Interview: Andy Irvine, former Scottish rugby international

SCOTLAND legend Andy Irvine has high hopes for young talent, but says the player base must expand.

THERE was a time when the rare flights he looked forward to were somewhat ribald affairs with much singing and no little alcohol in the company of the best Scotland and British and Irish players.

Wind on four decades and the Scottish legend is clocking up the air miles in a range of official guises, and none leading to exhibiting his prowess on the rugby field. Last weekend he was sporting the RaboDirect PRO12 navy and orange tie as he flew back into Edinburgh from the Dublin final, but by the time he checked in for an early morning flight on Monday to London he was tightening the red Lions tie bound for Hong Kong, where the Lions will be playing a first-ever match a year from now to launch the 2013 tour to Australia.

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As Lions tour manager he has embarked upon a month checking the route, venues and watching big southern v northern hemisphere clashes with logistics manager Guy Richardson. It is all very interesting: the detail that goes into a modern-day Lions tour, how he plans to ensure good community work that further develops the Lions ethos still recovering from the too long-running Sir Clive Woodward farce and how they bid to strike a first win in Australia since Fin Calder’s side of 1989.

But while happy to hypothesise about who may or may not make the 2013 squad, he admits that he is guessing as much as any supporter, knowing that the coming season could change everyone’s preconceptions – as often happens in Lions years.

Where he does feel on firmer ground, however, is when talking about touring, and how he feels Scotland could fare in the Pacific over the coming three weeks. Scotland coach Andy Robinson has left behind a small army of key performers due to injury and unavailability, is still awaiting Max Evans from French club Castres – which may depend on how they go in today’s Top 14 semi-final against Toulouse – and is under pressure to halt a seven-match losing streak.

Irvine, however, leans to the edge of his seat, excitement clear, as he compares the emergence of players such as Stuart Hogg, Matt Scott and Rob Harley to the team-mates he had, and then looks back almost 30 years to the day when he toured Australia. He captained Scotland on the tour and marked the winning of his 50th cap by claiming a 12-7 win against the Wallabies in Brisbane, a victory that remains the first and last by Scotland in any of the big three southern hemisphere nations.

He is hopeful that Ross Ford’s side could change that on Tuesday when they face the Wallabies in Newcastle, but insists that it will be more difficult than the challenge that faced his side on 4 July, 1982.

“It was certainly one of the highlights of my career, no doubt about that,” he recalls, with a wide smile. “Australia were not the side in those days that they are now because out of five times I played them I think we only lost once. But that one in 1982 was a very good Australian team and they were beginning to come up in the world, going on to win a UK Grand Slam two years later.

“But we were also a good side and just on the verge of becoming a great team, and would win the Grand Slam ourselves, also in 1984.

“The Lions didn’t play Australia in those days and though they sometimes stopped off there, they didn’t on the tours I went on to New Zealand or South Africa, so I’d never played in Australia before 1982 and it was just a great experience.

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“It suited the type of game we played in those days, the hard grounds, fast track and the ball moving around a lot. They had a very good back division [including Glenn and Mark Ella, Michael Hawker, Michael O’Connor and Andrew Slack] but we had a tremendous amount of pace and flair.

“Of our back division almost every one ended up playing for the Lions and in Test matches, guys like Roger Baird, Keith Robertson, John Rutherford, Roy Laidlaw and myself.”

However, another key difference between touring then and now is the number of matches. Irvine was used to as many as 26 games on Lions tours – he toured in 1974, 1977 and 1980 – while Scotland have occasionally been into double figures. Andy Robinson’s squad face just three games over the next 22 days after the head coach opted to take Scotland out of three-Test tours to the southern hemisphere for the next decade, and NSW Waratahs pulled out of a fixture next Sunday.

“It is a shame that we are now perceived as the warm-up act for the Australia-Wales Test matches,” admitted Irvine, “and there’s no doubt that our players won’t have the same experience.

“They won’t learn the same way we did by having midweek games and that’s a pity. In 1982 for example we made a tactical change that was crucial in us winning that first Test. The Wallaby attack was tremendous and they seemed to have an extra man all the time, but our scrummage was really strong, so we decided to take Jim Calder out of the scrum and use him as an extra back in defence, and that nullified them.

“We had played New South Wales the week before and it worked there and so we took it into the Test. NSW were really strong in those days and we gave them a good doing in Sydney which not many teams did.

“It’s a shame for the lads that they haven’t got that New South Wales game next weekend. It would have been a great experience for them, to learn and for some new faces to get game-time and a chance to build into the last two Tests, so it is a loss.

“Ideally, you’d have wanted it before Tuesday’s Test, but the problem now is that rugby is so much more physical and takes more out of the players. The games are cleaner obviously, because you’re not allowed to use your feet and the referees are all miked up, but it’s much more physical with the size of the players and the way the laws are. In my day almost every time you won the ball the scrum-half would pass it to the stand-off, but now the stand-off gets it from his scrum-half less than 50 per cent of the time because you have other receivers coming in and taking it to take the tackle.”

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He continued: “When I toured we played Saturdays and Wednesdays and some guys played four games on the trot. That’s inconceivable now and it definitely makes it harder for Scotland this week.

“But, again, we’ve got to be realistic. We’re getting stronger and the team has been playing better under Andy [Robinson], but we still don’t have the strength in depth of squads that other countries have.

“Ireland are going to New Zealand and playing three Tests, and some would argue that that is suicidal, but they have four teams to choose from, and their exiles, while we have two and our exiles.

