ROSS BEATTIE wasn’t in the initial training squad for the 2003 World Cup, but the back-rower wasn’t going to let that get in the way of his dream of representing Scotland on the biggest stage.
“At that time, whenever I was fit, I would be in or around the squad, but I had played only about three games in two years,” recalled the now 45-year-old earlier this week, whilst soaking up some rays in the garden of ‘Club 39’ in Monaco, a private members sports club catering for professional athletes including top ranked tennis players and Formula One drivers as well as every day people, which he has owned and operated since 2016.
“So, I went away and spent three or four months training really hard with an old coach of mine, nowhere near a rugby pitch, and fixed everything,” he continues. “I came back in great shape, and I was good friends with Taity [Alan Tait], Pat Lam [Scotland’s assistant coach at that time] and Andrew Mower, so we manufactured a situation where I would turn up at the team hotel one day ‘just to say hello’, then of course all the coaches saw how fit I was so they asked me to come to training the next week, then in the training session I end up getting put on the bench, then Jason White got injured and I started [Scotland’s warm-up match versus Ireland] and played well, so that was me going away to the World Cup.
“I’m a big believer that if you really want something then there is a way to get it through hard work.”
“The World Cup was amazing, it was a special thing to do … you grow up with that feeling it is one of the things you want to do,” he adds, before reflecting that the campaign did not finish the way he hoped it would.
“I did a training session with Simon Taylor and tweaked my groin, so I missed the France game, then they put me back in for the final pool match against Fiji, but I got food poisoning – we went out and had oysters on the Thursday night and I was in bed for three days. I came back and played I think the worst game of rugby I ever played, and never played for Scotland again.”
Injury was a near constant companion during his rugby career, in which Beattie ended up with nine more caps than the vast majority of mere mortals, but many less than he felt he was capable of.
Regrets, he has a few, but he’s learnt over the years about the futility of punishing yourself for things you can no longer do anything about … and which you might even do again if given the chance. Everything which has gone before has led to him being where he is now, and he’s quite pleased with the life he has carved out for himself on the French Riviera.
“I’d had a lot of injuries in my career – half my career I was injured – and I spent a year and a half getting my shoulder right then came back and played three or four games with Newcastle, so everything was brilliant,” he recalls. “I didn’t go on tour with Scotland A to stay at home and train so I could start the next season properly, then I got a stress fracture in my foot from too much training – which was typical me – and the next year was all injury.
“So, I was kind of over rugby. I was looking at clubs to play for in the south of France, came down to Nice with my brother, but if I’m honest I had no interest in playing at Nice [now Stade Nicois – long before the club’s partnership with the SRU]. I was a very different character then, with a big ego.
“Anthony Hill – an Australian based in Narbonne who is a great guy and good friends with Michael Cheika – brought me across to meet the owner of Nice in Monaco, a guy called Paul White who became a very good friend.
“That’s when I went from saying: ‘Why am I here? This is nonsense. My life is over’ – to 10 hours later, at 6.30 in the morning, being driven to the airport and looking at my brother and saying: ‘Right, I’m in’.
“That night, I saw a lot of people and saw the potential in Monaco as a place, and there still is a lot of potential, so I went home, packed my car up, drove back to Monaco, and been here ever since. It has been 14 years.
“Originally, I set up a business down here with a guy who was training me in Newcastle, and the idea was to work out why I was injured so much and to apply techniques that we’d learnt on everyday people and athletes to help them either avoid injury or recover from injuries. That escalated through the people we met into the opportunity to create this place [Club 39], and it snowballed from there.
“I just knew I had to be here to see what was going to happen. I never planned it – I’m not going to claim that I saw this happening from day one – but I’m glad I came this route.”
Beattie was born and raised in Yorkshire but there was never any doubt about which country he would represent if he made it as an international level rugby player.
“My whole family is Scottish and my dad would have disowned me if I hadn’t gone that route,” he explains. “I was in the England system at school, but when I joined Newcastle it was like a ‘Galácticos’ team with a lot of Scotland boys there [such as Alan Tait, Doddie Weir and Gary Armstrong]. I was initially involved with Scotland before the 1999 World Cup but just missed out on that.
“It’s funny the things you look back on in life, and I always think about those hugely baggy tops and wonder why anyone thought it was a good idea to put players in these shirts which wanted to have rain in them to operate,” he chuckles. “It was ridiculous – you’d be trying to make a break and there would be a boy hanging onto your shirt-tail being dragged along two metres behind you. So, it was that era.
“I remember my first session [with Scotland], when I was 19 or 20-years-old and I arrived to train with all these players who I had played as on Jonah Lomu Rugby [the hugely popular video game of the late 1990s].
