
‘Aye, Bruce, that’s the first time I’ve seen a try in slow motion and live at the same time. It’s lucky it was only Tony Ward that was chasing you,’ quipped the cheeky Borderer.
Scotland won nine matches on the bounce against Ireland at Murrayfield between 1987 and 2001 (including their 1991 World Cup clash), with particular highlights being the 37-21 victory if 1989 in which Iwan Tukalo scored a hat-trick, and the 30-12 success achieved in 1999 which Gregor Townsend ranks as ‘the most accomplished all-round performance by a Scotland team I was ever involved in.’
The Irish didn’t fare much better on their own patch during that period, managing just two wins and a draw between 1984 and the turn of the century, with the 6-6 tie in 1994 perhaps the match most worthy of mention during that period, for no other reason than the massive contribution of the great Gary Armstrong (in his second game back after effectively putting himself exile the previous season by bizarrely requesting that he not be considered for selection at scrum-half).
It is hard to think of another top level international match in any era, when one single player had such an all-encompassing influence on proceedings. At times it seemed like this was a contest involving the whole of Ireland against a gritty little scrum-half from Jedburgh – who had started the game with his elbow heavily strapped, and then carried on after rupturing the tendons in his thumb (‘Just pit some bloody tape on it,’ he told the doctor at the time).
Ireland have had their revenge in recent years, however, with Scotland having managed only five victories home or away in the 20 games they have played against each other this century – and two of those successes were in World Cup warm-up matches in 2007 and 2011, when the Irish fielded fairly experimental teams.
The most notable Scottish victory during this dry period was undoubtedly at Croke Park back in 2010, when Dan Parks kicked 18 points and Johnnie Beattie rampaged home from 30 yards, bowling over Geordan Murphy, Gordon D’Arcy and Paul O’Connell on the way to one of the great Scottish tries of recent times.
Ross Ford, John Barclay, Alasdair Dickinson, Richie Gray and Sean Lamont were all involved in that match and will inevitably take confidence from knowing what it is like to beat the Irish on their own patch, but the rather less enjoyable experience of twelve month ago can be just as beneficial to the team’s mind-set.
Scotland were on the receiving end of a 40-10 drubbing when the two sides met at Murrayfield last year, a game which captain Greig Laidlaw labelled as perhaps the hardest he has been involved in during his time wearing a navy blue jersey.
“We got well beaten that day. We were at the back end of a tournament which hadn’t gone well and we were struggling for confidence, while Ireland were chasing the championship, so it was a tough day,” he recalled, earlier this week.
However, the Scottish skipper went on to point out that pre-match dynamics this time round are very different – meaning that Scotland should actually feel strengthened rather than diminished by that painful episode.
“If you learn from experiences like that then you come out the other side as a better player and a better person. We feel we are in that place now, and we need to use some of the emotion from that day to help our performance this weekend,” he reasoned.
It promises to be an intriguing contest this afternoon. Let’s just hope the game is played with the same sporting spirit as the great Tom Kiernan exhibited four decades ago, and if we get the same sort of grandstand finish as Morgan provided that day then it could go down as a classic.