Interview: Roger Baird on Twickenham legacy he wanted to end

Former Scotland and British & Irish Lions wing Roger Baird was desperate for his status as one of the last Scots to win at Twickenham to be ended. Picture: Jon Savage

Former Scotland and British & Irish Lions wing Roger Baird was desperate for his status as one of the last Scots to win at Twickenham to be ended. Picture: Jon Savage

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Here he comes now, the most enduringly
youthful of Scotland’s Forever Boys, running a wee bit late. Roger Baird has had a stressful day at work and on the bypass getting to our coffee shop rendezvous, but you wouldn’t know this from the lack of sweat, lines on his face or grey hairs on his head.

He looks as cherubic as he did when we last won at Twickenham, as if he was smeared in an aspic/Ralgex mixture in 1983 and then cryogenically frozen, with Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go playing continuously on a first-generation Walkman plugged into his still perky and uncauliflowerish ears.

But it would have been a different story if a prank 34 years ago had gone horribly wrong, as the flying wingman reveals: “I wasn’t fond of the England captain, John Scott. He’d said something on radio before the game about how he was more worried about his post-match speech. Jim Calder heard this and relayed it to the rest of the boys. We reckoned the English thought they were going to have little difficulty beating us.”

Scotland, as history continues to show, won 22-12 to lift the Calcutta Cup and, at the post-match banquet in London’s Hilton Hotel, dark-blue spirits were understandably sky-high. “Scott, because he was the skipper, was staying in the penthouse suite and we thought it would be a very good idea if we started charging drinks to his room. We kept the tab going all night. Most of us would have been on pints but a few had champagne so the bill would have been pretty big. When Scott found out he stalked the corridors looking for men in kilts.

“I was grabbed and draped over the balcony. That wasn’t so difficult. Just 11 and a half stone soaking wet, that was me. The Murrayfield match programmes listed me as 5ft 10ins but I’d massaged the figures upwards. Even two flights of stairs were going to make a bit of a mess of me, weren’t they? I think it was close to 30. Scott had hold of an ankle and one of his big mates had the other. I just remember telling myself: ‘For chrissakes don’t wiggle’.”

Baird survived that night and went on to claim 27 caps. He became a British Lion, standing up to the All Blacks in the most perishingly cold conditions, back when a tour was four tests and not the namby-pamby, Health & Safety three which happens now. But last Saturday he seriously hoped he would become a footnote in the tale of the oldest fixture, no longer quoted. Until we win again at Twickers he will continue to be dug up every two years and asked: “What was it like?” (Like his world had been turned upside down, he could answer. Leg-danglingly terrifying). He won’t really be a Forever Boy forever; Scotland will banish the hoodoo eventually. But, by a thumping 61 points to 21, it didn’t happen this season.

“I spoke to a lot of the guys [from the last win] beforehand and to a man we all wanted it done,” he says. “We wanted it done back in the 1980s, to be honest. We don’t think of ourselves as legends and will be happy when we become obscure.”

To dig up Baird, who claims to be 57, you have to sift through 300,000 tonnes of malt and barley. He’s a director with WN Lindsay, Scotland’s biggest grain merchants, where he’s worked since he was the new boy on the national team’s left flank, all those years ago. With his wife Louise and daughter Alex he endured a difficult afternoon at Twickers but jumped at the chance for a natter because he’s keen to put the result into some kind of perspective.

“Twickenham has never been the best place,” he says. “I mean, I have no quibble with England. Some of my best friends are English, it was the English guys I mucked about with on the Lions tour, and on Saturday I was glad to bump into Huw Davies, who I played against in ’83. But the English rugby public just get it wrong on so many 
levels.” Oh, that triumphalism…

Nevertheless, Scotland had been optimistic. Baird, trying not to let heart rule head, contemplated the best scenario:
“Everything had to go right for us and they needed to have an off-day with possibly a red card. In the end the roles were virtually reversed.”

Some self-flagellation followed, as is the Scottish way, but Baird says that while it’s useful to acknowledge that Scotland got off to a bad start in the game and England were quickly prancing all over the park, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves.

