David Denton: Recollections of that Scotland v Australia match, being forced to retire and team's identity

It’s a vale of tears. “Devastating,” says one Scotland fan. “Heartbreaking,” remarks another. While – very Scottish, very hair-shirt and congealed porridge – the supporter calling himself Fuzzy Duck wails: “I watch this when I need to cry.”

Denton played 42 times for Scotland before concussion forced him to quit rugby
Denton played 42 times for Scotland before concussion forced him to quit rugby

“This” is a replay of our 2015 World Cup demise at the hands of Australia and these are some of the thousands of comments logged by YouTube, among them the condolences of followers of the game from all the airts while another adherent of the dark blue cause adds: “It took three long years and us beating England for me to face my fears and watch again.”

So what was that fateful quarter-final like as a player? How did it feel being part of the greatest hard-luck story in Scottish sport, the biggest near-miss – and irrefutable evidence that no one snatches defeat from the jaws of victory quite like us?

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With the Aussies due at Murrayfield tomorrow I’ve sought out David Denton, the 42-cap blond bombshell breakaway. Being Zimbabwe-born but with a Scottish mum extremely proud of all he achieved, I’m also keen to hear his views on an issue which was simmering before Scotland began their autumn campaign against Tonga with nine of the ten tries being scored by players not born here – namely the team’s identity and whether it’s being harmed by the search for talent abroad. But the first question has to be: how is he?

Going for one of the hits he loved in what turned out to be his final Scotland appearance, against Argentina in 2018

In 2019, just before the next World Cup when, at the peak of his powers aged 29, he would have hoped to continue his rampages from the back of the scrum, concussion forced Denton to quit the game.

“Health-wise I’m good,” he reports, now 31 and back living in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge after his sojourn playing in England was cruelly ended. “I pretty much had a headache for a year and a half. I couldn’t read, couldn’t exercise, couldn’t drink. There were moments when I thought: ‘Jesus, is there something really wrong here?’ But for 90 percent of the time I was telling myself: ‘This is going to get better, this is going to be all right.’ Thankfully I’m a very positive person.”

This was evident when we met in 2014, also in Stockbridge, and despite a dismal Six Nations for Scotland – thrashed 51-3 by Wales, no points scored against England, Finn Russell yet to emerge – Denton upbraided me as our chat drew to a close. “You haven’t asked me about the World Cup,” he said. “It would be very easy for me to say we’re going to win the thing.”

Seven years ago we drank coffee. Today, his race run, we can have beers.

In typical barnstorming action against Wales in 2016

So: Twickenham, the Wallabies and Craig Joubert. Underneath his bedhead, Denton smiles wryly when I read out the tear-stained reflections on that tragic, last-minute 35-34 outcome.

“Brutal,” is the first word he uses. “We were five minutes away from the semi-finals of the World Cup, from a game against a beaten-up Argentina. I’d love to have a shirt from the final on the wall back in the house but sadly I don’t.

“As a rugby player you’re conditioned not to get over-the-top-excited or, the opposite, too lax. But this was the World Cup. I’d watched it as a kid, excited just to hear the intro music. And there we were at Twickenham as the home team. That was amazing.

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“I remember getting off the bus, the walk into the stadium, the place mental with Scots. I remember their kick-off coming straight to me. I remember Mark [Bennett’s] interception try and I remember the heavens opening. I don’t want to be too cringe but that was a pretty cool moment. Then I remember whispering to myself ‘Semi-final!’ but immediately putting that right out of my head.

“Those were five mad minutes. We committed so many errors: dropping the kick-off, a poor exit and then we buggered up another. Ultimately, though, the game’s infamous for coming down to that refereeing decision.”

Joubert called a penalty for offside at a lineout which five and a half million about-to-burst Scots, many fair-minded Aussies and, retrospectively, rugby officialdom agreed was the wrong judgement. We were out and so was Joubert: bulleting down the tunnel like a bat out of hell, like the favourite Baywatch girl of Chandler from Friends: “Run, Yasmine Bleeth, run like the wind!”

Says Denton: “The lineout was meant for me but went over my head so the incident happened behind me. It came up on the big screen and Greig [Laidlaw] was saying to the ref: ‘Look up there, people make mistakes, just call the TMO.’” Really? How did the captain remain so equable? “Well, he started off reasonable. He was trying to influence the guy. But then Bernard Foley was lining up his kick. ‘I was muttering: ‘Miss it, you bastard!’

“We still had a few seconds but then another mistake – the kick-off went too deep. If we’d won the ball back we could have gone through 30 phases and forced them into a mistake. Damn, we were so near. Just crap.

“But afterwards in the changing-room, no one kicked any doors. What can you say at times like those? For a long time there was total silence. Eventually Greig did speak, then Vern [Cotter, head coach]. Honestly, I can’t remember what they said, but it would have something about how well we’d played, how proud we should have been and how the team would learn from what had happened. Shit, look how well Scotland are doing right now.

“I’m not bitter about 2015. Mistakes are always going to happen. But the best teams in all sports, when it comes down to the last five minutes, find a way to win. We had a few beers in the changing-room, went back to the hotel to see our families, and then a few of us went into town. But it wasn’t a mad one – everyone was so gutted.”

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But then came the sympathy, a cascade of soothing messages. “A lot of sportsmen have a negative relationship with social media but there can be a huge positive to it as well. None of us could get through all the lovely stuff people were saying about the team because there was so much of it. I guess that happens to footballers a lot; rugby players not so often. It was cool there was so much appreciation for what we’d tried to do. That was really special.”

