After being landed with a whirlwind start of four summer tour games in three different continents, perhaps Vern Cotter is due some good fortune as he settles down to the task of plotting Scotland’s path to the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The presence of Jim Pollock at this week’s four-day training camp on Tyneside could hardly be a more promising omen for Scotland’s head coach.
These days the 55-year-old Pollock is a PE teacher and rugby union coach at the Tyne-side venue, the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, which will be Scotland’s base for their World Cup games next October against South Africa and Samoa at St James’s Park, the home of Newcastle United. Back in the early 1980s, he was a talisman in a Scotland side of serious, sustained clout.
The golden-haired Gosforth winger was dubbed “Lucky Jim” – not because of any similarity to the Kingsley Amis novel of that name but due to the Midas touch he brought as an Anglo-Scottish recruit to the national XV of the era.
Pollock scored on his debut against Wales in 1982, Scotland’s first win at the Arms Park for 20 years. He also played in the 22-12 win at Twickenham in 1983, which remains the last Caledonian success on English soil, and appeared in three of the four matches in Scotland’s Grand Slam campaign of 1984. He is best remembered, though, for the late try that clinched a 25-25 draw against the All Blacks at Murrayfield in November 1983.
Scotland, of course, have never beaten New Zealand, and that thriller 31 years ago remains one of only two draws against them, the other being a more chilled 0-0 affair at Murrayfield in 1964. So with the men in black second up on the autumn agenda for Cotter’s Caledonian class of 2014, on Saturday 15 November, a week after Argentina’s visit to the west end of Edinburgh, maybe the reappearance of Lucky Jim could prove to be a timely omen all around.
“Well, you never know,” Pollock said, chuckling. “I’m just delighted that Scotland are training here this week and that they’re going to be based here for their two Newcastle games in the Rugby World Cup. To have had any country at our school for the World Cup would have been fantastic but to have Scotland coming is magnificent.
“It will be a fantastic experience for the kids. For our year three, our seven-year-olds, to see the size of some of these guys is going to be pretty special.
“I think New Zealand and South Africa made enquiries as well but Scotland came down some time ago and were pretty impressed with the facilities I think. And rightly so.
“I was involved in the process. I met Scott Johnson [Scotland’s director of rugby] and Gavin Scott [the team manager], when they came down, and then Vern Cotter, after he started as head coach. It’s great to have them here. I’ve arranged a game of golf for the coaches against myself and the captain of Northumberland, my golf club – Duncan Madsen.”
Madsen was another Tyneside Anglo Scot who played for Gosforth, the club that gave birth to Newcastle Falcons, and Scotland. He won 14 caps as a hooker between 1974 and 1978.
Madsen was educated on Scottish soil at Fettes. Pollock attended the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, the alma mater of Cuthbert Collingwood, Lord Nelson’s wingman on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, and the late Brian Redhead, former presenter of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.
The RGS has produced several other players who have made a name in rugby union, including Jonathan Webb, the full back who kicked two penalties for England in their 9-6 World Cup semi-final victory against Scotland at Murrayfield in 1991, and David Rees, the England winger who famously made a mug out of Jonah Lomu with a cheeky chip-and-chase score in a 26-26 draw against New Zealand at Twickenham in 1997.
Pollock’s try in Scotland’s 25-25 draw against Stu Wilson’s 1983 All Blacks also came from a chip into the right corner – in his case courtesy of a deft swing of the right boot by David Johnston, the inside centre who started his sporting career as a right winger with Hearts.
“All I had to do was run after it and tap it down,” Pollock recalled of that 78th minute score. “We practised the move into a gale the day before and I kept running down the wing, getting nowhere near the ball.” It might have teed up an historic victory rather than secure a treasured draw but Peter Dods pushed his touchline conversion attempt a whisker wide of the North Stand posts.
“We still had some hard defending to do if I remember rightly,” Pollock continued. “We had a penalty awarded against us when I bustled Bernie Fraser into touch without the ball but I think that was the first game where the touch judge was allowed to intervene, and he reversed the decision after Bernie decided to turn round and break my nose.”
Another lucky, if painful, break for Jim, then.
Three decades on from his time as a try-scoring talisman, Pollock is an avid follower of Scotland’s fortunes.
“I thought the [21-19] win in Argentina in June was magnificent,” he said. “I’m not unconvinced that the [55-6] defeat in South Africa was a bit of a bridge too far – a fourth match in three continents in two weeks.
“Going into the autumn Tests, you’ve got to take something from the Glasgow-Bath game. I think it’s maybe fair to say that Scotland have lacked spark and a final product but there was no shortage of spark or final product from Glasgow against Bath.
“The guys in the back three [Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour] were firing on all cylinders and if they can do that for Scotland, then Scotland should be able to compete with anybody.
“We’ll just have to wait and see what happens… especially when they’re up against the best team in the world.”