Flashback Friday: The modest god-father of modern full-back play


THERE are certain duos which simply go hand in hand: Batman and Robin, Simon and Garfunkel, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. They roll off the tongue effortlessly and without much thought. And unfortunately for Scottish rugby supporters, the pairing of ‘Paris’ and ‘defeat’ have become, in recent years, just as synonymous as any of the aforementioned famous couplings. 

The ‘Auld Alliance’ has been something of a one-sided affair during the last half century – in fact Scotland have recorded only two victories on French soil since Jim Telfer grabbed the decisive try to secure a 6-3 win at Stade Colombes back in 1969.

It hasn’t been much more rewarding at home for Scotland in recent years. Before last year’s 29-18 victory at Murrayfield, Scotland had won just one match out of a possible eighteen fixtures against Les Blues. An Entente Cordiale it is not.

However, there is a growing sense of optimism among Scottish sympathisers that Sunday’s encounter between the two nations is a golden opportunity to record back-to-back 6 Nations victories over France since 1964.

That year Scotland recorded a 10-0 victory over France at Murrayfield. It was a stirring victory, no doubt, however, it was the previous year’s 11-6 triumph at The Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir that was truly remarkable.

After trailing by six points at the half, the courageous Scottish side battled back, scoring eleven unanswered points to claim the spoils. Eight of those second-half points came from Scotland’s captain and talisman, Ken Scotland. The dashing full-back – who had made his international debut in a victory in France six years previously – put in a masterful display and eventually ended the match with a drop-goal, penalty and conversion to his name.

“It was a weird game and my first game as captain,” says Scotland, who ended his career with 27 caps.

“The matches against France were always played in the first weekend in January, so it was normally pretty cold, and on this occasion there had been a very hard frost in Paris leading up to the fixture. Far too late to have any effect, the French put down a very thin layer of straw on the pitch to try and maintain the turf – but rather than clear it off before kick-off, they decided to set fire to it, so we kind of played on this black pitch that was still rock solid.”

“It was a very well established French side and one that hadn’t lost in Paris for a long time [since losing to England in March 1958], so I do seem to remember they weren’t best pleased come the final whistle. But again, it was quite a freakish game.

“For whatever reason, the French tended to use very bouncy balls, and they were also a different sort of shape – not so elongated, but slightly more rounded at the end – so, really, if you let the ball bounce it could go absolutely anywhere. With the game tied at 6-6 late in the second-half, we got ourselves into an attacking position and I remember our stand-off, Iain Laughland, attempted a game winning drop-goal from the right hand side of the pitch. However, he completely hooked the ball and it went right across the front of the posts and our right winger, a chap called Ronnie Thomson, just chased it. The ball bounced all over the place, horrifically for the French, and Ronnie was able to gather and score. I converted and that was full-time. It was a pretty bizarre game altogether.”

While the current national squad will most likely rest in the days leading up to an international, perhaps only leaving the confines of the team hotel for a quick coffee, the side of the 60’s took full advantage of a trip to Paris.

“We used to travel over on the Thursday before the match and would more than often take a bus tour around the city and take in the sights. Then, as tradition, we would always head to the Folies-Bergère (a popular cabaret music hall) in the evening. I think it was a misconception that we used to go there on a Friday night, too!”

“I don’t seem to remember there being any team meetings or anything like that prior to the matches. I do recall, however, getting some advice prior to heading to Colombes – which was a very old stadium built for the 1925 Olympic games – and I was basically told that the plumbing was rudimentary – of the hole in the floor variety. So I was notified that I was to do all my business before leaving the hotel – which was very useful information!”

“I think back then it was pretty much play your own game, compared to the analysis that goes in the build up to matches now. The way most rugby matches were played, and still are to an extent, was very much dependent on the weather – whether it was windy or dry. Also, the possession you got from your forwards. And in those days it used to depend, critically, on who was playing stand-off – he used to dictate tactics, probably more so than they do now.”

With Stuart Hogg set to earn his 50th cap in Paris on Sunday, the Glasgow Warriors star has been cast in the media spotlight throughput the week’s various interviews and press releases. Of course, the position has always attracted attention, especially given this nation’s illustrious record in producing swashbuckling full-backs such as Andy Irvine and Gavin Hastings – and the current incumbent of the number fifteen jersey certainly lives up to the legacy.

It seems an appropriate time to recognise the contribution of the man who pioneered the art of modern attacking full-back play. Ken Scotland turned the position on it’s head with his advances into the backline, at a time where it was purely seen as a last line of defence. However, his on-field audacity has never really matched his off-field modesty.

“It’s not something that I’ve ever claimed, that I was the first ever attacking full-back. I think it was more to do with the fact that I I was an accidental full-back, to be honest,” he says.

“I played all my rugby at stand-off, right through school and then in the army whilst doing national service, but when Scotland trials came about and there was a call-off at full-back I was selected there, a position that I had never played before. And after playing adequately I was selected for the trip to Paris in 1957.”

“I was always thinking about the game as a stand-off, however, and I was always looking at the positioning of the opposite stand off and where I could exploit space. I started to see opportunities to use the full-back position in attack, because you are essentially unmarked. It’s funny now saying this, but back then it really wasn’t utilized – the same with the blind-side winger coming into the line.

“It began that I would always pop up on the outside of the outside-centre, which the large majority of the time gave us an easy two-on-one opportunity. I don’t think it was a conscious decision, it just sort of happened over time.”

So, what does Scotland think of the man who now dons the number fifteen jersey that he made so famous 60 years ago?

“I’d be wrong to say that I don’t see any similarities between myself and Hogg – but for me, he is much more like an Andy Irvine type of full-back. At the moment he is absolutely electric and is very nearly always on his game. He is posing a threat from any position on the pitch and I love the fact that he is not frightened to have a go. I think, like Irvine, he has that confidence in himself that he is going to round you with his pace and he has a huge kick on him – although I’m not sure he uses it the right way all time,” muses Scotland.

“I think what Scotland are now competitive and we can certainly beat anybody on our day – but to win five games in a row you need minimal weaknesses, and I think the scrum is one major issue right now. You also need a pretty good measure of luck – perhaps more than anything else.

“My head says that we are really going to struggle to get any good ball on Sunday, down to the fact that the French possess such huge forwards who are really going to tire us out – but, my heart says we’re going to make mince meat out of them. Who knows if we can continue last week’s performance. All things are possible.”

About Stuart Rutherford 50 Articles
Stuart hails from the Borders town of Selkirk and has been around rugby all his life, largely thanks to the influence of his father, John. Not only a fan of the modern game, he is a keen rugby historian, and produces a regular 'Throwback Thursday Column' for The Offside Line.