There was no good reason for confidence before the 1999 Five Nations. We had won only one match the previous season and that by only a single point. Three defeats had followed on a summer tour, once in Fiji, twice in Australia. The autumn was no better. We lost to the New Zealand Maoris and South Africa. That second match featured the first appearance of John and Martin Leslie. Sons of a former All Blacks’ captain, they had been in Scotland for less than a month. Martin would commit himself fully to Scotland. John’s career here was brief but, playing at inside centre, he made a big contribution in 1999.
Indeed he scored a try in the first minute of the opening match against Wales at Murrayfield, catching Duncan Hodge’s kick-off and galloping free. It was an exciting match, full of running rugby, one in which the lead changed several times. Just after half-time Hodge was injured. Gregor Townsend moved from 12 to 10 and Alan Tait came on as substitute. This was unfortunate for Hodge who had been playing well, but 1999 was to be Townsend’s year. He would score a try in all four tournament matches, the first Scotland player to do so since Johnnie Wallace (who was Australian) in 1925. Meanwhile Tait, in the evening of his career, had a splendid season.
So to Twickenham. England, not for the first or last time, had broken ranks, and their home matches were on SKY, not the BBC. Not having SKY then, I watched this in the Selkirk clubhouse. The first quarter of an hour was punctuated by groans and sighs as England scored two converted tries to go 14-0 up and drinks were dolefully recharged. Then Scotland woke up. Townsend made a break, creating a try for Tait. Half –time, 7-17, hope flickering. Tait scored a second try, converted by Kenny Logan. England stretched further ahead. Townsend read a pass, intercepted and scored under the posts. 21-24. The match finished with Scotland ascendant, but victory at Twickenham elusive as ever. Many said we should have won because Logan missed three kickable penalties, but of course if he had kicked any, everything afterwards would have been different.
Ireland were then well beaten, 30-13, at Murrayfield with two tries by Hawick’s Cammy Murray on the right wing, one by Townsend and a glorious one finished by Stuart Grimes after Townsend had made a break from within our 22.
And so to Paris on a glorious April afternoon. This time, remarkably, it was Scotland who played the champagne rugby. After conceding a try after a couple of minutes, they would score five themselves in the next half-hour. Tries came so thick and fast that it was hard to keep count or indeed to believe one’s eyes.There were two by Martin Leslie, two by Tait and, of course, one by Townsend. In the second half, strangely, there was only a single score, a Logan penalty as Scotland won 33-20. With the possible exception of the 1986 Calcutta Cup, no Scotland team I have watched has played more exhilarating rugby than Gary Armstrong’s team did that afternoon in Paris. Armstrong in his last season played as well as ever in his long career.
The next afternoon Wales dramatically beat England with Neil Jenkins’ last-minute conversion of Scott Gibbs’ try, and Scotland were the Five Nations champions. In their four matches they had scored 16 tries. The 1984 Grand Slam team scored ten, the 1990 only six. Tries aren’t everything of course, and nothing in 1999 quite equalled the intensity and drama of the final matches against France in 1984 and England in 1990. Nevertheless there’s a case for saying that in almost seven decades of watching international rugby no Scotland team I have seen has come closer to playing the ideal rugby of one’s dreams than the 1999 one.
This last Five Nations raised hopes that were soon disappointed. Failure in that autumn’s World Cup was excusable – defeats by South Africa, the reigning champions , in the pool stage, and New Zealand in the quarter-final were excusable. Defeat in Rome in the first match of the new Six Nations was a nasty surprise, followed soon by a heavy loss to Ireland in Dublin. A whitewash was prevented only by a narrow but brave victory in the Calcutta Cup, a match played in conditions almost as appalling, though not as farcical, as this season’s one. Scotland entered on a long period of decline, alleviated only by the occasional stirring victory, more often achieved by grit and resolution than the adventurous play of 1999. Ian McGeechan, returning for a second spell as chief coach, was unable to repeat his previous success, and consistency of selection which had contributed to that success gave way to inconsistency. When he was replaced by the Australian Matt Williams after the 2003 World Cup , things got worse still, much worse.
So 1999 now looks more like a glorious sunset than a bright shining morn. Nevertheless that sunset had indeed been gorgeous.
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