Scotland v England: Iwan Tukalo recalls the spirit of 1990

Grand Slam winger is organising a reunion dinner to bring together the 1984 and 1990 Scottish Grand Slam squads for the first time

Iwan Tukalo is the driving force behind the Hearts & Balls charity dinner on the 8th May which will bring together the 1984 and 1990 Grand Slam teams for the first time. Image: FOTOSPORT/DAVID GIBSON
Iwan Tukalo is the driving force behind the Hearts & Balls charity dinner on the 8th May which will bring together the 1984 and 1990 Grand Slam teams for the first time. Image: FOTOSPORT/DAVID GIBSON

IWAN TUKALO’S voice trembles slightly, then cracks, as he recalls the moment when he realised – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that he was about to become a Grand Slam legend.

“For me it was the team talk,” he recollects, of that famous day – 17th March 1990 – when he was a member of the Scotland team which marched out of the tunnel under the old West Stand at Murrayfield and into the history books.

“Normally it was a little bit like being back at school, with the teachers – the coaches – at the front and then our chairs set out in rows. But this time all the seats were in a circle, and on the front of each chair was a jersey, but you couldn’t see the numbers, just the thistle.

“So, when we walked in it was: ‘Oh, wait a minute…’. They said: ‘Come in, just sit anywhere’. So Geech [Scotland’s head coach Ian McGeechan] got into the circle and started to talk to us about tactics, basically replaying all the things we do when we’re in certain parts of the field.

“Then he stepped out of the circle and Creamy [assistant coach Jim Telfer] stepped in. He started on this whole thing about not just playing for the jersey, but for yourselves, your friends and families, saying: ‘If you win this game, it is life-changing for you’.

“At the end he said: ‘There is a jersey on the front of your chair, pick that jersey up and give it to the person it belongs to and make a commitment to them’.”

At this point, the former winger apologises because he has become emotional.

“You can probably see what it means because it is still there. Sorry, but that’s how powerful it was, it still has that emotion”

After taking a moment to compose himself, he returns to the memory:

“I had JJ’s [John Jeffrey’s], I just said: ‘JJ, there’s your jersey, I won’t let you down’.  So, for me, after that nobody was going to beat us that day’.”

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It was clearly a moment of heightened emotion, and what happened next couldn’t have been better scripted to reinforce the sense of determination.

“Then, when we went out onto the pitch, all the England girlfriends were standing there being interviewed on the bottom of the pitch. Talk about a red rag to a bull: ‘You are on our turf, you have got no effing right to be on the pitch until the day is done’.

“All these little things just made me think: ‘There is no way we are losing this game now. It is not going to be my fault. I will do everything in my power’.”

Three decades have passed since that famous day, and Tukalo is now closing in on his 59th birthday, but still looks youthful enough to do a job on the wing if push came to shove – but he knows that the world has changed almost beyond all recognition for the current crop of international players, not least in terms of the level of scrutiny they are under (as has been demonstrated this week by some of the hysterical reactions this week to Stuart Hogg’s fumble against Ireland).

“We were fortunate and blessed to have Geech and Creamy as our coaches. They were masters of the under-statement in many respects.

“One of the things they did throughout that campaign was to keep us away from the press. We stayed at the Braid Hills Hotel and were oblivious to all that was going on despite the fact it was going to be the biggest game of our lives. That truly hit home on the day of the match when we had the team talk.

“After the team talk, we went back to our rooms to put our bits and pieces together before we headed off. I shared a room with Soley [captain David Sole] and he is not the most talkative of individuals.  The beds were side by side and there was a TV at the end. The nerves were jangling and there was a deathly silence, so I said to Soley, ‘Do you mind if I put the TV on?’

“So, I put it on and it just so happened that the opening credits of Grandstand was playing.  It was every Scotland-England sporting event that that had ever happened, not just rugby but football, boxing and everything else.

“It only lasted a couple of minutes and then there was silence. We just looked at each other and just went ‘F*****ck!’ That’s when it hit home.”

And what about that slow march?

“We used to have the international trial in those days and most of the time I used to play in the Reds [possibles]. I think that was the selectors giving me a kick up the arse and saying: ‘You are not playing well enough’. I think I played once in the Blues [probables], with Scott and Gavin in ’86, when they won their first caps.

“This particular year I was in the Reds and Gary Callander was the captain. Gary, as part of his team-talk, said: ‘We are not Christians at the Colosseum being led to the slaughter here. We are going to walk out there with purpose’. That was a couple of years before so that might have stuck with Fin [Calder] and JJ and Soley and had resonance. We were going to state our intent by walking out.

“I don’t think any of us really anticipated just what an impact it would have on the crowd – and on the England players. They literally stopped their warm-up. They thought the noise was loud when they came out onto the pitch, but this was off the scale. It must have rattled them.

“Everyone talks about the crowd as your 16th player. But, Jesus, it was more than that that day. Scott Hastings was screaming at me, shouting what we were doing defensively, but I couldn’t hear him and I was this close to him [he gestures a few feet with his hands]. I could just see his mouth going. The noise was just phenomenal.”

It wasn’t just in the stadium that the heroics of Tukalo and his team-mates was having an impact. The profile of rugby might be bigger today, in the social media age, than ever before, but it is doubtful that it resonates as deeply throughout society as it did back in 1990, when the players were amateur and rubbed shoulders with the paying punters on a daily basis.

“One of my work colleagues wasn’t a rugby fanatic. He was a Dundee United supporter and was at Tannadice on the day. He said people in the far stand suddenly started jumping up and down and then it was like a Mexican wave making its way to the centre of the stand. People were wondering what was going on. When it reached the PA announcer, he said: ‘Scotland have defeated England at Murrayfield’ and the whole place erupted. The game stopped and the referee had to have a drop-ball to start it again.

“It is little bits like that… I think the players are a bit isolated now, they’re not as close to the general public as we were because we were working. Also in the club game, gone are the days when you might have half a dozen internationals playing in a Selkirk versus Gala match and then mixing with punters in the bar afterwards.  So that connection has gone.

“People say: ‘Would you have liked to be a professional?’ And if I am being truthful, I would have loved the money, but in reality, no, because I had the best of both worlds. If I had a lousy day at work, at training that night I would knock nine bells out of a tackle bag and then I would be refreshed and ready for work the next morning. What do these guys do? Their routine is the same. For me the variation was there.

“In those early days it was just the start of getting training plans and diets and all that stuff. We were putting in the effort off our own backs. I was working for British Gas at the time and had an arrangement with my boss where I was allowed to do my weights session in the gym, and then make up the time in the evening.

“That is the kind of commitment a lot of players had, without being asked, because they wanted to be better. When you put that in and then you achieve something, there is a certain satisfaction. These days they have got their regimes and training schedules and they do them religiously, but it is different now.

“There is always stuff in the press in the build-up that you try to insulate yourself from so you don’t burn up all your nervous energy beforehand. When you are working, there’s only a certain amount of time for talking about the game before you have to get on with your day job. Because of that, you were pretty close to a lot of people who were now [after Scotland’s success] taking more of an interest.”

  • Tukalo is organising a reunion dinner which will officially bring together the 1984 and 1990 Scottish Grand Slam squads for the first time. To find out more about the event which is being staged at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on 8th May to raise funds for the ‘Hearts + Balls’ rugby charity, click HERE.

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About David Barnes 3989 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.