“I met Huw in the ex-internationalists’ bar afterwards along with Rob Andrew and Simon Smith and, while these guys were all delighted with the way England played, they were very impressed with what Scotland have brought to the championship.”

Look at the tries we’ve made out of nothing, asserts Baird. Look at the tries we’ve scored with the scrum going backwards. He’s got a beef with what he sees as over-beefiness in rugby and don’t be fooled by that winsome smile – he can be a fierce critic of his sport. “In the game now a 26-stone po-po only need play 40 minutes, when he’ll be replaced by another 26-stone po-po. The International Rugby Board have been asleep and the wheel, possibly drinking as well, in allowing this situation to develop. The attrition rates [from such big beasts bashing into each other] are alarming. Players have become commodities. What about their welfare? I’d like some of the power removed and the game made more aerobic. Anyone who steps onto a pitch should be able to play 80 minutes. Fatigue allows matches to open up and then you have a spectacle. Isn’t that what we want rugby to be?”

If this is any consolation, and he believes it should be, then Scotland this season have achieved top marks for artistic impression. “We’ve been the best team to watch,” he says. In the painful aftermath John Barclay called the Twickenham performance “useless”. Baird tweeted the captain urging the team to keep believing in themselves and win the last game against Italy this lunch-time.

“But…” adds Baird, and the quibble is a sizable one for the ex-Kelso flyer. “Don’t get me started on what they’ve done with Vern Cotter.”

By “they” he means the SRU executive. “We have no rugby acumen there whatsoever. There’s a great deal of toxicity. I won’t name names because that just gets you into trouble but it’s been a crazy decision to let Vern go. All my generation look at what he’s done for Scotland and we’ve been tremendously impressed.

“Very has been phenomenal. Even in the first year when we lost every game you could see the improvements. We were playing to win rather than playing to lose which was the story under Scott Johnson. The biggest debacle of the previous reign was three years ago at Murrayfield when England could and should have beaten us by 50 points. That was a disgrace on 
every level.

“But we’ve made great progress under Vern. Even in a performance like last Saturday which prompts us to beat ourselves up we manage to score three tries. So I don’t understand why we’re allowing him to leave. 
Gregor [Townsend] is a great coach and a great friend. I’m sure he’ll do well for Scotland but there will be a massive amount of pressure on him. I just think we should have said to 
Gregor: ‘Go abroad and come back after the 2019 World Cup and Scotland will be yours.’ In the meantime Vern could have continued his work.

“Listen, he’s world-class and funny things can happen. The Eddie Jones project [at England] will end, fall apart or combust. It’s been minutiae, minutiae everywhere he’s gone. He works players too hard. So who would 
England hire then? How would we feel if the man we’d let go ended up there? I hope I haven’t given the buggers a good idea…”

Baird – lest we forget, though we never will – is a Grand Slammer. He was involved in key staging-post wins along the way to 1984: Twickers, victory in Brisbane, a draw with the All Blacks and our first success in Cardiff for 20 years. And eight Scots went to New Zealand with the Lions, scrutinised the representation from the other home nations strut their stuff in training and sometimes not, and conclude: “We’re not bad, you know.”

How many will go to NZ this time? Baird the patriot begins his list: “I think both Gray boys [Richie and Jonny], whose workrate this championship has been phenomenal, have got a very good chance of being on the plane. Back row is intriguing. We’ll need a genuine openside; the England formation [of playing without one] won’t work. So there will be room for a 
[Hamish] Watson or a [John] Hardie or maybe a John Barclay. That’s 
another decision recently that irritated me, Barclay just being thrown out of the Scotland squad. Why on earth did that happen?

“There might be some wild picks and Fraser Brown could be one of them. Behind the scrum I’d take both our centres and Tommy Seymour who’s been the outstanding No 14 in the northern hemisphere, more consistent than George North, and of course 
Stuart Hogg.” Very easily Baird has shot beyond the quota in ’83.

