Interview: Bill Cuthbertson on his Crazy win over Australia

Straining for a lyrical way to describe the international rugby career of Bill Cuthbertson, I want to write that the sun shone on him briefly, bouncing off his bald pate in some notable games in the early 1980s, but know this not to be true. Those matches were notable, all right. The weather, though, was invariably grim.

Bill Cuthbertson at the Gailes Hotel, Irvine.

But I’m surprised to learn that there was another impediment to my somewhat contrived description of him – namely the desperate attempts to cover up that chrome-
dome with a wig, a skullcap and finally Roy Laidlaw’s boot-polish.

This wasn’t a sudden outbreak of vanity on the part of the giant lock from Ayrshire who they called Cubby, rather the desire of the Scotland XV’s backroom staff to conceal a head injury for an encounter with Ireland. “A stray boot had caught me playing for Kilmarnock the week before,” he says. “Someone very kindly squeezed big black blobs of blood into this typical beat-up Hawick bucket and I was able to rejoin the game.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“But when I turned up for Scotland duty [coach] Jim Telfer was concerned to see my head all bandaged. ‘Can you play?’ he said. ‘I’m willing,’ I said. ‘It’s up to you.’ On the day before the game everyone was still worried about the gouge on my bonce being so prominent that – can you believe this? – they suggested I get a wig.

“I was sent to a shop called Tuftys for a fitting. I came back to Murrayfield and put a skullcap on top of it. The rest of the boys all laughed. Jim Renwick was on the floor in hysterics. But, while they all went for Friday night at the movies as usual, I was put through what I suppose you could call a simulated match experience: thumping into the crash-pads, thumping into the physios, to see if my head – and the wig – would withstand the punishment.

“When the boys came back to the hotel Toomba [Alan Tomes] – my partner in the second row and my room-mate – said: ‘So are you going to wear the wig tomorrow? If you do and it’s still on your head with two minutes to go, I’m going to rip it off and throw it into the crowd.’

“In the morning I announced I didn’t want to wear it and the physios taped up my head. Roy took one look and said: ‘You can’t play looking like that. A big red cross wouldn’t be any less conspicuous and would be inviting a big hit. Wait, I’ve got an idea.’ He dug around in his bag, produced the boot-polish and covered my head in it. That was another wet, miserable day and pretty soon there were these black rivulets running down my face.” Somewhere in his native Troon, he says, there’s a cracking photo of him emerging from the Murrayfield glaur looking like a B-movie swamp-monster.

Cuthbertson, 66, has been exiled in England for many years and recently retired as rugby coach at Seaford College, a private school in West Sussex where he was also a housemaster. Not a bad gig for the motor mechanic he used to be. He’s returned to his Ayrshire heartland with his wife, Alana, to visit friends and I’ve tracked him down to the Gailes Hotel in Irvine to recall a famous win over Australia, today’s opponents for Scotland – and an infamous punch. More of that in a moment but, incredibly, the wig yarn isn’t the last involving him and fake hair.

“The day before we were due to play England we were made to line up on the back pitches at Murrayfield and told that a volunteer was required. Everyone retreated one pace except me. This fellow appeared and introduced himself as a TV producer. A woman had written into his show saying it was her dream to rub the hairy chest of a rugby player. ‘But I’ve not got a hairy chest,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry,’ said the producer, ‘you can wear this.’ It was a chest wig and reluctantly I put it on. We all ran around for the cameras but it was such a scorching hot day that this clump of synthetic hair slipped down my body and was peeking out of my shorts by the end. The footage never made it into the programme, thank God.” And the name of the show? Jim’ll Fix It.

That’s enough about hair for Cuthbertson never had much of his own. Together with the beard – silver today but in his pomp dastardly black – it made him stand out on the park, with Bill McLaren dubbing him “piratical”. The call-up from his country came late, when he was 30 and, as a result, he appreciated every one of his 21 appearances, kicking off in Dublin in 1980.

