Peter Dods on the kick that might have been

Peter Dods is still involved in rugby as a kicking coach at Gala. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Peter Dods is still involved in rugby as a kicking coach at Gala. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

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DESERTED apart from us, the clubhouse lounge is cold so Peter Dods has kept his fleece zipped and it’s also swathed in semi-darkness, which means the rugby jerseys on the walls resemble ghosts and the indeterminate silver objects, which are probably trophies, glint like weapons.

Not that these extra atmospherics are really necessary because Dodsy is engaged in a wonderful piece of one-man theatre – demonstrating his goal-kicking technique.

He needs a bit of persuasion, mind you, because, being an ineffably modest Borderer, he doesn’t see the magic in a player from the days before kicking tees, going round in a circle with his heel, hacking out a mound of mud which is then delicately flattened, turning it into a tiny table mountain for the ball.

Your correspondent – still wrapped up in his anorak – feels very privileged. It was this studied ritual which helped Scotland win at Twickenham for the first time in 12 years, which helped us win our first Grand Slam for 59 years and – the point of my trip down to Gala – almost clinched a first victory over the All Blacks. Such tender moulding of gloop was on a par with Patrick Swayze at the potter’s wheel in the movie Ghost – and Dods didn’t have Demi Moore to help him. So go on, then, what was next?

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He stands up for this bit, and some of Netherdale’s current crop returning from training stop to peer in the window. “I always positioned the ball with the valve at the back. It’s a tiny, tiny hole, the valve, but if it was front-ways, air hitting it could interfere with your flight-path. Then it was five steps back, two to the side and check the breathing. One deep breath to empty the lungs isn’t sufficient. There’s always some more in there and that has to go too.” As he demonstrates it’s easy to spirit the image back to a packed Murrayfield during a glistening decade for Scottish rugby; this was his signature sigh.

But isn’t he forgetting something? What about that skip, kind of like a setting step in country dancing, which incorporated a shudder, as if Dods was preparing to prance in a hall as cold as this one? “Oh aye,” he says, “Bill McLaren would sometimes remark on that. I don’t know how it got in there. Nerves, I suppose. Funny enough, I’d stopped doing it in club games to try to give myself more length but that hadn’t worked. The week of the All Blacks I brought it back.”

A skip, a shudder and then – whoomph! – Dods’ boot made lusty contact. Jim Pollock’s try had levelled the score at 25-25, there were only two minutes left, and the conversion attempt for a historic triumph was looking good. “The kick was on the wrong side of the pitch for me being right-footed and hard up against the touchline but I felt good about it. It went higher than the posts and, ach, maybe if we’d had TMOs [television match officials] in those days … ”

Hang on, you mean we wuz robbed? “Well, a few more replays and it might have been awarded. Maybe the ball did sail directly over the post on the right but I’m not so sure that it wisna good.” There was no rammy, of course, and certainly no surrounding of the referee to whinge about injustice. Dods retains no bitterness over The Kick That Might Have Been.

That was 12 November, 1983. We meet at night, on the eve of the 31st anniversary of what has passed into legend as “the 25-all game”, because Dods is a busy joiner, as he has always been. “Mondays after internationals I was back at my work in Gala,” says the 56-year-old. “It was the same for everyone and it was the same the Monday after we won the Grand Slam. And I always mind what I was doing on that Monday: building new toilets in Scott Park!”

Tonight at Murrayfield, Scotland try again to overcome the All Blacks. Dods thought they might have achieved this by now, that he wouldn’t still be required to reminisce about ’83. But then, from the first time he had a rugby ball in his hands, these formidable foes from the other side of the world were always being thrashed.

“I grew up on the Fairnilee estate where my father was gamekeeper and his father before him. There was no rugby at the primary school, which was unusual for the Borders, so Dad put up a set of posts in a field with bits of tree we found in a wood and every day I would play there.” No other boys lived nearby and brother Michael – himself a future Scotland cap – was just a babe and not quite ready for full rucking and mauling, so Young Master Dods had to be quite inventive in these imaginary games and inevitably he concentrated on trying to hoof the ball between the sticks.

“At secondary school I was put into Group 5,” he laughs. This was for lads with no previous rugby experience. The choice was rugby or cross-country – “Everyone hated that” – and, of course, football was outlawed. With so many boys ahead of him, he didn’t play a proper competitive match until he was 15. Teeth chittering on the wing on a perishing morning in Berwick, he managed to mark the debut with a try.

Dods won three titles with Gala, prompting his elevation to the national squad. His first cap came earlier in ’83, at the beginning of the previous season’s Five Nations. “One of the selectors said: ‘Congratulations, you’re playing on Saturday.’ I was over the moon but also in shock. I drove straight home and told my wife Hazel: ‘I’m playing on Saturday.’ She said: ‘Where about?’ ”

That campaign seemed likely to end with the wooden spoon for the Scots as they headed down to Twickers. “I’m sure we were probably thinking: ‘Uh-oh, here we go again’. I know I was because I used to get awfully nervous before games. We knew we had to throw everything at them and we did. When the final whistle went I don’t know if we believed we’d won but we certainly did by the end of what was a great celebration. The team had this rare closeness. If you don’t have absolutely the best players in the world that can carry you through games.”