He’s heard the talk of some Scots playing themselves out of contention based on the England game and strongly disapproves of such logic. He accepts Finn Russell was probably always a long-shot given the overall strength in his position but says of the playmaker’s Twickenham performance: “He was always on the back foot though he tried really hard. But I get annoyed when people come down hard on Finn; he’s been magnificent for us.”

As rash as it can be to discard on the strength of one game, so it can be to promote. In our man’s Lions year 
Ireland’s Ciaran Fitzgerald was chosen to captain the tourists of ’83 after his performance in Ireland’s final-round victory over England in the Five Nations. That cemented his position as hooker, even though almost everyone on the trip, and a surprised New Zealand media, regarded Scotland’s Colin Deans as superior. In the second Test Fitzgerald gifted possession six times from crooked lineout throws. He wasn’t a towering leader either.

“I felt a bit sorry for Ciaran,” says Baird, “but there had been instances of Lions captains dropping themselves – Mike Campbell-Lamerton in 1966, for instance. A Lions skipper, especially in a place like New Zealand, can’t be worrying about his form when he’s got to be strong and stand up to the local press if a vendetta starts. Ciaran just became more of a recluse as the tour continued.”

There was no Test place either for Iain Milne and no place at stand-off for John Rutherford who had to move to centre while David Leslie was left at home. Baird extols the virtues of three great men of the ’84 Slam: “The Bear could scummage all on his own. At Scotland the other forwards often left him to it. Rud was the architect of how we did so well in the 1980s – our greatest-ever player, in my opinion. And David, who used to quote Churchill and Aristotle at us, was just sensational.”

The tour was lost 4-0 and coach Jim Telfer was so depressed on the plane home that he had to be talked out of quitting rugby by Rutherford and Roy Laidlaw. “Jim needed a No 2
and the backs needed someone in charge as quite often we were left to our own devices,” adds Baird. “Jim was desperate to win in New Zealand sometimes at training he overdid it. He loved nothing better than seeing players kick the shit out of each other: ‘Lower, boys, lower. And harder!’ He felt he had to be this evangelist 
converting the non-Scots to his creed and some of them didn’t like it. One of the English boys tried to flog his Lions blazer before the final Test, which pretty much summed up his contribution.”

Whitewash it might have been but Baird won’t hear talk of ’83 being a disaster. “I was young, hugely optimistic and doubtless hopelessly naive. I felt invincible and of course there’s no force like the All Blacks to disabuse you of such notions. We played 18 games, losing six. We could have won the first Test and they were tight until the last one, when I think some of us already had a foot on the homebound plane.

“Despite all the problems it was a highly sociable tour. Maybe too much so in the case of J O’D [Ireland’s John O’Driscoll] who after too many beers would throw beds and TVs out of 
windows. He couldn’t remember these nights so they got blamed on his alter ego, a phantom brother.

“My dad and younger brother and one of our neighbours in Kelso came out to see me play, which was great, and I also had support from a friend from Merchiston School, Gordon Will, who never once paid to get into a game. He swung his kilt and claimed he was with the pipe band.

“Gordon would have been expelled from Merchiston if his dad hadn’t been the bursar. He travelled around by campervan but that quickly got too smelly and he ended up kipping with me in the team hotel. In every town he’d say: ‘Right, who wants a game of rugby?’ and Lions supporters would play locals. I think his mob finished with more wins than us!”

Baird, though, was second-top try scorer on the official tour. Not bad for someone who never quite managed to touch down for Scotland. “I’m a quiz question,” he smiles. “It 
bothered me at the time but I quite like the notoriety now.

“I loved that tour and I say that despite taking the full force of Stu Wilson’s knee on my head and him thinking he’d killed me. As I was 
carried off, checking out early from what was turning into a hammering, Peter Winterbottom muttered: ‘The lucky bastard.’

“Playing New Zealand on their patch was the pinnacle of rugby in my era as I hope it will be for these Lions. And I’ll be very disappointed if there aren’t at least five Scots in the party.”

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