JIM Aitken was a rugby player and captain known for his straight-talking, so it comes as no surprise that he believes Scotland can end a 30-year wait to taste victory at Twickenham – if players believe in themselves and listen less to coaches.
Now 65, Aitken has made a successful career in the grain business and in London this weekend will join most of the squad of 1983 that he steered to a 22-12 victory over England in the old Five Nations Championship 30 years ago. That win ended a 12-year wait for a Twickers triumph – though there was a famous 7-7 draw in 1979 – and Aitken admits that he did not expect to still be talking about the last win at the old cabbage patch three decades on on from his day in the sun.
In this week’s Scotsman Rugby Show – view it at Scotsman.com/rugby – he recalls how he was asked to captain the Test team for the first time in that final match of the 1983 championship. Roger Baird, the flying winger of the 1980s, also looks back on how the side rose from a winless championship to claim that victory, and then go on to become Grand Slam champions the following year.
For Aitken, there was no special ingredient, and he believes that the team named today by Scott Johnson could repeat the feat on Saturday. “We went down there as complete no-hopers; we had no chance,” he said. “The only people who thought we had a chance were the 21 players in the squad and Colin Telfer and Derrick Grant, who were our coaches.
“By the time we reached Twickenham we were fairly sure we were going to win that day and I think that feeling went right through the team. I’m a great believer in getting the dressing-room right, because if it’s right everyone is singing from the same hymn-sheet.
“I don’t remember doing anything special to make that happen. I tried to get all the guys in the team with me, make sure that what you’re trying to get over they understand and they want to do it.
“And that seems to be what Scott Johnson is trying to do now. But I get tired of hearing about the influence of coaches in the build-up. It is players that win games. And they have to take a good, hard look at themselves.
“They get paid to do it now, so they need to get down there, get stuck in and keep in their face, and believe in themselves for goodness sake. You don’t need a coach to tell you if you’re up for winning or not, you’ll know yourself. Can this team do it? Absolutely, if they believe it themselves.”
There were some similarities to Scotland then and now, not least that the team had not been playing poorly in the games before but had lacked the finishing touch to their good play and were punished. They missed John Rutherford at stand-off, with Ron Wilson and Brian Gossman playing, but Rutherford returned for Twickenham, and ‘lucky Jim’ Pollock from Gosforth was brought on to the wing.
Another notable addition was Tranent lorry driver Tom Smith, a team-mate of Aitken’s at Gala, and he left his mark with a crucial try on his debut. Aitken had helped fill him with belief before the game started. “I said ‘Tom this is going to be easy today’, Aitken recalled. “They have a ‘Nick Jeavons’ in their team.” He mimicks a posh English accent.
“Ten minutes into the game this Nick Jeavons shouted ‘ref, ref, he poked me in the eye’. I said ‘but ref, he’s got two eyes’. By that stage it was all over!”
He continued: “You don’t go out there expecting the game to go in any particular way, but the one thing we did know was that these guys would come at us hard for the first 15 minutes and blow up. And lo and behold what happened? They came at us hard for 15 minutes and then blew up.
“We had some really good rugby players in that side. The backs were not the biggest players in the world but they could all play rugby and they ran these guys off their feet. After about 20 minutes I honestly felt that we had it. They [England] had done their best for the first 20 minutes or so and it just wasn’t happening for them, and we had that feeling that we had that game in our hands.
“And it is a great place to win. I played at Twickenham three times and it is different. They make a huge noise, and are a pretty passionate bunch at rugby internationals and they start that singing, which really gets on your nerves. But it was great coming off at the final whistle especially when we were not expected to win.”
In terms of the current team, Aitken admits that he does not watch a lot of rugby these days, as he is bored by it. But he hopes that if they can start well Scotland can use Twickenham as the kind of platform the class of ‘83 did.
“What you have to watch is if we do win at Twickenham, and I think there is a good chance that we will because once again we’ll be completely written off, we have to then go beyond that game. The last thing we want is to win this game and then that’s us for another 30 years.
“It would be a huge lift for the Scottish game and I absolutely believe the boys can win. We have got to do it sooner or later. I’m not looking forward to another 30 years of going through this [media interviews] again!”