The cup needs no introduction, Scotland and Saracens flanker Kelly likewise. The car, however… A one-off creation from Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations team, it really is something special. Based on a standard Defender 110 the team spent nearly 6000 man hours designing, developing and building it. It’s been tricked out with monstrous mud and snow tyres, an external roll cage, skid plates, leather trim and, at the back, the specially lit, climate-controlled, virtually bullet-proof trophy cabinet designed to make sure the cup’s visible whether it’s parked outside Twickers or halfway up a Munro.
Kelly was in Inverness with Land Rover as part of its grassroots rugby programme. Having learned from some of Scotland’s greats as a boy in his native Melrose, he’s keen to ensure the next generation enjoy the same access to support from top-flight players. To that end, he spent the morning before our road trip at Highland Rugby Club passing on his experience to its young members.
With the important business of inspiring the next generation out of the way it was time to clamber up into the Defender and hit the road, cutting along the shores of Loch Ness, past the foot of Ben Nevis then down through Glen Coe, the Trossachs and on to Glasgow, where the cup had an appointment at Scotstoun and Kelly had an appointment with a smoked sausage supper – a Scottish delicacy unavailable anywhere near his Hendon base.
Italy has its Stelvio Pass; France the Route Napoleon but for thrilling roads and mind-blowing scenery there is very little to touch the A82. From tight, narrow ribbons of tarmac winding through the pines to the broad straights swooping over the moors and along lochsides, there’s never a dull moment. Every corner throws up another spectacular view of glistening lochs stretching into the distance or vertiginous mountains rising up to almost engulf the road.
The real joy of driving the Defender through the Highlands didn’t come so much from the roads themselves, though – often more Lambo than Landy-friendly – but from the knowledge that at any point we could have veered off the road and headed into that wilderness without a second thought. If ever a car and country were made for each other it’s the Defender and Scotland. At one photo stop our SVO minder pointed to a spot halfway up a particularly threatening-looking patch of hillside and stated with total confidence: “It’d make it up there, easy”.
The further into the trip we got, the clearer the similarities between the three stars of the show became. Man, machine and country can all appear solid, imposing, intimidating even, at first glance but quickly reveal a gentler, welcoming side.
On the field Kelly’s a massive intimidating presence but off the pitch he’s an approachable, amiable gent who’s happy to pose for photos and chat rugby with fans young and old.
The country itself can be a bleak, brooding place, but with the sun beating down and some of the finest driving roads imaginable stretching out in front of you, I can think of few better places to be.
And as for the Defender, well it looks like it eats superminis for breakfast and it’s never going to win any awards for refinement or legroom but once you get used to the driving position, the limited on-road capabilities of the massive off-road tyres, and its habit of swaying gently for a few seconds after any sharp manoeuvre, it’s a thoroughly fun place to be.
The Autobiography leather trim certainly helps but it’s the sheer physicality of the Defender that really appeals. As the SVO engineers pointed out it’s a proper “mechanical” vehicle. A short, heavy clutch, huge long-travel gear lever and the slight vagueness in steering caused by those tyres means this is a car you really have to drive. Unlike many modern motors where you can feel disconnected from what’s going on, the Land Rover is properly engaging, requiring constant input and focus from the driver, and it’s all the better for it. When a professional rugby player says he feels like he’s had a workout just from driving the thing you know it’s a vehicle that demands respect.
So what did the big man make of the big machine? “It’s an absolutely fantastic vehicle.
“It’s very much set up for off-road driving but did an amazing job on the road for this trip.
“Added to that, we had the Webb Ellis Cup in the back the whole way down. As we went round corners and over any bumps, it stayed perfectly in place which just proves it’s the ideal vehicle to take the trophy on its tour.”
The only downside to having an attention-grabbing vehicle like this on a beautiful day in such stunning scenery is that while you’re filling memory cards with photos and chatting to rugby and Land Rover fans from all over the world you can lose track of time. With the chiding of nervous PR bods keen to keep the cup’s Glasgow appointment and make their flight back south ringing in our ears we made tracks. Loch Lomond was a blue blur to our left before the urban sprawl of Dumbarton and the drudgery of the M8 loomed large before us.
The cup made it to Glasgow in time for its evening engagement, the PR team made their flight and the Defender cemented its place on my wish list. In fact the only disappointment was for poor Kelly, whisked off to the airport before he could get that longed-for smoked sausage supper…