Allan Massie: No long delays, hookers hooked and Bill McLaren ruled with the mic

Rugby was quicker in the amateur era and referees had no role in setting up scrums

Damian Cronin on his way to scoring Scotland's first try in the 37-21 win over Ireland in the 1989 Five Nations. Picture: Alan Macdonald

Watching the 1989 Scotland-Ireland match, an entertaining harum-scarum game, one couldn’t fail to be struck by the difference between then and now. A computer analysis would, I’m sure, reveal that the ball was in play for fewer minutes than is normal today. Yet the game looked much faster than it is now, partly because genuine rucking, which was still permitted, meant that the ball was cleared from the breakdown much more quickly, and partly because there were no, or at last very few, successions of one-pass, take the tackle, recycle, repetitive multi-phase rugby

Amateur players didn’t handle nearly as securely as professional ones do almost unfailingly now, and so neither side retained possession for long periods. Instead, stray or dropped passes and knock-ons in the tackle were often snapped up by opponents. Lineouts were also a bit of a lottery as today, with lifting legalised, they aren’t.

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One consequence of all this was that there were many more set scrums, even three or four times as many as is usual today. (It was, I should say, a very windy day, with some rain and a slimy ball.) But if there were many more scrums, almost every scrum was completed quickly. There was no role for the referee in setting up the scrum by stages, and, if a scrum collapsed it was immediately reset without a tutorial from the referee. I would guess that 30 scrums took no more time than ten do today. There were several strikes against the head, because hookers were still hookers, and I don’t recall one scrum in which the stronger pack advanced, with no intention of releasing the ball, in order to win a penalty.

Ruaridh Jackson, scoring the second of his two tries for Glasgow against Leinster in November, re-invented himself after returning from England. Picture: SNS/SRU

Place-kicks at goal took less time too, even though, it being a windy day, the kicker had sometimes to summon someone to hold the ball steady. But there was no waiting for an assistant coach to bring on a kicking tee, and both the kickers, Peter Dods and Michael Kiernan, seemed able to kick a goal without first refreshing themselves with a swig of water or some energy drink.

There being no TMO we were spared the lengthy confabulations that often seem to stretch out to the crack of doom, and the referee had to trust his own judgment, just as referees in amateur club rugby do every week. Consequently I would judge that the match lasted for no more than 85 minutes, including injury time rather than the hundred minutes that is now quite usual.

Finally, Bill McLaren’s commentary reminded one of something many commentators today often forget – or perhaps have never known: that the first duty of a commentator is to identify players. This matters much more to television viewers than the commentator’s opinions. Perhaps, I thought, watching this replay, every commentator should serve an apprenticeship on radio, as Bill did, before being allowed on television. Then I recalled Scotland’s World Cup warm-up game in Nice at which the radio commentary was so inept that one rarely knew who had the ball, who made a tackle, or even in which part of the field the play was. There was, however, no shortage of opinion.

I was thinking of the amateur days when the news came of Ruaridh Jackson’s retirement. His has been a distinguished career, even if he never quite established himself as Scotland’s first-choice stand-off as, first watching him in age-group rugby, I expected him to do; and now I found myself wondering if, as someone who often gave the impression of playing instinctively rather than according to plan, he might have been better suited to the amateur than the professional game. I daresay some coaches thought he went too often off-message. Nevertheless, he was always a pleasure to watch and on his return to Glasgow after spells with Harlequins and Wasps where he never quite seemed to have the confidence of coaches that his talent deserved, he re-invented himself very successfully as a full-back, a position in which his flair, intelligent reading of the flow of a game, and support play led to some brilliant tries, some scored by himself, others by a team-mate for whom he contrived space. Perhaps it was a mistake to have gone to England; his talents might have been better appreciated in France. Still, more than 30 caps for Scotland is pretty good, even if a number were as a replacement late in the game, and even if there is so much more international rugby now than in the amateur days. To put things in perspective Melrose’s David Chisholm, the best Scottish stand-off of the 1960s, won only 14 caps, John Rutherford, supreme and unchallenged from 1979 to 1987, won 44, and Dan Parks, whom Jackson replaced late in the match for his first cap against New Zealand in the autumn of 2010, played 67 times for Scotland between 2004 and 2012. Parks was a very good player, but certainly not more than four times better than Davie Chisholm.

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