It is in character that Ross Ford should have announced his retirement in a dead week of the close season. One would have liked to see him take his leave after sixty or seventy minutes of an international match at a packed Murrayfield so that he could receive the grateful and admiring applause that he deserves. But he has never been a player to seek, let alone hog, the limelight .For him, a match has always been about the team, not himself.
He retires as Scotland’s most-capped player, and, considering that he has played at a time when Scotland have lost more matches, especially in the Six Nations, than we have won, it’s a remarkable achievement to have retained the confidence and respect of a succession of coaches. Even in the professional era, which is all Ross has known , since he left Kelso to join the Border Reivers as a baby-faced recruit, a selector-coach is more likely to change a losing side than a winning one. But Frank Hadden, Andy Robinson, Scott Johnson, Vern Cotter and Gregor Townsend have all been content, most of the time anyway, to put their trust in him.
There are positions in which Scotland have often been weak, or for which selectors have had few choices. Hooker isn’t one of them. Norman Bruce, a Gala man and Army officer who played most of his club rugby in England,first for Blackheath, then for London Scottish, won 32 caps between 1958 and 1964, forming a great front row with Hugh McLeod and David Rollo. He was succeeded by Melrose’s Frank Laidlaw, unchallenged for six years during which he went on two Lions tours. Then in the 80s there was Hawick’s Colin Deans (52 caps) and for a couple of years at least arguably the best hooker in the world; also an unfortunate one, being kept out of the Lions Test XV in New Zealand in 1983 because the Tour captain was Ireland’s Ciaran Fitzgerald, not in Deans’ class in any department of the game. Deans was hooker in the 1984 Grand Slam winning team, the Herioter Kenny Milne, brother of the more famous “Bear” Iain, had the role in the 1990 version. Gordon Bulloch took possession of the No 2 jersey in 1997 and retained it till 2005. He won 75 caps, played in the side that won the last Five Nations title in 1999, and was one of the last Scottish players to start a Test for the Lions.
Ford of course has never been without challengers, and to have held them off most of the time for so long is remarkable. Like every other player, he has had his critics. Some said he wasn’t sufficiently assertive, that there wasn’t enough devil in his play. There was something in that, but players like England’s Dylan Hartley, who have that “devil” in them run into different trouble and sometimes let their side down. Still Ford had no great success as captain of Scotland, being more inclined perhaps to lead by example rather than exhortation.
At times his throwing-in to the line-out was criticized. No doubt he had the occasional days when he was less accurate than usual. But it’s not always the hooker’s fault when line-outs go wrong. Jumpers can misjudge their leap just as often as the hooker misjudges his throw. Again, he wasn’t a natural hooker, being more inclined, in the modern style, to push and drive over the ball than to strike and win a quick heel. But, as I say, this is common now,and it’s partly because props are now more often engaged in trying to disrupt the opposition prop than in supporting their hooker as he strikes for the ball.
Despite Scotland’s overall record and many disappointments, Ross Ford has been on the winning side against every country except – of course – New Zealand. He has played in three World Cups and he might, I suppose, have been included in the squad for this year’s one if he hadn’t missed most of his last season for Edinburgh while recovering from injury. Certainly one thought that his experience and character would have made him a more than useful presence in the Scotland squad.
No doubt someone will surpass his record of 110 Scotland caps, probably only a few years down the line. It’s also the case of course that he won a good few of his early caps as a replacement, coming on usually for less than the last- half-hour of the match, also that, unlike Frank Laidlaw and Colin Deans who played before tactical replacements were permitted, he may never have played the full eighty minutes of an international. But that’s the way things are now, and it doesn’t detract from his achievement.It requires resolution and character to play international rugby for a dozen years, and these are qualities Ross Ford has never lacked. He has served his clubs, his country and the game of rugby splendidly.