That triumph, together with Scotland’s first win in Cardiff for two decades the previous season, the strong show by Scots on ’83’s Lions tour and not forgetting the 25-all game, were all staging posts for Scotland’s Slam under coach Jim Telfer. I throw some names from the drawn match at Dods, starting with try-scorer Jim Pollock: “Lucky Jim, we called him, because he played in those famous wins at Cardiff and Twickenham as well. Great boy, great singer.” Euan Kennedy? “Big, strapping centre, very unlucky not to win more caps.” Roger Baird? “Very unlucky never to score a try for Scotland, but he was prolific on that Lions tour.” Jim Aitken? “My captain down here for many years – a great motivator.” Iain Milne? “Unbelievably strong, although you never saw him in the gym – it was all natural.” Bill Cuthbertson? “Cubby was another singer and one who stirred up the team spirit.” Colin Deans? “I looked up to Deano, even though he was a Hawick man.”

A dad of three in the village of Clovenfords, Dods is currently team manager at Gala. He has had spells of not being involved in club affairs but always ends up coming back, having missed the the buzz and the banter. He coaches the kickers, who include his 22-year-old son Craig. Remember to empty your lungs, he tells them. But, if he’s honest, he’s not in thrall to rugby as it’s played now. “I would say this, but it was more skilful back then. Players were encouraged to express themselves. Now we’re told teams must have big guys. Well, maybe one day we’ll run out of them – what then? I can turn on the TV on Friday night for an Edinburgh or Glasgow match and there’ll be this bloody dreadful scrum: 16 muckle lumps trying to shove each other and the ball’s not even getting hooked. Then I’ll turn over to rugby league and – whoosh! – it’ll be fast and exciting. Union has become too much of a bashing game, I’m afraid. But at least Vern Cotter is trying to change that for Scotland’s sake. I hope he can.”

Back to his era and its excitements. Dods won 23 caps and amassed 210 points. His conversion rate was 70 per cent and, during his few lean spells with the boot, he’d deconstruct his technique. “I’d dig out the video, see if some little difference had crept in. It could be the minutest thing.” His pre-match “meal” never changed: tea and toast with honey. No wonder he says: “Rugby used to be a game for men of all shapes and sizes. It isn’t anymore.”

Tours have changed. Now they seem to be all about Test matches. Dods went on ten expeditions with Scotland, bathing in oil drums in Zimbabwe where he captained the Scots and, in Canada, helping himself to a record 43 points in a 79-0 thrashing of Alberta. “Tours were great for team-bonding, experiencing more of the game and more of the world.”

By the time of the ’84 Slam, he says, the players were “ready to create some history”.

In the first match down in Cardiff, Dods split his kicking boot. Talk about a routine-breaker. “The last two kicks went over with my big toe hanging out!” Loathe to change boots mid-season, he asked the manufacturers to repair them but they couldn’t. Faced with such disconcertions, Dods was probably glad to have reinstated the skip and the shudder. In the winner-takes-all showdown with the French, the impediment was a severely bruised eye affecting his vision. “I missed a kick and Big Daddy [Jim Aitken] told me if I did it again I’d have to go off. Everything else went over. There was no way I was going off. The adrenalin was pumping, it was ding-dong. A bloody hard game and in the end a good victory.” Then on the Monday – before getting to work on those toilets – he popped out for the rolls. “The old wifie in the baker’s said: ‘Would you look at your eye – have you been fighting?’ ‘No, just playing rugby’.”

The Dodsy Years came between those of Andy Irvine and Gavin Hastings. At either end he sat on the bench for this debonair pair. Fans loved to compare them. Who was best? Dods reckons that Irvine in full flight had no peers, but the keener rivalry was between Hastings and himself.

One was a garrulous, Cambridge-educated man-about-town; the other was a taciturn joiner from Clovenfords. Dods smiles. “Didn’t Vern Cotter say something the other day about the current team all having grown up feeding themselves, that none of them was a posh schoolboy? Borderers have to fight for everything and it’s true that some guys come along and get the lot. But I never had a problem with Gav; he was and still is a friend. He was a good, long kicker. He had a lot more bulk than me, which suited the way the game was going.” So was Hastings more likely to thunder through for a try? Dods, possessor of a nifty sidestep, says: “Er, let me think … no!”

Bench-warming for Hastings went on far longer; three years in all. “It hurt me not playing but I always thought it was an honour in itself to make the squad. I never gave up hope that I could get back into the team.” Okay, but three years is quite a shift, what routine did he develop as a sub? “I always made sure I had loads of wine gums with me!”

Neither Hastings nor Irvine got as close to putting one over on New Zealand and, with Netherdale about to close for the night, Dods thinks back to the 25-all game one last time: “A lot of us had been in the South team who’d lost heavily to the All Blacks the week before. But Jim Telfer, who was desperate to beat them just once, told us: ‘They’re only human beings’.

“He was right, but to win you had to try and scupper their gameplan and anticipate the moment when they would go for the kill. It always comes and it’s crucial and, with their pace and power, you may never stop it happening. But that’s what Scotland will have to do on Saturday – and hope that the All Blacks have the closest they get to an off-day.

“In ’83, our forwards were incredible. I’d never seen a performance like it. They were throwing bodies into rucks and doing to the All Blacks what they did to everyone else. We couldn’t switch off. Even when our lungs were burning we had to keep going. In the end I suppose a draw was a fair result but, you know… ”

The Kick That Might Have Been. The 25-all game’s mythology has been further enhanced by the fact there was a broadcast blackout that day; you had to be at Murrayfield to see how close Scotland came to victory. Dods managed to snaffle an old VHS of the game, courtesy of New Zealand TV. “I haven’t watched it for a while; maybe I’ll dig it out.” A good idea. We need to be absolutely sure that his mighty thump didn’t go over.

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