“Then there was Jim Telfer – who I had an interesting relationship with – and the guys said to me: ‘Don’t be scared of him, he’s calmed down a lot’. And I remember being made to lie on the floor in front of a rucking sled with some padding on and holding the ball, then he sent the whole pack over the top of me, just to shoe me out the way and out the other side. Stuff like that … could you imagine trying to do that now?
“It’s just a completely different game and I actually don’t know if I would be able to play rugby now under the current rules. I’m not sure I would last. Defensively, I had a way of always attacking the ball, so it was always chest high [tackles] and there would be occasional ride up, so I would have to re-learn everything.”
Matt Williams became Scotland head coach after that 2003 World Cup and Beattie has an interesting – and unusually sympathetic – take on the supercilious Australian, who didn’t cap him during a grim two year tenure which featured just three wins against Japan, Samoa and Italy in 17 internationals.
“I went to the Dragons the next year [2003-4] and was playing probably the best rugby of my career, but Matt wasn’t picking me. He came in and wanted a whole new look in terms of younger players, and if you look at some of the guys he brought through, they were brilliant, like John Barclay in particular. So, I think that was a good thing. Change was a new thing for rugby back then.
“If I’m honest, I have a completely different view-point I could say. He wasn’t a character I warmed to. Mike Ruddock was somebody I would go to war for. But it is difficult to be all things to everyone.
“Looking back, I can see what he was trying to do. He brought a lot of skills in, and he was doing drills that we should probably have been doing for a long time, but I think it is difficult to get the balance right when you are in such a high-pressure job … and I can see why I might have given him a less than positive impression.
“It was half-time of a Glasgow match, and I was sitting in my brother’s apartment in Newcastle watching the game with Andrew Mower, who was recovering from his second or third new leg being put on, and his phone rings.
“We’d been drinking beers so were pretty smashed and I was looking at Mower thinking that he’s being very serious, which is not like him at all. He’s saying: ‘Yes, yes, that would be amazing’. So, when he hangs up, I ask him who it was and he says it was Matt Williams. I said: ‘What did he want?’ And Mower said: ‘He wanted to tell me that when I’m fit again, I’ll be straight back in’.
“So, I got Mower to call him back, then I took the phone into the other room and thought to myself that this is a sink or swim moment. I said: ‘Why the fuck are you not picking me? What’s going on here?’ And his simple response was: ‘I didn’t think you wanted to play for Scotland’.
“What had actually happened was that to fast-track him and his team of coaches taking over, he wanted to have a four week instead of a three week camp in the middle of the Heineken Cup, and I’d played in Paris on the Sunday, came to the camp on Monday with a haematoma on my leg so could hardly move, then went home on the Wednesday rather than the Thursday because we had a game on the Friday.
“He said that I didn’t show any desire, and I kind of lost it with him, asking what the hell does he expect us to do? Tell the clubs who pay our wages when I want to turn up to work?
“It was one of those points where little things can tun into massive things, just by getting something wrong. He put me in the squad to play against the Baa Baas then go on tour, but I was injured and, typical me, did too much and made it worse and missed it.
“Then, every time I was meant to be picked by him, I’d knock myself out or get injured, so I just don’t think it was meant to happen.
“Communication has become a much, much bigger side of rugby, and the mental side has improved as well. I don’t know if you will ever get to the peak of that because the mind is a fascinating thing, but there is so much more now for the players to keep them healthy in every area.”
Beattie was in Marseilles for Scotland’s World Cup opener last Sunday, and is full of admiration for the way Gregor Townsend – his team-mate at the 2003 tournament – has engendered a sense of self-belief in the squad, which some rivals mock but he believes is a crucial step forward.
“Gregor has always had the ability to be really calm, and I appreciated being around that, especially when I wasn’t really calm,” he says. “What he has been able to do with the success at Glasgow, then bring it into Scotland … they think they can beat anyone at any time.
“I watched the South Africa game and it was probably the right result because too many things went wrong for Scotland – like the unforced errors at the line-out – but they were battered and still in the last play of the game I wouldn’t have put it past them scoring. Their heads don’t drop in that way.
“That’s different to when we played. You kind of knew you were beaten. It was a mindset.
“I remember when we toured New Zealand and the game against the Māori felt more like a Test match to me than facing the All Blacks the next week, because we were thinking to ourselves: ‘Oh my god, this is the All Blacks!’
“We’d grown up with the coaches telling us that these guys were gods, and by the time we played them we were thinking: ‘These are mythical characters doing a dance [the haka] in front of me … I can’t believe I’m here!’ It was really like that
“From what I see, these players don’t have the same feeling of being beaten before they’ve started.”