Duncan Hodge: Memories of a European pioneer

Duncan Hodge is now one of Scotland's assistant coaches. Picture: SNS
Duncan Hodge is now one of Scotland's assistant coaches. Picture: SNS
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Former Edinburgh starlet reflects on lessons learned against game’s elite

You don’t always have to cross oceans to go on a journey of discovery. Sometimes a bus trip down the road can be just as much of an eye-opener.

Hodge in Heineken Cup action in 2001. Picture: Getty

Hodge in Heineken Cup action in 2001. Picture: Getty

That was definitely the case 18 years ago this week, when Scottish rugby entered European competition for the first time. The tournament was the Heineken Cup, the venue was Bath, and our first representatives – if only because their game kicked off two hours earlier than the Borders’ – were Edinburgh.

One look at the team sheet was enough to show you Bath’s quality, especially in the backs, where Jason Robinson and Henry Paul, both fresh from rugby league, played alongside Jeremy Guscott, Jon Callard and Mike Catt. Edinburgh’s ability, by contrast, was harder to gauge.

Although rugby union had only officially gone professional after the 1995 World Cup, the leading countries had been professional in all but name for years before that. So Scottish teams were playing catch-up, especially when it was decided that districts, not clubs, would be our representatives in Europe, meaning that scratch Scottish combinations would come up against club sides that had been together for years.

Captained by Scott Hastings, with future internationals Derrick Lee, Duncan Hodge and Graeme Burns in their back division, Edinburgh were a young side with a lot of promise. It would be fair to say, however, that little of it was realised that autumn afternoon at the Recreation Ground, as Bath won 55-26 despite easing off with the game well won for most of the second half.

Hodge, now one of Scotland’s assistant coaches, got all but five of Edinburgh’s points that day with a try, two conversions and four penalties. It was a decent individual return, but his lasting impression from the day – and from the three succeeding defeats in the pool stages of that year’s Heineken – was of how well drilled his team’s opponents were.

“My main memory of that time was we were coming together as a district team and training at night-time – I remember training up at Currie a couple of times,” he said yesterday. “So we were going into that competition as a district team against a team that was used to training together four or five times a week.

“Playing against guys we’d never played before – what an opportunity it was. For me, playing against Mike Catt, Jeremy Guscott, Henry Paul and Jason Robinson in front of a full Rec, in a town where rugby was the biggest thing, was just amazing. “On the day, there was a gulf – well, not a huge gulf, but a big difference between the two teams. Because they were full-time, and training together, while we were trying to cobble together a couple of sessions in a week.

“I’m fairly sure we would have trained three nights in the week before the Bath game, and maybe a session the week before. I certainly wasn’t a pro at that time, because I didn’t sign my first professional contract until the following year – I decided to finish my university degree first. I signed my first pro contract in the summer of ’97.

“It was an exciting time. Clubs like Watsonians and Melrose were getting big crowds – I remember playing at Myreside and the Greenyards in front of 5,000 or 6,000 people.

“So the rugby environment in Scotland was similar to what we experienced at places like the Rec. But the professionalism and the standards were different. Playing against that Bath team full of all those guys was on a different plane to anything we’d experienced up till then.”

Hodge had hit the headlines two years earlier when he scored a last-gasp drop goal to give Scotland A victory over the Springboks, and he would go on to domestic honours with Watsonians, playing a leading role in their 1998 league championship triumph. But even a player of his ability could do little to help Edinburgh recover quickly from that defeat by Bath, especially as the punishing tournament schedule allowed little time for rest, recovery or reflection. Four days later they lost 32-10 at home to Pontypridd, then another four days on they lost 69-12 to Dax.

They had a full week to recuperate before facing Treviso at home, but went down 43-23. In a sign of how deflated the Scottish rugby public had been, only 1,500 turned up for that game at Myreside – half the number who had turned up for the Pontypridd match at the same venue.

“I can’t remember the games against Pontypridd or Treviso too well, but I can picture Dax on a sunny day – we got well beaten,” Hodge remembered. “The results weren’t a shock, because we probably knew there was a difference. At that time it was completely explainable, because we weren’t training full-time.

“Pontypridd were a top club team at the time, with Paul John, Neil Jenkins, Dale McIntosh . . . . They’d have had eight or nine internationals in their team.

“We played these games in October and November, so they’d just had a pre-season starting in July, which means they’d had four months training together. We’d had two weeks.

“That had a huge impact. And we always knew, looking at the teamsheets of our opponents, that we’d struggle.”

So, incidentally, did Scotland’s other representatives. The Borders won one pool game that season, at home to Llanelli; Caledonia, like Edinburgh, lost all four of theirs. Glasgow, playing in the subsidiary Challenge Cup, won one of their five games, at Newbridge.

There have been seasons since which have been more or less as bleak for Scotland’s hopes, and in this 20th year of European competition we have yet to see one of our teams in the final of what is now called the Champions Cup. But there have been individual highlights, and for Hodge a couple of those came in season 2000-01, when Edinburgh, by then coached by Frank Hadden, beat reigning champions Northampton home and away.

