HAVING played in the team that won a Grand Slam in 1984 and been assistant coach when the Five Nations Championship was won 15 years later, John Rutherford knows a thing or two about what a great Scotland side looks like. So when he tells you that the current crop are every bit as good as their celebrated predecessors, you would be wise to sit up and take notice. And when he adds that Gregor Townsend’s squad can be genuine contenders for the Rugby World Cup, you might just feel like entering 2019 with a serious spring in your step . . . .
The man who won 42 caps for Scotland between 1979 and 1987 is 63 now, and well aware of his mortality, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer last year. But an operation was successful and he was subsequently given the all-clear, and it is reassuring to glimpse that glint of youthful mischief in his eyes as we discuss times past, present and future in a cafe in Leith. He continues to live in Selkirk, where he made his name as a player more than half a lifetime ago, but he spends some time in Edinburgh these days, among other reasons because he has a season ticket at Hibernian.
Yet, while football provides a bit of light relief, rugby is his first and abiding sporting love. He was a naturally gifted athlete, and at times the easygoing joy which he brought to his role as stand-off could make you think he was just doing it all off the cuff. But a lot of hard work, both mental and physical, went into his game, and as a PE teacher he was able both to work on his own fitness and to start learning the coaching techniques he was able to put to such good use as Jim Telfer’s assistant in that annus mirabilis of 1999.
There is a similar balance, too, when it comes to his assessment of the present Scotland team. Yes, he may seem to have an optimistic approach to life, but don’t let that fool you into thinking his attitude is one of merely hoping for the best. He has met Townsend and the squad and assessed their pros and cons; he has watched other international teams too and worked out where they are in their development; and, after careful reflection, he is convinced that Scotland 2019 are worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as their illustrious predecessors from the 1980s and 1990s – and indeed as the best teams on the planet just now such as New Zealand and Ireland.
“I think you can compare the team just now, easily, to the teams that won the 1984 and the 1990 Grand Slams,” Rutherford says. “It’s a fantastic team we have.
“We don’t get bullied now by other packs. We’re as physical as anybody. We play a brand of rugby that I think a lot of other teams couldn’t.
“You’ve got a World Cup at the end of the season. Yes, the All Blacks are favourites, but you could look at another seven teams that could win it – I would include Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales, France, Australia, South Africa.
“The problem with the World Cup is you have to play brilliantly in seven consecutive games. That will be Gregor’s great challenge.
“The All Blacks, and other teams that have won it, have been able to play that well in seven games. Scotland have played some brilliant games in previous World Cups, but never been able to do it consistently. Now we’ve got the squad to be able to give players a rest.”
The talent was there, all right, in the Scotland squad that travelled to the first World Cup back in 1987, even if there was considerably less strength in depth. Rutherford, who had injured a knee while playing in a tournament in Bermuda, got injured again in the first match against France. It was his last cap, and the fact the match ended in a 20-20 draw led to Scotland’s meeting – and losing to – the All Blacks in the quarter-final.
“Scotland played really well at that World Cup,” Rutherford recalls. “We should have beaten France. That was the Scotland team that had beaten England 33-6 the previous year.
“That’s one of my best memories of playing for Scotland – that and the one in Wales [in 1982] when we beat them five tries to one. It was an amazing game, that.
“I’ll tell you how amateur we were. Keith Robertson got ill on the Friday night before the game, and this guy turned up in reception. Nobody knew who he was. It was Jim Pollock. We went out in the garden of the hotel to just run through a few moves for Jim. I’d never met him before.”
Pollock scored one of the five tries as Scotland won 34-18 in Cardiff and was known as Lucky Jim thereafter. It was Scotland’s first win in the Welsh capital in 20 years, and he had just rocked up the night before to join in with some of the greats of the game as history was made.
“There was a lot of gifted players in the team – Jim Renwick, Andy Irvine, David Leslie, Colin Deans – and we always had great back rows,” Rutherford continues. “David Leslie was a great guy to play with. He was brilliant. He was something else.
“I was lucky: I was a PE teacher, so I understood fitness. I was probably one of the first players to do weight training. But you couldn’t compare a player now to our day.
“I was under 12 stone when I got my first cap. Outside me were Keith Robertson, Jim Renwick, Geech [Ian McGeechan], Andy [Irvine] – we were all about the 12-stone mark. Bruce Hay was the one big guy we had at the time in the backs.
“We were lucky in that we had very good coaching. [Nairn McEwan was in charge for three years from 1977 and was succeeded by Jim Telfer]. They were top coaches and they understood that Scotland weren’t going to beat the huge packs just by taking them on up front. You had to be fit and move them about.
“We were very mobile. That was the great thing about the Bear [Iain Milne] – the Bear hated it. He loves scrumming.