“My story really began a fortnight before when Andy Dunlop from Highland and I were paired together in the middle row for Scotland B knowing that one of us would step up to the big team because Toomba was suspended,” he explains. “That was a funny day, hoping your accomplice played well for the sake of the Bs but not that well! Right after the game, Andy came up to me and said, ‘Allow me to be the first to congratulate you on your debut cap’, which was a lovely thing to do.”

There were five new caps against the Irish, including Laidlaw and John Beattie, Telfer removing the shirts from their packaging and handing them to the first-timers. “As I was studying mine I started crying. Tears fell onto the thistle. I told myself: ‘Get a grip, man.’ But when I looked up the other debutants had their heads down so maybe they were greetin’ too.” Just before kick-off a weel-kent stentorian voice rang out – “Come on, Cubby!” But the local support from Kilmarnock couldn’t quite prevent a defeat and our man didn’t collect his second cap for a full year.

“Being a latecomer I was thrilled to have made it to one,” he insists over his fresh orange and lemonade. “Toomba told me that had been his first ambition, too. Then you might want five caps, then maybe double figures, and after that any more would be a bonus.” And these modest Gullivers –Tomes standing at 6ft 4in, Cuthbertson one inch shorter, although the latter claims his old mucker stoops more than him these days – were a doughty double-act stoking the grunt and heave. “We got on fantastically well and only ever fell out over music. I wanted it playing in our room before games; he craved silence.” What kind of music? “Well, I really loved Gloria Estefan.” (Your correspondent sympathises with Toomba).

That second match, Cuthbertson’s first at Murrayfield, was a victory over Wales to end a six-year losing streak. “Steve Fenwick tackled Andy Irvine without the ball. The place erupted and we were awarded a penalty try. I remember thinking: ‘So this is international rugby.’” Back in Ayrshire, though, the internationalist went about his business quietly. “The other mechanics at the garage would ask on the Monday: ‘Good game? Did you win?’ They weren’t rugby boys and Troon wasn’t a place that got terribly excited about anything.”

1981 would be Cuthbertson’s most prolific year. There were seven appearances, including narrow defeats at Twickenham and in Dunedin to Graham Mourie’s All Blacks. The latter match was played in what the history books record as “sweeping sheets of rain”. The wet stuff reached biblical proportions for a game against Romania with the SRU forced to allow the sodden fans without cover entry to the main stand. None of this was doing much for Cubby’s flyaway strands of hair but he didn’t mind. “I’m from Ayrshire, don’t forget,” he smiles. And then, on 19 December, 1981, came Australia and their captain, Tony Shaw, another virtual baldy who revelled in the nickname Crazy Eyes.

“The most imprudent punch there had ever been,” was ex-internationalist Chris Rea’s report of Shaw’s assault in The Scotsman. Cuthbertson “was, to quote PG Wodehouse, laid out as flat as a Dover sole”. The incident is frozen in Murrayfield legend. “Conditions were arctic. One of the groundsmen told me he’d not known cold like it for 20 years,” says Cuthbertson. But there’s been testimony from Tomes that his chum might have faked the blow. What happened?

“No, Shaw slugged me all right. I provoked him, I suppose. He was arguing with Toomba and I interjected, telling him that as captain he should shut his mouth. He lamped me. Lying on the ground I saw a pair of feet. This was Keith Robertson, who said: ‘Stay down, Cubby, and we’ll get him sent off.’ So I did. I wasn’t knocked out but maybe everyone thought I had been.”

Shaw wasn’t sent off, but, more importantly for Cuthbertson, Scotland went on to record a stirring 24-15 victory.

The incident, it turns out, had both a preamble and an afterword featuring none other Erica Roe, the Twickenham streaker. “Before the game the Australians had played Glasgow when I’d invited Shaw to drink a yard of ale. I was only being hospitable, but he seemed to think I was trying to make a fool of him. It was a struggle for him to force it all down and he said, ‘I’ll get you back.’ He obviously did.”

