Back in 2001, I was newly returned to Scotland after 20 years living elsewhere and the nation’s rugby health looked in reasonable shape.
The 1999 triumph in the final Five Nations was still fresh in everyone’s minds and, if the Six Nations had not gone strictly to plan, that was as much due to the foot-and-mouth epidemic as any plans hatched by mortal man. Scotland had lost to France but going down 6-16 in Paris was hardly a hiding. They had also secured a 28-28 draw with Wales. The team suffered the now traditional spanking at Twickenham but went on to beat Italy at Murrayfield, after which the authorities stepped in and stopped the tournament.
If it was difficult for the Scots, it was agony for Ireland, who were searching for what would have been only their second Grand Slam in history.
Ireland’s original slam dated back to the post-war period, shot in black and white, the era of Jack Kyle, “Jack” Daly et al in 1948, and they were left disappointed in their bid for a repeat in 2001. You have to hope the champagne was bought on a sale or return basis because it was a further eight long years before Declan Kidney’s arrival as head coach in 2009 finally sparked that second slam.
In 2001, Ireland had already beaten France and Wales and would go on to get the better of England in Dublin but they somehow contrived to lose at Murrayfield in a fixture that was rescheduled from March to September. They didn’t just lose, Ireland were kyboshed, ambushed, bushwhacked, losing four tries to one and 32 points to 10.
But they haven’t lost in Edinburgh since in the Six Nations.
It was still the beginning of something big, the formative years of Ireland’s golden generation. Brian O’Driscoll had announced his arrival in the big time the previous season with a hat-trick of tries in Paris and the fresh-faced stand-off Ronan O’Gara was at the start of his long and illustrious career.
Those two are the only survivors from either side who have made it through to today’s game but household names such as Keith Wood, Jeremy Davidson, Malcolm O’Kelly and Anthony Foley were at the beating heart of a useful Irish pack.
For the Scots Jason White, Scott Murray, Simon Taylor, Tom Smith and Budge Pountney proved more than equal to the task.
But there was an intriguing sub-plot running in the background. The match was delayed until after the Lions tour to Australia and some thought that the Irish manager, Donal Lenihan, had exerted undue pressure on coach Graham Henry to take Irish out-half O’Gara in place of the more experienced Scottish stand-off Gregor Townsend, who had been one of the Lions’ heroes of the South African campaign in 1997.
The two protagonists went head-to-head on the day in question at Murrayfield and O’Gara blinked first. The Irishman had a forgettable match, successful with just one of his three kicks at goal and picking up a yellow card into the bargain, while Townsend was at the heart of the Scottish effort, growing in stature after Chris Paterson took over the kicking duties, and having a hand in two of the Scottish tries.
Townsend remembers the day well but denies any bad blood between the two players, instead reserving his disdain for those in loftier positions. O’Gara doesn’t always get the best press outside of Ireland but Townsend obviously has no problems with his friend and rival.
“I knew Ronan pretty well because Munster had played Castres a few times over the years and we had struck up a friendship,” says the former Scotland No.10.
“I had no problem with Ronan but it’s fair to say that I wasn’t best pleased with the Lions selectors and coaches.
“Ronan is a really intelligent bloke but his competitive instincts can get the better of him on the field, where he will resort to sledging and making himself heard if he’s not happy about something.”
“There was a bit of feeling about that match,” Townsend continues. “There was an edge to that game because none of the Scottish backs had been selected for the Lions but we had won the championship playing good rugby and scoring tries in 1999. We maybe didn’t have the best results in 2000 and 2001 but we still had some really good players such as John Leslie and Glen Metcalfe.”
This year, the promotion of 21-year-old Paddy Jackson to the Ireland No.10 shirt may finally signal the end for the 35-year-old O’Gara but Townsend was retired prematurely by Matt Williams at just 30 and he is prepared to fight the veteran’s corner.
“I took too many hits to be playing at 35 [like O’Gara is] but a fly-half can be pretty effective in their thirties if their body holds out. Players in their thirties know the game so much better. You see things unfolding almost before they happen because you have those 10,000 or 20,000 hours of experience.”
Back in 2001, Townsend was in his late twenties and his prime. Andy Henderson scored a try on his Test debut and the Scots were much sharper all over the field, with skipper Pountney putting in another man-of-the-match performance. Townsend himself set up a try for Leslie (“it was ten per cent me and 90 per cent John”) and Tom Smith scored from his favoured distance of approximately one inch.
“That match was delayed by the foot-and-mouth problems,” recalls Townsend, “but I loved playing in the September sunshine and it would be nice to play every Six Nations match in the same conditions. It had a strange feel to it because it was almost a pre-season warm-up, while being a Six Nations international at the same time.
“Sometimes players come back from the Lions tour a little jaded. That might have been Ireland’s problem but it certainly didn’t apply to the Scottish players because we didn’t get to tour.”
The current Glasgow coach can’t have had any inkling at the time that Ireland would remain unbeaten in the championship at Murrayfield since that day.
That four-try rout of Ireland back in 2001 suggested that Scottish rugby was in rude good health but it proved an illusion and instead the 2000s proved the least successful decade since the 1950s. All the more reason to treat the recent four-try win over Italy with a healthy dose of scepticism.