Denton’s stirring tournament form provided some consolation. Off the back of it came a big-money move from Edinburgh to Bath but the two years there weren’t the best. “I coasted,” he admits, and his Scotland form suffered. “I was too immature to see that I’d played my best rugby when I’d gone above and beyond. I had no appreciation for the ‘one percenters’: diet, recovery, analysis. When I first came over here I was this carefree kid crashing around the rugby field who could get by on natural talent having got lucky genetically. More was needed at a club like Bath and I had to figure out so much about myself down there. When you’re young you don’t have to think about mortgages, family, responsibilities. There was all kinds of pressure on me and I handled it in the wrong way. I tried not to think about it. Man, I was just too relaxed.

“Unfortunately when I got mature, switching to Worcester Warriors, playing well there, got back into the international team, accepted what it took to sustain consistent performances, then moved to Leicester Tigers on a three-year deal but played just six games for them, it all came to an end. I don’t miss rugby but that’s haunted me.”

The hit which did for him happened in October, 2018. “Did I fear the worst? No, I went out for dinner that night. I wasn’t knocked out and couldn’t tell you the name of the other guy. [It was Northampton Saints’ Cobus Reinach]. I made a textbook tackle and his hip bone struck my temple. It was just bad luck.

“I was involved in multiple collisions so much bigger than that one – too many to count. The way I played was physical and abrasive. Defensively I was technical but offensively I was brute force. Was I reckless, for my own safety at least? I don’t know but I loved getting up a head of steam and running full blast into guys. That’s the rugby I grew up watching, the rugby I played from a young age and the rugby – big hits, bravery – that the crowds love. Without all of that I wouldn’t have had a career in the game. But I suppose the way I played was why it ended for me.”

When eventually Denton was told by his neurosurgeon “I am not comfortable with you continuing to play rugby”, he’d been fearing the worst for a while. “When you’re out for six months with concussion you know what direction you’re going – and for me it had been a whole year of different specialists, of tests and scans, of all kinds of remedies so in the end I’d made peace with what the outcome was likely to be.”

Concussion is a huge and frightening issue for rugby right now – where does this victim think the sport goes from here? “It was an enormous step to limit contact training but, really, a no-brainer. Now I’d like to see the game geared more to attacking play, giving it the advantage, because at the moment defences are so strong. When I started I was running one against one but when I finished I’d be smashed by two guys every time. There are changes in the rules being trialled like the 50:22 kick which would push back wingers and free up more space. And maybe we get rid of the jackal to stop defences slowing down the ball.”

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Nowadays Denton muses on the sport he still loves from his sofa in Stockbridge, grown-up responsibilities now being his life and fully embraced. There’s South African wife Shelley, by his side since he was 16 and who he thanks for her love and support during the trauma of the last few years, while three-year-old son Logan will next month welcome a little brother. He can pay the mortgage thanks to a new career in finance which he loves, although of course it’s not rugby.

He says: “What can replace running out in front of 100,000 folk, singing the anthem, playing your heart out for your country? Nothing.” And Scotland is his country with his Glasgow-born mum Joy back in Harare having indoctrinated him with renditions of “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond”. She’s still in the Zimbabwean capital but is currently trying to persuade her husband Tim they should move to Edinburgh where Denton’s brother Jack has also relocated.

Half-Scottish counts as sound credentials. Many bigger nations will recruit based on more obscure back-stories. So where does Denton stand on the identity issue? “Speaking for myself, as soon as I decided I wanted to try for international honours, it was always going to be Scotland for me. I was 18 when I came over here and went through the system – club, under 20s, academy – but some won’t think about Scotland until they get to 24 and I reckon that’s fine.

“In rugby, countries operate within set limitations and I don’t think you blame players for wanting to chase their dreams. If you look at some of the guys from abroad playing for Scotland at the moment, they probably couldn’t be further from being Scottish in the strictest sense but you can sense the passion they have for the jersey. I don’t think adopting a country is something to be snarky about.”

We have a couple more pints for the road as Denton remembers his Six Nations debut, against England in 2012, “like it was yesterday”, beginning with the Tuesday team meeting and head coach Andy Robinson’s flip-chart: “He turned it over and knowing No 8 would be halfway down the list my eyes went straight there. Honestly, after that I didn’t hear a single word he said. When the meeting was finished I rushed away to phone my parents who flew over from Harare the next day. My grandfather, Richard Cole-Hamilton, former captain of the R&A, came by train from Troon then walked to Murrayfield, a good effort for the old boy. That game was a springboard for me.” He was named man of the match.

“Do you know, I had to stop watching rugby when I retired. It was all I’d known in my life until then. Since Jonah Lomu in the ’95 World Cup I’d lived and breathed it from the age of five and I needed a break. But now I can be a fan.

“Forced to stop, I resented all the things I failed to achieve. But really, what would 20 more caps have meant? Don’t get me wrong: every time I played for Scotland I considered myself blessed. Just for a human being living on this earth, my God these were awesome experiences.

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“Playing on was outwith my control just as beating Australia was. Just the other day, though, while waiting on a plane, I was scrolling through photos on my phone and found some from that game. I don’t think we can win it now, it’s probably gone full-time. But what a great match, what a fantastic Scotland performance.”

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