The kick-off to a new Six Nations rugby series reminds us of the danger of wrapping the past in a glowing nostalgia, writes Ewan Crawford
THERE comes a point in most people’s life when a certain age is reached and the temptation to look back and say “it was better in my day” can be hard to resist.
On the BBC’s Question Time programme last week panellists and audience alike seemed to decry the trend, as they saw it, for schools to close at the first sniff of a snowflake compared to the days when pupils practically dug their way through snowdrifts to get to class on time.
Sometimes I suppose it is the sheer pace of change that encourages people to look back on the past with a certain fondness that doesn’t always match the reality of experience.
Few newspapers have been short of a column in the past week or so from a middle-aged journalist reminiscing wistfully, in response to the news that HMV had gone into administration, about the Saturdays spent in town centre record shops.
For me, having grown up as a sports enthusiast in comfortable middle-class Edinburgh, this time of year always means I have to fight nostalgia particularly hard.
This is because this week marks the build-up to the opening match of the Six Nations rugby tournament.
In many respects the changes to the competition mirror wider changes that have taken place across our economy and society.
In the 1970s, when I first started to go to matches at Murrayfield, schoolboys would sit on rows of benches right next to the pitch and gleefully run on to the turf at the end of matches.
Perhaps through a combination of health and safety concerns and commercial considerations the benches are long gone from the stadium.
Like me, many of the boys (sadly, I can’t recall many girls) who sat on those benches would have gone to a fee-paying school.
To an outsider it would surely have seemed curious that a sport, in certain parts of Scotland anyway, was dominated so much by a particular social class.
It would be nice to look back and say that we now live in an era of much greater social mobility where what sport you take up, or whether you take sport up at all, is unrelated to family income but I suspect that is one of the aspects of Scottish life that hasn’t improved, if at all, as much as it might have done.
Whether sitting on a bench, on a seat in the grandstand or standing (as most did in those days) spectators supporting Scotland in the 1970s would not see their team lining up to Flower of Scotland before the game. Instead it was God Save the Queen that would ring round the stadium, a choice not always met with total approval.
Whatever your views of the Corries’ famous song (and they are clearly mixed) it just seems odd now that Scottish players would not sing a Scottish anthem before an international.
The rise in the sense of Scottish identity, for whatever reason, can be traced back to that time and the change of anthem was a reflection of that development.
But it is the commercial and economic changes that have perhaps been most pronounced and that tell us a lot about the changing nature of sport as a business and of more general economic changes as well.
Like all major sporting tournaments, the need for television money has become vitally important.
Now games are spread out over the weekend and sometimes Friday nights, but matches used to kick off at the same time on a Saturday afternoon, meaning you could only watch one game live each weekend, depending on where you lived.
For residents and businesses in Edinburgh, Dublin and Cardiff in particular, the weekends would have had a certain rhythm, with a friendly invasion of away supporters on the Friday followed by the game and post-match celebrations or commiserations on the Saturday night and the slow journey home on the Sunday.
In Edinburgh, it always seemed to be the Welsh who would arrive in the greatest number, but in recent years Ireland too have carried a big away support, even though kick-off times have not always been convenient.
The enduring friendliness of these encounters is a reminder that social unions can thrive and prosper irrespective of political arrangements.
Indeed despite the fact that the Six Nations is, by definition, an international tournament, when it comes to team managers and coaches, nationality restrictions do not apply.
Scotland’s last coach was an Englishman, who was as committed to the job as any Scot could possibly have been, and his successor is an Australian, reflecting the global movement of labour in many walks of life, particularly among individuals deemed to have world-class skills.
The development of highly mobile coaches, the importance of television, changing match times (and the seeming never-ending alterations to the kit to cash in on consumer culture) are all a result of rugby’s sometimes painful move from amateurism to a professional sport in the 1990s.
In this respect, there is another general lesson we might want to consider. For much of that decade it was clear that change among the wider world rugby community was going to have a major impact on Scotland. Many people in the sport would now accept that we were less prepared than other countries for that change and have suffered accordingly.
This tells us that as a country we need to be outward looking, to celebrate, but not to cling to, the past, and that for a relatively small nation the need to innovate and prepare is essential.
More than anything though, the one thing that has not changed is the sheer joy of sport and of watching your team win.
In Scotland it is about time we felt that joy again – no matter when the match kicks off or what the team is wearing.