Allan Massie: Hard luck stories told a sorry tale for Scots in early World Cups

John Rutherford's Scotland career was ended after a knee injury in Scotland's World Cup match against France in 1987. Picture: Colorsport/Shutterstock
John Rutherford's Scotland career was ended after a knee injury in Scotland's World Cup match against France in 1987. Picture: Colorsport/Shutterstock
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So, our squad has arrived in Japan after months, even years, of preparation, the players supported by a host of back-room staff. It was all very different at the first World Cup in New Zealand 32 years ago. Rugby was still an amateur game and preparation was amateurish.

The SRU had been doubtful about the project, likewise the Irish. Both feared that a World Cup would take the game a step further towards professionalism. Amateurism was already under strain. Players, especially from Wales, Australia and New Zealand, were already defecting to professional Rugby League. Nevertheless, we agreed to take part.

The Scotland team for that first World Cup was a strong one. Indeed, I’ve always thought that the 1986-87 team coached by Hawick’s Derrick Grant was better than either the 1984 or 1990 Grand Slam winning ones. It certainly played more adventurous and exciting rugby, not least in beating England 33-6 at Murrayfield in 1986. Unfortunately, one of the stars of that game – and indeed of the 1984 side – David Johnston, the speedy Watsonian centre affectionately known as “The Flying Ashtray”, was out of the game injured, his career ended, a year before the World Cup. As importantly, his fellow Watsonian Scott Hastings also missed the World Cup on account of injury.

The opening match was against France and the Scotland team was: Gavin Hastings; Matt Duncan, Keith Robertson, Douglas Wyllie, Iwan Tukalo; John Rutherford, Roy Laidlaw; David Sole, Colin Deans (captain), Iain Milne, Derek White, Alan Tomes, John Jeffrey, Iain Paxton, Finlay Calder. All but Duncan and Wyllie were or would be Grand Slam winners. The front-row of Sole, Deans and Milne – the Mighty “Bear” – was at least as good as any Scotland have ever fielded.

We began splendidly, Derek White scoring after Finlay Calder had broken from a line-out around the French 22. Then disaster struck. John Rutherford had suffered a knee injury a few weeks earlier at an unsanctioned tournament in Bermuda – evidence of the amateur spirit. Now, seven minutes into the game, the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee went again. His World Cup was over and, indeed, this was effectively the end for Scotland’s finest stand-off of the amateur era, certainly the finest since international rugby resumed in 1946-7. Dougie Wyllie moved to stand-off and the young Kelso centre Alan Tait came on to win his first cap. Tait was a great player, but he would soon follow his father’s example and switch to Rugby League, not returning to the Union game till 1997.

Scotland still led 13-6 at half-time, but then unconverted tries from Philippe Sella and Pierre Berbizier left Scotland only two in front at 16-14. Then came a controversial moment. France were awarded a penalty. The game seemed to stop to allow an injured player to receive treatment. But the French full-back Serge Blanco quickly took a tap penalty and scampered away to score under the posts, then converting his try to make it 20-16. It was like the try George North scored for Wales against England last month after Dan Biggar alertly kicked a diagonal from a penalty while the English players hung around waiting for a replacement to come on. Some thought Blanco’s action sharp practice or at least against the spirit of the game, but the Scottish players were guilty of inattention. Still they fought back. Roy Laidlaw made a break, passed to Derek White whose own pass put the rampaging Matt Duncan in at the corner: 20-20, a try being worth four points then. It all depended on a touchline conversion, but the kick from Gavin Hastings went just wide. Had he converted Duncan’s try, we would, after comfortable wins against Zimbabwe and Romania, have avoided playing the All Blacks in the quarter-final. We lost that 3-30, which sounds bad, but the half-time score was only 3-9, and 18 of New Zealand’s points came from penalties. We went a step further in 1991, reaching the semi-final. That tournament was played across England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and so we had the good fortune to play all our matches at Murrayfield. The semi-final against England was a tense unspectacular match, Will Carling’s men nervously aware of how on their last visit to Murrayfield – the 1990 Grand Slam game – they had lost a match which they, and most to the rugby world, confidently expected them to win comfortably. At 6-6 Gavin Hastings missed a kick in front of the posts. It later transpired that he was suffering from concussion. The previous year, close-range kicks had been given to Craig Chalmers. He kicked three penalty goals in the Grand Slam victory. He would probably have kicked this one. As it was, English stand-off Rob Andrew then dropped a goal to give them a 9-6 win. Given the dominance of the English forwards, we could scarcely feel hard done-by, but we have never come as close to World Cup success as we did in 1991.