Paul Burnell '“ fierce Scottish patriot of the Lions

There aren't many Scots, either in football or rugby, who have played in three World Cups. While Edinburgh-born Paul Burnell spent just the first three of his 51 years living in the country he represented with such distinction, there was no fiercer patriot on a rugby pitch.

Paul Burnell sings the national anthem ahead of Scotlands 14-3 defeat by France in Paris in 1993. Picture: Ian Rutherford.
Paul Burnell sings the national anthem ahead of Scotlands 14-3 defeat by France in Paris in 1993. Picture: Ian Rutherford.

But he’s also one of a seemingly dying breed – Scots who have started for the British and Irish Lions in a Test match.

It’s why we’ve made the journey to speak to him in London, on the eve of a clash with New Zealand where an unchanged side means the current tour is established as the first since 1908 not to feature a Scot in a Test.

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Burnell wasn’t the last to start a Test – that honour remains the preserve of another prop, Tom Smith, at the end of the last century. But he is one of the last few, picked at tighthead for the opener against the All Blacks in 1993 along with skipper Gavin Hastings and hooker Kenny Milne, on a tour sharing compelling similarities to the current one, down to a winner-takes-all clash at Eden Park.

Burnell will be listening to today’s game on the radio, en route to one of his sons’ school speech days. He watched the previous two at his Surrey home, where a British and Irish Lions jersey hangs framed on a wall. It’s not only precious to him. It’s precious to all Scots, a seeming relic of a past age. But Burnell is more circumspect, identifying hope for the future and a re-engagement with the Lions cause for those currently feeling disconnected.

“I think we have to be honest with ourselves,” he says. “Have there been enough Scots good enough for the Lions?

“I am a traditionalist,” he adds. “Put your head to one side and with your heart you’d say Scots are good tourists. The British and Irish Lions have traditionally been a good blend of people from different nations that bring something different to a squad. There has to be a balance between that and picking a side to beat the All Blacks. I am not sure they have it completely right. I think there should be a few more Scots picked. But, ultimately, you have to be the best player in your position. Ultimately, you need to win.

“Hopefully, the disconnect, if there is one, is not too long lasting,” he continues. “If you look at the Scotland side now, there’s a number of players who in four years’ time will be genuine contenders for the tour to South Africa.

“Ultimately what should be happening, whether you are Scottish, Welsh, Irish or English, is everyone getting behind the 23 players who are out there to win. Everyone will be over the moon if a British and Irish side have beaten the All Blacks away from home.”

Burnell now works just a short grubber-kick away from the Savoy hotel, meaning we should really be in the Savoy Grill putting the Lions’ 1993 tour under the microscope, over a glass of something cool and smooth.

Because that’s what it was like over there, wasn’t it? Work hard, play hard. One last hurrah before last orders were called on the amateur era.

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The longer the trip went on the more marked, supposedly, grew the differences between the Dirt-trackers’ side and the Test one. The suspicion the former were not taking things seriously enough seemed to be underlined by a heavy defeat to Waitako on the penultimate match of the tour, with a certain Warren Gatland running in one of the tries.

Burnell was playing for the midweek Lions, having been replaced by good friend Jason Leonard, switched from loosehead, in the Test side. “If you drop your performance by not much you’re in the spotlight,” he says now. “I had to take it on the chin and support the boys – Jason played fantastically. Probably the selection was justified – not probably, definitely.”

It might have been different had the Lions not had victory snatched from them in the first Test with seconds remaining after the award of a dubious penalty.

But they responded with a famous 20-7 victory in the second outing, in Wellington, before losing the final match 30-13. Burnell again watched from the bench, his active participation by now restricted to games for a midweek team forced to fend off criticism about their attitude, with the Scottish forwards coming under scrutiny.

“There are lots of things written with some criticism, particularly aimed at the Scotsmen, that it wasn’t taken as seriously as possible,” says Burnell. “But actually all 30 players had a good time socially and all 30 tried their hardest in games and in training. There were a couple of results that did not go particularly well. A loss v Hawke’s Bay – there were a lot more English, Irish and Welsh in that side than Scots, and the same in the game everyone quotes against Waitako.