“If we were to go there at full-strength then I think we’d cope reasonably well with a three-Test series, and learn from it, because at full-strength we’re not a bad team at all, but you’ve also got to be realistic and at the end of a hard season if we go down there depleted – remember we’re missing a handful of first-choice boys from this one – it might be asking too much of our young boys, and they might actually suffer more, physically and mentally.

“I have to go with Andy because he knows better than anyone what the players are capable of.

“What we really need to do in Scotland,” he said, leaning further forward in stressing the point, “is increase the number of players in our country, increase the number of teams and make a serious effort to push towards three professional teams inside the next four or five years, and then to four.

“That’s where our problems lie right now. That’s where we’re behind and struggling. We need that depth if the national side is to consider competing properly on tours again, and competing consistently in the Six Nations and World Cups.

“You have to do it properly and not launch a team with little funding because getting beatings every week doesn’t help young players learn and improve, but in my mind it must be part of the plan for the next five years.”

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We talk at length about the mistakes of the SRU in the past 15 years, some while Irvine was at the helm as SRU President, a time when the Borders was closed for a second time and nothing left in its place to encourage young players, hence why more are now turning to Newcastle.

He agrees that the development of the Edinburgh and Glasgow squads this season has provided fresh impetus, and an opportunity for the SRU to finally make up some ground on the Irish and Welsh sides. But as well as praising the decision of SRU Chief Executive Mark Dodson to invest more money into the professional teams, he is enthused by the opportunities being provided for and grasped by more young players.

“I have to say that it’s great that the SRU, or senior coaches perhaps, have changed their policy this season and been more adventurous and pro-active in bringing through our youngsters.

“Australia have always been good at that; if you’re good enough, it doesn’t matter what age you are. Wales have been good at it too, and we’re learning from that now. Stuart Hogg is an exceptional talent and as long as he doesn’t lose any of his pace and sense of adventure as he puts on more weight, as he has to do, then he’ll prove himself to out of the top drawer.

“Matt Scott is another with a tremendous future. He is a really calm, level-headed lad, inexperienced but plays with an old head. [Tim] Visser’s obviously coming along well and I’m looking forward to seeing how he does on tour, and Tom Brown is another exciting youngster.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing how he and Stuart Hogg vie for the No 15 jersey on this tour. If they both really push hard and do well then I imagine one will change position but that’s not a bad thing.

“Wee Greig Laidlaw is not as young as them, but he has come on leaps and bounds this year and is a class act. Young [David] Denton has come from nowhere and is a bit of a star already, and unfortunately we won’t see him on tour, but that has opened the door for more young talent like Rob Harley.

“And that’s where a tour is so valuable. People talk tours down, but they are huge in international rugby. These boys have proven themselves in the RaboDirect or Heineken, but this is different. This is a different standard and different pressure; another step up.

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“Australia don’t have all their players, they have injuries and a game against Wales next weekend, but they will be no pushover in their own country. Australian teams are always so competitive and they’ll be playing young boys in the shop window, so they have a massive incentive to do well. This his will be a hell of a hard match.”

But that is nothing new for Scottish tourists. As we look further ahead to the games with Fiji and Samoa, Irvine recounts a tale of playing Fiji at the end of the Lions tour in 1977, where the Lions capped a 3-1 Test series defeat with a 25-21 loss to the Fijians. Being ‘demob happy’ and having a home referee who awarded Fiji eight times the number of penalties he gave the tourists, with the famous Pontypool front row failing to win a scrum, are his memories of his one and only meeting with the Fijians.

IRVINE does fear for the Scots in coping with the climate and the Islanders’ desire to run ball enthusiastically in stifling heat and humidity, but then he insisted that results were not the main factor in this tour.

He returned from Australia 30 years ago having been soundly beaten in the second Test 33-9, his nine points making him the first player to score over 300 in international rugby – 273 for Scotland and 18 for the Lions – but any pleasure at the record being lost in the drubbing and deluge of rain at Sydney’s Cricket ground.

Irvine has always been a fierce competitor and he knows the value of victory, but he uses that experience to highlight his point that tours are about more than merely win/loss ratios.

“Of course we all want to see them beat Australia, Fiji and Samoa, but for me tours provide a great opportunity for players and teams to develop the spirit that lays a platform of confidence going forward.

“A lot of these guys know each other quite well now because they have played together in the pro teams together, but to go on tour is completely different because you’re rooming with each other, eating every meal together, training every day as a big squad, in a different country where everyone hopes you lose the whole time, and so what I’d like to see in the next month is the Scotland squad to build a tremendous team spirit that takes us on next season.

“That is what happened to us in Australia in 1982. We came back from that tour pretty pleased with ourselves and confident that we knew each other on and off the field better, and that I believe was one of the reasons why we were so good in 1984.

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“We have a squad that is building well right now and it’s been a tough season for them, because they haven’t quite produced it yet, but while I hope that they will do well and win, I know that they will come back mentally an awful lot stronger for the experience.”

He concluded: “I have to say that I didn’t expect that 1982 win to be the last for 30 years. The Scotland team in the 1980s and 1990s was fairly strong and we haven’t played them that often [eight times] away, but, certainly, in the modern game the southern hemisphere has crept away a bit from the home nations.

“Professional rugby has suited the southern hemisphere more than it has the northern hemisphere and I’m heading there now hoping to see some signs of our sides being able to turn that around a bit before the Lions head back next summer.

“Scotland ending that 30-year wait would definitely be a fantastic way to start it off this week.”