THE pressure. The still-fresh, still-stinking memory of the England debacle. The “Whither Scottish rugby?” debate that followed. Maybe, too, the delay in Edinburgh’s trams birling by Murrayfield could be blamed on the players. And, if that wasn’t enough, last night there was the weight of history.
Stunning history. A Grand Slam, clinched against France on an epic afternoon 30 years ago. Reminders of it throughout build-up week. Our rugby was good back then, our rugby was noble. What a lot to dump on Scottish shoulders, notwithstanding that last-gasp win in Rome with Duncan Weir’s drop-goal. And Weir’s shoulders, in particular, are slim.
After all the reminders, all the glistening flashbacks, the current team met some of the ’84 Immortals who watched their final training session. How self-conscious would Weir feel, with John Rutherford looking on? Or, hopefully, how inspired? Regarding the Immortals’ inspirational tale, head coach Scott Johnson said: “If you can’t get a kick out of that there is something wrong with you.”
Scotland were in their naff white kit with turquoise trim. A different announcer from the England game urged the crowd to “Rise up… [non-ironic Smashie & Nicey-style feel-the-warmth-of-my-sincerity pause] … and be a nation again.”
Weir wasn’t prominent early on but David Denton was. Watch out, Dents, you thought – last time you did this in EH12 you got hooked. But it was a tentative start and a typically swashbuckling French break hinted at grimness to come.
Would there be a key moment requiring the dribbling skills of ’84 will o’ the wisp David Johnston, nicknamed The Flying Ashtray because of his speed and fondness for the fags? Or a key moment needing the immovable object of 18-and-a-half-stone Iain Milne, nicknamed – what else? – The Bear – who got this mention in dispatches from French rugby’s hall of fame: “We tried to shift him and. when that failed. we tried punching him. That failed, too.” And – maybe for the keyest of the key – who could be this team’s David Leslie, force of rugby nature? It is Leslie, whose trouncing of the French scrum-half has passed into Murrayfield mythology and who told me recently: “There were times in games when I did think: ‘I could quite happily die out here’.”
Well, no one in turquoise epaulettes was laying down their life. They didn’t have to because France had gone strangely flat, the way only France can. Within their 22, Stuart Hogg hoisted a high one. “Naw!” was the esteemed opinion of those around me. But Hoggy anticipated a French cock-up and followed up for the try. Then we got another, an artful inside pass from Matt Scott opening up a gap for Tommy Seymour, gleefully accepted.
Kelly Brown maybe thought his international career was history when he was dropped after the Ireland game. Johnson’s axing of the captain was panned, and seemed to have backfired when the team were hammered by England. A quick return for the Italy match? No. And after that victory surely that was tournament over for Brown. Well, no. A lot of folk in the crowd were willing him to play an absolute stormer, score the winning try, and later in the evening, enrol in TV singing show The Voice, winning that too. Just to prove the boss wrong.
But Brown wasn’t quite the most eye-catching forward. Big Jim Hamilton, high above the crumbling French lineout, looked like a lighthouseman, a bearded master of all he surveyed, and all that was missing was the Aran jumper, the pipe and the leatherette-bound copies of Penthouse.
At half-time the ’84 boys were paraded. If we’d been losing this could have been intimidating. But these are modest men. The Bear snorts when he hears himself being eulogised. Iain Paxton will describe the Slammers as “a pretty reasonable squad” who “got a bit of success”. And surely this side could take encouragement from Jim Aitken, the captain, harrumphing: “The Slam was 30 years ago, it’s old hat for Christ sake – get on with the next thing.”
Scotland were in a hurry to get on with this thing in the second half and I was just thinking how not a single pass had been dropped when Weir launched a big one – too big – and Yoann Huget sprinted the length of the field for a cruel score. Suddenly it was anyone’s game. Murrayfield was rumbustious. Le Marseillaise was answered with “Scotland, Scotland”. On the pitch every tiny triumph in turquoise was greeted with whoops and slaps. Weir looked to have it again and then, right at the end, he didn’t. No disgrace but no win to echo 30 years ago. In the past Aitken’s men must remain? Not quite yet.