“There were as many Englishmen, Irishmen and Welshmen who had equally as bad a day at the office as Scotsmen.

“I think it is a bit unfair some of the finger pointing that still goes on,” he adds.

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“Was it a good tour socially? Yes it was. But why shouldn’t it be sometimes fun as well as working extremely hard on the pitch and training ground? Everyone was cognisant of the history and how it important it was.”

While growing up in south-east England Burnell did not have designs on winning a single Scotland cap, never mind 52 of them, spanning 1990’s Grand Slam and 1999’s Five Nations championship win. He remains the most capped Scotland player out of London Scottish, where he was appointed president last month.

He was born in Edinburgh because his father, Keith, was working there at the time. When he was relocated to Reading, the family returned south of the Border.

Sports careers can hinge on such small, seemingly insignificant moments as someone turning the page of a local newspaper to have their eye caught by an advert looking to recruit players for what Burnell terms as “this new sport called mini-rugby”.

The person sitting in an armchair idly flicking through his newspaper was his father, who remained an unstinting supporter of his son’s rugby career until his death earlier this year.

“I remember growing up my dad standing outside in the street with a stop watch timing me all those years ago,” says Burnell, who still looks trim for a prop.

He graduated from Marlow rugby club to Leicester Tigers, in the city where he had gone to study. It fed his developing rugby obsession.

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“I was in the same dressing room as Dusty Hare, Les Cusworth, Nick Youngs, Paul Dodge, Clive Woodward and Dean Richards. Training with them was a really good education.”

Burnell was a relentless trainer, a helpful trait considering he straddled both amateur and professional eras. He coped seamlessly with the transition, turning professional at London Scottish and earning £50,000 a year initially. It made temporarily stepping away from a career in asset finance worth his while.

“At that point I was lucky, I had been to university, had a reasonably good degree in land management and law, and then I got a good job, so I had a career going.

“When the game went professional it was like a boy’s own dream to be paid for what you love doing. I was pleased to have that chance from 1995-2001.”

Burnell moved to French club Montferrand for two years, then had a decision to make. “Do I stay in rugby in some capacity or go back to industry? At that point I could not afford to stay in rugby. I didn’t want to, to be honest. I could not see how I could earn a living until I was 65 coaching rugby.

“At that point a career path was not well defined. And I am quite risk-averse. I got my CV back in the market place and got myself back into the same industry of structured finance.

“I stopped playing rugby end of June and started my job on 1 August, back here in the City.”

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Now a partner at Redgrave Partners, with surely one of the more exclusive addresses in Savoy Court, Burnell is just the sort of character to provide stability to London Scottish, the Richmond-based club that 
were struggling to reach an accommodation with the Scottish Rugby Union about developing a useful partnership.

Who better to navigate a path than Burnell, whose impeccable Scotland rugby credentials are reinforced by hearing he’s already ordered – and paid for – tickets for the forthcoming Autumn test v the All Blacks, against whom he won his final cap 18 years ago.

“We are proud as a club to be part of the SRU and the stronger the relationship the better for us as a club, and for Scotland,” he says.

“We want to try and build an 
infrastructure. We are calling it ‘one club’, where the minis, youth, amateur and professional club are all as one club. Over the last few years the pro club has been separate from the amateur club. One of the things I see necessary for my role is how do we get back to the time – and I hate harking back to my time, or the old days – when London Scottish was a community.

“When a young Scotsman came to London for university or whatever London Scottish was a good home in terms of making friends, playing a good standard of rugby, helping get a job or accommodation.”

He accepts London Scottish won’t return to producing potential Scotland caps immediately. But they can at least look to begin nurturing players good enough to earn contracts with Glasgow and Edinburgh. After that, who knows?

“I am looking back with rose tinted glasses,” says Burnell. “But London Scottish have more capped Scotland players than any other club in the world, and certainly more capped players than any club in Scotland. It should be a big part of strengthening Scotland.”

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After helping buttress the Scotland front row for so long, Burnell certainly knows what’s required.