Rugby: Cracking the code Williams devised

If you thought rugby was complicated to the extent fans can be sold an electronic link-up to the referee (why doesn't football try this?) to help them understand decisions, think again.

With a bit of effort rugby can be much, much more obtuse - at least that was the case under controversial Australian coach Matt Williams during his brief, but disastrous, reign as Scotland coach from 2004-2006.

For example, consider this as a game plan for defensive situations as actually occured during the 2004 Six Nations encounter with Wales in Cardiff when, to compound matters, Williams handed out new caps to a string of players yet to come to terms with the hurly burly of internationals: Chris Paterson retreats to full back from stand off, centre Andy Henderson, playing out of position on the wing, shuffles into the No 12 channel and Tom Philip moves to stand off with full back Ben Hinshelwood coming into the vacated wing berth.

Still with the script? No, neither were the players...

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Understandably Scotland crashed to a predictable defeat as all Wales had to do was spin the ball wide to create openings.

Just part of the remarkable insight into what it means to play for Scotland as told in Behind the Thistle by Edinburgh-based authors David Barnes and Peter Burns. They interviewed 70 post-Second World War players in a quest to uncover the oval ball game's "heart and soul".

Among the most absorbing periods covered is the short but eventful period when Williams had control in an appointment acknowledged in the book as a "mistake" by the man who appointed him, Ian (now Sir Ian) McGeechan.

During this spell Scotland lurched from defeat to defeat although the verdict on the Williams' tenancy isn't altogether damning with Mike Blair showing magnanimity in setting aside the fact he lost his starting place to Chris Cusiter under the Australian to state: "Looking back I can see what Matt was trying to do in terms of changing the way we played and I liked a lot of his training and some of his ideas but to totally try and re-invent the way we played rugby was the wrong approach.

"He didn't understand the Scottish psyche at all. It's all very well telling someone they're crap to try and get a reaction but you have to then tell them when they've played well if they have and not just continue to tell them they're crap.

"After the Welsh game in 2004 he came into the changing room and told us that he was about to go out and face the press and that he would shoulder all the blame for our performance and the defeat, then he went out there and said that as players and as a squad that we were very inexperienced, that we weren't ready for this type of rugby yet and that it would take a year before we were capable of winning.

"That whole situation raised a lot of eyebrows. "Matt liked to think outside the box and I actually really enjoyed a lot of the stuff he did but some of it was just ridiculous. We all had the number 27 embroidered on our training kit - which represented the fact we were Scotland players 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. You add them all up: 2+4+7+3+6+5 and you get 27.

"It didn't strike a chord. It was meaningless."

Alleged duplicity by Williams finds an an echo, too, with Gregor Townsend in a frank admission which, to be fair, was also well aired in his own autobiography a few years ago.

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Townsend notes: "He (Williams) told me we had a dearth of international experience in midfield and that he wanted to blood new players. He was about to announce his Six Nations training squad ... and I wasn't in it.

"I told him I wanted to fight for my place but he was worried about PR ... that the press would focus on my exclusion rather than positive selections.

"He said that because of my reluctance to just disappear into the background he would publicly pick me for the squad but, in reality, I was banned from attending any training session and not be considered for any match-day squads."

There were happier moments with centre Andy Henderson prepared to have an open mind in recalling: "In fairness to Matt Williams he brought in guys like Chris Cusiter, Allister Hogg and Ross Ford who hae gone on to have pretty big careers for Scotland."

However the damage done was perhaps put into perspective by the way Scotland took off, for a time, under Frank Hadden with two Calcutta Cup wins and a rare victory over France before he, too, was deemed to have lost his way which brought the book into the Andy Robinson era where, for obvious reasons, the insights pretty much dry up.

Regardless, for all those with a deep love of rugby, its contemporary sporting history and intriguing gossip this is an unmissable tome.

Behind the Thistle by David Barnes and Peter Burns is publshed by Birlinn at 20.