“Colin Deans, David Sole, Packy [Iain Paxton], Finlay [Calder], David Leslie – our pack had a whole load of fantastic rugby players. But we needed the Bear to hold the scrum up.
“That was a great era, the late Seventies and the Eighties. And now I do believe we’ve got another team that could be successful. We’ve got so many players that contribute to the team. You need three or four with that X factor, right on top of their games.”
Before the World Cup, of course, comes the Six Nations, and Rutherford believes that as long as those players do stay on top of their game, Scotland can win the Championship for the first time since five became six at the turn of the century. “I’m bullish about Scottish rugby, specially the professional side. I think Gregor, all credit to him, has created a squad where you’re looking at two players at least for each position. When have we ever had that?
“I was having a drink with a couple of Selkirk boys recently and we were talking about the national team. I said to them ‘Who’s world class?’ and they said ‘Well, there’s the hooker Stuart McInally, Willem Nel, Jonny Gray, most of the back-row, the half-backs . . . . ’ And suddenly you’re going through the team. There’s so many players who you could say are world-class.
“I just think if we could go injury-free between now and the first Six Nations game against Italy – because that’s the big worry for coaches, picking up injuries – if we can stay injury-free, specially key players, I just think we’ve got as good a chance as anybody.”
While Rutherford and many of his contemporaries keep a careful eye on the present team, it is heartening to learn that Townsend and his players also keep in touch with their predecessors. In Rutherford’s case, there is a special link with Finn Russell, the man who has inherited his No 10 jersey, while his old half-back partner Roy Laidlaw clearly also keeps in touch with his successor as scrum-half, his nephew Greig Laidlaw.
“Roy and I were invited up on the Friday before the Calcutta Cup game, and it was really nice seeing the boys train, and we had lunch with them. And they were very respectful – I think thanks to Gregor, because we were 30 years ago and the young boys wouldn’t remember us. But they were very good and we had a good laugh.
“At the end of it Greig presented Roy with silver cufflinks, and Finn came over and did the same for me, which was a lovely touch. I had a good chat, and of course they went on to play their best game of the season the next day.
“I’ve met Finn a couple of times – I’ve had a couple of coffees with him. I wouldn’t say that I’ve helped him, but I’ve tried to pass on as much information as I can. But he’s so instinctive he’ll just do what he sees in front of him. Sometimes it’s brilliant, sometimes it’s not.
“Two or three seasons ago we were talking about who’s going to be stand-off. Now we’ve got Finn, Adam Hastings is going to be a tremendous player, Peter Horne can play a good game, and you’ve got Duncan Weir who has hit form down in Worcester. So we’ve got four boys who could do a pretty good job in the team.”
His coaching days now well behind him – “You just get tired of hearing your own voice” – Rutherford is still on the Board at Selkirk, and although not as heavily involved as when he was President, he continues to have strong views on how the club game should be run. By and large he favours the SRU’s approach, believing that Super 6 will improve domestic rugby, although he is concerned about where the reserve teams of the half-dozen clubs will play – a vexed question to which he admits he has no obvious answer.
“I’m not a Union-basher – I think the union have done some great things. You look at Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland, they’ve done a fantastic job and it’s only getting better. What we want to do now is get club rugby sorted out, and I think we’ve got a good opportunity to put the pieces in place. Because the best clubs have been looking for a Super 6 for years.
“A lot of clubs are saying ‘Give it another year’, but my view is it’s exciting times, let’s crack on. It’s giving an opportunity to young coaches as well to dip their toe into the professional game and go full time, so it’s not just benefiting players, hopefully you’ve got managers, coaches, assistant coaches who are all going to benefit from this.
“I sympathise with the four Premiership clubs who won’t be in it, because they’re all good clubs. I still think there should be a Glasgow team in it. I understand why it all happened, but really in a city the size of Glasgow, we should have a Super 6 team there.
“There’s a danger with what the Super 6 will do with their club teams, because you can’t get away from the fact that a lot of young players will see that as a way of getting into semi-professional rugby. And to me that’s what the union and Super 6 clubs have got to be speaking about.
“I don’t know how they can do it. But from speaking to club members, that’s more the fear – not Super 6, but what they do with their club teams.
“I’ve heard the suggestion that they should go into a reserve league of their own and mirror the Super 6 fixtures, which is not a bad idea. The difficulty is that these club sides [of] the Super 6 [teams] will be ambitious themselves.”
However that thorny problem is resolved, Rutherford believes that any reform that does occur will have a good chance of success, largely because it will be built on solid foundations. “I think the Premiership is a really good product – the games are of a high standard, they’re well coached, the players are pretty well conditioned. I hope that the new Premiership, although it’s amateur, will continue to be of a high standard. I’m generally upbeat about Scottish rugby.”