Accentuating the positive

Richie Dixon can’t name his worst moment in rugby. Not even a bad moment. The man whose playing career was ended by a horrendous multi-fracture of a leg at the age of 32, who was discarded as Scotland coach and whose win-loss record in Europe with Glasgow Caledonians is firmly in the red, doesn’t have a negative thought about the game. The slings and arrows of outrageous rugby fortune have bounced - and are still bouncing - off his broad back.

Thus, while many coaches would still be gnashing teeth about the downpour that ended last weekend’s Welsh/Scottish match at Pontypridd at half-time with the Reds winning 21-14 and heading for outright leadership in the league, the fatalistic Dixon was able to praise the referee for his common sense. "Just one of those things." he says. "I never worry about things I can do nothing about. There’s no point in jumping up and down waving your arms. Life’s like that."

Most journalists who travelled down to Sardis Road on October 7 for the European Cup-tie will recall another little Dixon cameo that illustrated his priceless ability to survive fate’s sneaky punches undamaged when, after a conclusive 40-25 defeat, the Reds coach came over to the press pack and thanked them for making the journey down to Wales.

Those same journalists will probably contrast that with the even longer journey they made to see Edinburgh Reivers badly beaten by Birarritz, particularly the ones who, with deadlines looming, were asked to leave the visitors’ dressing room at the Parc des Sports - by Reivers’ assistant physio.

If coaches tend to create teams in their own image it is the positive philosophies of Dixon that colour the Reds and is undoubtedly the difference between Scotland’s two professional sides. The Reds have the old-time, warm-beer feel of a rugby club about them; the Reivers the ambience of a particularly strict boarding school. Reds players are freely available to the media, the Reivers subject to the constraints of a "media relations officer". This may be seen in some quarters as 21st century rugby professionalism, but as Dixon points out: "Players are not children."

Dixon’s sun-shiny philosophies undoubtedly have their roots in his Darling Buds of May upbringing on a Chirnside farm in Berwickshire, the middle of three rugby-playing brothers.

He says: "It was a very happy childhood on a working farm, with lots of kids playing from dawn to dusk. The farmer would mark out pitches for us for all sorts of games. It was a sporting, fresh-air life, something kids probably miss nowadays."

Dixon’s playing career, initially as a back, began at Berwickshire High School and progressed in time-honoured fashion through South of Scotland Schoolboys to district level and the B side, with one match on the Scotland bench, praying that an injury to Iain Lambie would give him a full cap. Lambie recovered and it never happened but, as Dixon is fond of remarking, "that’s life".

It was at Jordanhill College, in 1972, that Bill Dickinson announced he was going to play Dixon as a No8. "I was the tallest guy in the team and I was playing in the centre. I broke my leg down in Sunderland. In four places, but that’s life, it was just one of those things. I played a couple of games after that to prove I could do it, but I was 32 at the time, a PE teacher, and I moved into coaching - Glasgow Under-21s, the national Under-21s, the B team with Ian McGeechan, then the senior side, first with Dougie Morgan and then with David Johnston."

The Dixon/Johnston partnership with Scotland found the odds loaded against them from the start. When they took over before the 1995 Five Nations, the core of the successful Grand Slam side of 1990 and the World Cup squad of 1991 and ’95 had retired. There was another small matter: the arrival of professionalism.

"Scotland were in a cycle when you had fewer of the top-quality players and that went on to the end of the 90s," says Dixon. "From 1993 to almost the current team we didn’t have so many of the household names. Don’t get me wrong, the players who did come in still tried to give heart and soul to the cause, but there was that core missing.

"After the ’95 World Cup we were hit by professionalism and all of a sudden the whole thing was in a state of flux. Everything was new to everybody else. Players who were joiners, lawyers, schoolteachers whatever and doing their best one day, suddenly became ‘professionals’ and different animals. They were not supposed to make a mistake, everything had to be right because these guys were getting paid for it.

"The levels of expectation of everyone changed dramatically and that was nobody’s fault, that’s life. David Johnston and I were under real pressure but the guys under worst pressure were players who played amateur for Scotland one week and next week were professionals playing for Scotland.

"There had to be someone accountable, and that’s fair enough. We hit a run of losses (six defeats in eight internationals in 1996-7) and the mentality was there had to be changes and we happened to be the people there at the time. But I never had any thoughts of giving it up, because you never give up on anything. At no time did I ever think of walking away from things. I’m an optimist, I very seldom get down. You get knocked on your back and you just get up again."

When the end came in January, 1998, Dixon took the news somewhat better than Johnston, whose newspaper columns still betray lingering bitterness.

Dixon recalls: "I was older and possibly more philosophical. I’d had a few hard knocks. My life was rugby, David was a lawyer and had another side to his life, Michelle, a young family, and I could understand why he felt like that.

"But he is still a young man and has time to come back into coaching, and I am sure there will be an opportunity if that is what he wants."

For now, Dixon, who took over as Reds coach from the New Zealander Keith Robertson in April, 1999, after rebuilding his career with London Scottish and the Under-19 side, is "trying to be as positive as possible for this particular team," and, hardly surprisingly, is a fierce defender of the professional-team concept and the Welsh/Scottish League as a conduit to progress internationally.

"Never before have Scottish players had to front up so consistently as they do now, and it’s every week. When I was a player, I was in a successful team, but quite honestly there were only three games every year where you had to play out of your skin. Now it’s every week."

Dixon, in his 53 years, may not have a worst moment in rugby and his best moment may still have to arrive. Until then, it’s "the day I first got involved in the game". That’s life; Richie Dixon’s life.