THE KEY to Scotland turning the corner and winning more Test matches lies in players appreciating what failure means, according to former winger Bill Gammell.
Now Sir Bill, as a result of his success with Cairn Energy in the oil industry, Gammell is a great admirer of Scotland coach Andy Robinson and his assistant Gregor Townsend, with whom he worked at the Winning Scotland Foundation, a body Gammell set up to draw money from similar-minded sporting enthusiasts and businessmen and launch inspirational programmes.
Like most rugby supporters, he is concerned at Scotland’s run of five successive defeats and inability to turn their domination of matches into victory, the latest frustration being felt in the 23-17 loss to France at Murrayfield last weekend.
However, he recalls Scotland’s run of 13 games without a win that ended against France in 1980, with an unforgettable performance of the good and the bad by Andy Irvine. And in comparing the emerging Stuart Hogg to Irvine’s style, Gammell believes that a similar disregard of failure in the new full-back will re-energise the current Scotland squad.
“I believe passionately in sport and what it can give people, all people in all walks of life, and that is why we set up the Winning Scotland Foundation,” he said. “What sport has got a great gift for is to teach lessons about failure. Did you ever get 100 per cent in your maths exam? Were you successful in chatting-up the first girl you wanted to take out? But I bet you tried a lot harder the next time didn’t you?
“Sport gives you that capacity because it is rare to succeed immediately and regularly in sport, so you learn about the importance of working hard and improving, of getting better at what you’re doing.
“I remember sitting on the bench for Scotland in that 1980 match against France, and watching and listening to the crowd booing Andy Irvine in the first half as he missed kicks and dropped the ball.
“Then in the second half he was utterly brilliant [he scored two tries, a conversion and two penalties for a 22-14 win]. I would have put my life on him kicking those goals, because he had that belief that he would succeed; that he would come back from the failures. Where did he learn that? Playing sport.”
A passionate and engaging character, Gammell’s reflections on the period when he reached the pinnacle of rugby in Scotland shines some light on potential parallels to that we are witnessing 35 years on.
The tall elegant winger earned five caps for Scotland. He scored two tries on his debut, a 21-18 defeat of Ireland at Murrayfield in 1977, and then four against Japan on that summer’s tour. He suffered defeats in his other four Test starts, and was frequently on the bench as a Scotland side, with such quality players as Irvine, Renwick, Bruce Hay, Ian McGeechan, Dougie Morgan, Ian McLauchlan and Alastair McHarg at its core, entertained and ran most opponents close, but struggled to nail wins.
Scotland followed the victory over the Irish with a run of eight straight defeats and, while it was interrupted by two draws in 1979, it was to be the 14th Test and three days short of three years before they struck another victory.
In that 1977-80 period, the team was also opening the international door to such youngsters as Jim Aitken, Colin Deans, Keith Robertson, John Rutherford, Iain Milne, David Johnston, Roy Laidlaw and John Beattie.
“It wasn’t an easy time trying to get that win,” Gammell continued. “Scotland at the moment are a victory away from being a very good side, but they remain a victory away and they have to make that breakthrough.
“It was fabulous to see Lee Jones and Stuart Hogg score against France, because they will have confidence in themselves and the chances of Stuart or Lee scoring in the next game will be dramatically greater than they were when they went out against the French. When I scored a couple of tries I expected to score three, and confidence like that is infectious. I am a big fan of Andy’s and Gregor’s, and there is no doubt that they are moving the team forward. You look at their ability to control the ball, the breaks they are making now. The players just don’t have that composure to finish them off yet.
“But that’s self-belief. When I played Wales in the 1970s, they were almost unbeatable because they believed, and you kind of worried that in the last ten minutes JJ [Williams] or Gerald [Davies] would do something unbelievable and they would score. But then we had Andy [Irvine], and we knew that he could do something and, when he was on form, it lifted everyone and gave you that confidence.
“It is the same now with Stuart Hogg at full-back for Scotland and I think we will see all of the players in the squad taking confidence from seeing what he can do in training and from what he has done so far against Wales and France, and that can bring out more in each of them; more belief and more composure.
“It is not about expecting everything from Stuart, but just letting him play the way he does, and others will draw confidence from him.”
Gammell rarely pauses for breath, and we are swiftly off to Melbourne, the Commonwealth Games, six years ago.
“How many personal best times did Scottish swimmers set in the pool in Melbourne? I believe there were 32. They started to win gold and everyone in the squad believed they could do it.
“I am a huge believer in the psychology of the mind. Look at Sir Chris Hoy getting his extra 15 per cent from Steve Peters or whatever [Hoy recently attributed achieving an extra 15 per cent in performance to mental skills learned from GB Olympic team psychiatrist Dr Peters].”
And the relationship between that and the current challenge facing Robinson’s Scotland team is?
“This is the same! The players have got to handle pressure and be bold enough to say to yourself ‘my gut instinct is I should do this’, and, even if it doesn’t come off, believing that it was the right thing to do. That creates the extra 15 per cent.
“The challenge for Robinson is making sure the players have the innate confidence in themselves to go out there and play without fearing failure; failure of what might happen if they aren’t somewhere else, or if they don’t finish, or if they get dropped.
“Of course it is easier to have that when you are new to the team, coming in fresh and not having the experience of a run of defeats, than boys who have been there a while and lost some of that belief because of results.
“But in business I talk about the need to have a positive attitude, to have common sense around you and how with knowledge and experience we get better judgment, so the older guys in the squad – the likes of Mike Blair, Chris Cusiter, Ross Ford, the Lamonts – have the benefit of the experience and knowledge, and for Andy it’s about getting the right balance of players in the squad.
“Remember when the Hastings brothers first came on board? They were just outrageous characters who swept everyone along with them. The boys might be different, but I can see that in the way that Hogg, Jones, David Denton and Greig Laidlaw are coming through and, if these boys get victories, soon we will see Scotland taking a leap forward.
“The big challenge is for Andy to get the right balance and team dynamic, and at the end of the day he can only play with what he’s got.”
Gammell is right. It is about self-belief. People ask why Scots are doubters or lack confidence or success on the world stage, and the short answer is ‘experience’. As a small nation with fewer resources – playing, financial or facility-wise – than many opponents, many Scottish representatives and teams do not experience victory as often and so lack the belief of others.
It does not explain every defeat of course. But those who have stepped on to the world stage and struck gold, or oil as in Gammell’s case, often against the odds, inevitably draw belief from that experience. Hoy was not born with belief, but developed it through winning.
It is invidious to compare eras due to changes in match frequency and opposition. However, the fact that Gammell and players who became legends – Irvine, Renwick, Rutherford et al – experienced longer periods searching for victory than the current team, yet some came out the other side as Grand Slam heroes, might bring perspective to Scotland’s current trials, if not a little hope.
Retaining belief is crucial for the Scotland players at this juncture, with two tough matches in Ireland and Italy remaining in the 2012 RBS Six Nations, but others have been here before, and not only in Scotland.
“I’ve failed over and over again in my life,” the great basketball star Michael Jordan famously said, “and that is why I succeed.”