The stand-off was the hero of the hour at Franklin’s Gardens, stunning the home crowd in the closing stages. It is characteristic of his diffidence that, when asked about that game, he was unwilling to boast about his achievements, preferring to talk about the impact made by one of his team-mates that day.

“I played in both of those games. The one down there I dropped a goal in the last second to win it, I think . . . ,” he paused, before eventually admitting: “Well, I know I did.

“Frank had just taken over at the time. That day was the emergence of Simon Taylor. The story goes that Donal Lenihan, the Lions selector at the time, was in the stand that day and saw Simon, who was just 21. He made two or three line breaks and had an outstanding game, and that was his breakthrough and he got selected for the Lions tour the following summer. For me personally, beating them down there was the highlight in European rugby.”

By that time, Hodge had already enjoyed the greatest moment of his international career – scoring all the points in Scotland’s 19-13 Calcutta Cup win of 2000. There were no doubt many in the crowd at Murrayfield that day for whom victory over England more than made up for the four defeats that had preceded it in the inaugural Six Nations Championship, but for others, those international results mirrored what was happening at European level: Scotland or Glasgow or Edinburgh would have what it took to pull off a big win from time to time, but could not find the unrelenting excellence to do it time after time.

Looking back on that double victory over Northampton, Hodge believes it was an indication of how far Edinburgh had travelled in the four years since making their debut in the Heineken. But he is also convinced that, by the same token, their failure to follow up such results with others equally impressive was an indication of how much they needed to improve when measured against the continent’s greatest teams.

“I think that result at Franklin’s Gardens showed how much we’d improved. It was just the consistency that we struggled with. We beat Northampton away, and I don’t think at the time Scottish teams would have been winning that many away games. We drew in Leinster that same year and beat them at home.

“It’s still the story of the Heineken Cup, that you have to win your home games and away games are very difficult to win, especially if you’re playing in some of these hotbeds of rugby like Bath, Brive or Toulouse.

“For me, there are two factors that make winning in France particularly difficult. One is the travel – it’s not easy to get to some of these places. Toulouse is fine, but others are a lot harder to get to.

“And they are intimidating places to play in. But having said that, sometimes that can work for you, like when we beat Biarritz in the Challenge Cup. They can be volatile crowds, and if the home team isn’t playing well that can put pressure on them.”

As we enter the 20th year of European competition – Scotland, like England, sat on the sidelines in season 1995-96 before joining in for year two – why are we still awaiting the first appearance in a final by one of our teams? Edinburgh made it to the penultimate stage three years ago, beating Toulouse in the last eight before going down by three points to Ulster in the semi-final, but have done little since. This year, they are only in the Challenge Cup, and have had a poor start to their league campaign, but Hodge – speaking before their match last night against Bordeaux-Begles – suggested they could make it out of their pool.

“I’d say they definitely have a chance. They’ve got two tough trips to France, to Bordeaux-Begles and Lyon, but London Welsh are not going particularly well just now.”

As for the main competition, Hodge thinks it will be tougher than ever to win this season, and not just for Glasgow. “This year, because there are fewer teams, all the teams are really strong. Look at Glasgow’s group, with Bath, Toulouse and Montpellier - that’s four quality teams in one group. That’s a tough group to get out of.”

Still, no matter how tough that pool is, someone will definitely get out of it and go through to the knockout stages. Someone has to succeed. So why does Hodge think it is so rarely a Scottish side that makes it through?

“There’s a bit of everything. You need a big squad. You need a bit of luck as well, and when I say a bit of luck I don’t just mean the bounce of the ball or decisions going your way – there’s also the draw. Historically Scottish teams have been among the lower seeds, so generally you’re playing against teams that are higher seeded than you.

“Essentially, to qualify you have to win five of your six games. You may get through with four and a lot of bonus points, but to win five games means you’ve got to win two away from home against some of the biggest teams in Europe. That’s beating Ulster at Ravenhill, or beating Leicester at Welford Road, beating Castres over there. That’s the sort of level you’re looking at, winning twice at venues like that just to get through your group.”

A calm and thoughtful character, Hodge has never been one to indulge in outspoken criticism of teams with which he has been involved, and perhaps, as a current Scottish Rugby employee, he would be disinclined to do so even if he were of a more intemperate nature. But he does accept that our teams should have done better in European competition, and believes that, in reaching the final of the Pro 12 last season, Glasgow have at least given themselves a platform on which to build in the Challenge Cup.

“It probably is fair to say that we should have done better. For me, it’s hard to qualify for the quarter-finals, but what we’re all probably agreed on is that every year we should be up challenging. Win three or four group games and at least then you’ll be competitive. I think that’s where the fall-off has been – we’ve not been consistent enough.

“To become more consistent you have to play as much high-competition rugby as possible, so hopefully this year we’ll see that consistency at Glasgow, because they’ve been in semi-finals and finals.”