The punch reverberated round the Aussie camp. Shaw was dropped for the Wallabies’ game against England when Roe bounced into rugby folklore. Cuthbertson was told that a photograph of the punch was hanging in a London private members’ club popular with rugger types and was keen to see it for himself, but the image had been quickly replaced by the shot of Roe with a policeman’s helmet protecting her modesty. “Later I was playing for Harlequins in the club’s sevens tournament. The prize for winning it, we were told, was Erica joining us in the showers, but unfortunately we got knocked out in the semi-finals. She did all right for herself, though, and married a millionaire.”

By the following summer when Scotland were touring Down Under – and still beating Australia – Shaw was no longer captain but he was still throwing punches and in the 12-7 dark blue victory in Brisbane, Crazy Eyes decked Colin Deans.

“I suppose there might have been a build-up to that incident as well,” Cubby says. “An Australian reporter asked me about what had happened in Edinburgh. I told him there were no hard feelings. Shaw had apparently apologised, although not to me so maybe the SRU. These things happened in games, I said. Then I added, just as a throwaway remark which I didn’t want used: ‘I’ve got a little dent in my nose so the bastard has marked me for life.’

“Of course the reporter used it. My comment was the headline above a photo of me. There was a tour rule of ten dollar fines for anyone getting their picture in the papers. This was supposed to hit the backs the hardest because they always got the tries and 
the glory. I was fined an additional ten for swearing.”

So did the punch victim ever get his retaliation in first while playing for his country? “There were two occasions. Once on that tour, the other time against Wales – both under orders from my great captain, Jim Aitken. No one was proud of those moments, but something had to be done. The problems were sorted out.”

Was playing lock for Cubby a bit like getting under the bonnet of the car – a specialised job which the uninitiated might view as scary and claustrophobic? He laughs. “I loved the intensity of second row – to the other guys I was a doormat and invariably last to get up from a ruck – but it wasn’t for everyone. I remember Iain Paxton having to play there after I’d been dropped and saying afterwards: ‘I don’t care if this costs me caps but I’m never going inside that dreadful place again!’”

Cuthbertson had three match-day superstitions. “A friend who had cancer was trying to develop velcro tie-ups – they might have made him a bit of money but sadly he died – so I used to pull down my socks at the end of games to show I was thinking of him. I told my club this and the Kilmarnock boys said: ‘You’ll have to do something for us.’ I started running out last. Then my wife wanted something, so I turned up my collar for her and pretty soon the whole Scotland team was doing the same.”

These tics saw father-of-two Cubby through 1983’s 25-all draw with New Zealand and the following year’s Calcutta Cup triumph in the 100th match against England as well as a few epic encounters with Wales. Not all of these concluded with a flying fist; once he sat up with Geoff Wheel drinking vodka and orange, eventually by the pint. This was lock-talk; you or I wouldn’t have understood it.

He played in Scotland’s first triumph in Cardiff for 20 years – 34-18 in 1982 – and the follow-up win two years later. The former featured our greatest-ever try, begun by Roger Baird’s dance along the touchline and finished by Jim Calder as if he was plunging a sword into a rock. “It’s a little-known fact that I started that move. I turned up at full-back, kicked for touch and found Gareth Davies who launched the ball gathered by Roger. That’s what I tell folk, anyway.”

But it’s another encounter with the Welsh dragon – the one at Murrayfield between those two victories in the Principality – which for Cuthbertson summed up his pride at getting mucky for the Scottish cause and sorting out the engine. “I got a bad injury – muscle in my arm had been ripped away from the bone. Down the tunnel the physio was asking me to hold the arm in the air for five seconds but I couldn’t and Telfer was shouting: ‘Can he carry on? I need to know now.’ I asked to try again and the physio said: ‘This man is ready to play for his country.’ These words were like a bolt of adrenalin and I ran back on to the park.”

It was an effort – during scrums, the back-row boys had to place Cubby’s arm round Toomba – but he got through the rest of the game. And let the records show that no punches were needed.