RUGBY has a unique ability to stir the emotions of a nation and even a Hebridean farmer will arrive at his old stomping ground of Murrayfield today admitting to former brothers-in-arms that he was one of the hundreds of thousands who thought Scottish rugby was on the brink two weeks ago.
Rob Wainwright is in the capital on a rare weekend away from his island home on Coll and, after a joyous Roman occasion is happy to discuss the fateful day in Italy that proved the beginning of the end of his own Test career. We will return to that later, and his thoughts on the controversial “southern hemisphere creep” into private schools adding to concerns over Scotland’s struggle to develop its own talent.
But, for the moment, the 6ft 4in Wainwright is in full flow, his sheep and Luing cattle forgotten as the former back row anticipates a reunion of past players at Murrayfield before today’s 5pm kick-off in the RBS Six Nations Championship match with France. His memory has stopped on the dark cloud that engulfed the last Murrayfield occasion, the Calcutta Cup defeat.
“It was all wrong. Everything was wrong,” he said. “I wrote a list of what I could see in the game against England and where we were letting ourselves down and it went on and on. At that point, staring at the list, you were asking yourself if there was a way back for us.
“I am pretty remote to the game these days but, after the match against England, I endured a fortnight of soul-searching. And then, just two weeks later, they are in Italy, where we have suffered many times, and every problem I had identified they turned around. Every single one I was crossing off. I couldn’t believe it!
“The scrum started poorly but got better, crucially, and we got better with it. The lineout was much better, the defence, breaking the line, imagination, crispness, passion, belief, momentum, direction and the execution was all missing against England but was excellent in Rome.
“That is the point where you realise that you are a supporter again, not a player because, clearly, the players themselves believed that they could turn it around or they simply would not have been able to do it in Italy.”
It is interesting to listen to a former Scotland captain who was something of a colossus in the back row over 37 caps, and who also earned respect when he captained the British and Irish Lions midweek side on the successful tour of 1997, now talk with the angst of a supporter.
His successor as skipper Gary Armstrong once said that he was a player briefly, but a supporter all his life and, for all that players insist that they will not criticise their brethren upon retiring, it is only a matter of time before that passion fuels a desire to speak out. Many did in the wake of the Calcutta Cup defeat, though some, including Finlay Calder, did it privately, after being invited by Scotland interim coach Scott Johnson to speak to the players. Wainwright was never one given to wild extremes of emotion, the Cambridge blue – in rugby and boxing – and army doctor always displaying a neat line in composure and clinical analysis that made him an obvious captain.
But, in the days leading up to Scotland’s meeting with Italy last month, his mind was racing back 15 years to one of the most depressing games in his rugby career. “I can remember too clearly,” he says. “At the beginning of my career I played B games in Italy and it was a formality but, by the end, they had support and passion, and we narrowly lost over there in 1998, and it was seen as an unmitigated disaster.
“It was the end of the Richie Dixon era and I lost the captaincy over it. I played on into 1999 because Jim Telfer [coach] persuaded me to, but I shouldn’t have.
“I played my last game for Scotland that summer and my heart wasn’t in it after that. I had always planned to return to medicine but we decided it was time for a change altogether that year and my wife and I moved to Coll, took up farming and we have enjoyed bringing our family up in the Hebrides ever since.”
Wainwright was speaking at a charity lunch in Glasgow yesterday and met his youngest sons off the bus in town in the evening, waiting to see if they would fancy taking in the club international match before heading to Murrayfield today. His daughter is currently teaching in Sri Lanka and his eldest son playing rugby in New Zealand. But all have seen a different, slightly more intense side to their father in the weeks since the Calcutta Cup.
He added: “The result in Rome has helped everyone calm down, I think, and I don’t think we should underestimate how well the boys did there, for the team firstly but also for the country. As a player, the easiest game for Scotland to get up for is England at home and the hardest is Italy away. It is hard to get your head round that game. It may be changing now but in my day it wasn’t a match that you grew up with, no real history and precedents and it has been a graveyard for Scottish rugby. We are definitely in a better place now. Talk to any of the players and their mindset will be totally different now facing France.
“We’d had a difficult couple of weeks dissecting Scottish rugby, and I questioned whether the management were getting the best out of them, and I stick by that as I don’t think they were, but they did in Rome and now we can look forward to France this weekend.”
Yet, that fortnight of “soul-searching” has left its mark. It will not be all fun memories and toasts when Wainwright and his fellow internationalists come together today. Fortunately, too many still care and still want to debate how to get the best out of this player or that one, and the team, and most hold dear the same desire to see Scotland winning Test matches more regularly.
Intriguingly, while a great debate has enveloped Edinburgh Rugby’s influx of South African players, Wainwright has endured a similarly fraught, but equally troubling situation at schools level. His children have followed him to Glenalmond, where his own father taught and was headteacher. But they have stopped playing matches against certain teams, including Strathallan and Loretto, due to an influx of foreign players.
Some headteachers were following the example of Scottish coaches, in seeking to strengthen their 1st XVs by expanding the long-established principle of attracting foreign students on scholarships. Only these new students happened to come from South Africa, Australia or New Zealand, were very ‘big-boned’ and possessed a quality of rugby that was immediately noticeable in matches against rival schools.
There were injuries and parents complained that the sport was becoming too dangerous for their teenage sons with the introduction of fully-grown 17-year-old South Africans. Loretto have since pulled the plug on such moves.
“It has been an issue,” said Wainwright, “issues with the balance being skewed, I would say, but hopefully it is a trend that will pass. I think we have lost sight a little bit of the game not being purely about winning. It’s also about development of our players. That is where we come to the long-term issues we have in Scottish rugby, which was probably the more important aspect of the debate that surfaced after the Calcutta Cup defeat.
“We certainly need movement. If one looks at the benefit the introduction of a national league made to Scottish rugby 40 years ago, I do feel that maybe a national schools league could do the same for bringing through our young players.
“We had the first competitive club league in Britain in 1974 and that was what made us competitive, because week in, week out, even into the second division you had international players on the pitch and the day you stepped into the 1st XV you were playing alongside and against these guys, and it gave a lift to it, and brought experience to these young players coming through.
“The strength of Scottish rugby then was that we would run with young players who were not world-class but, after 15 or 20 games, they would be world-class.
“Lately we have had this arms race in independent schools to bring in foreign players, and there is something similar in our pro game, at Edinburgh particularly, and it’s that tilted balance on the number of imports that gets the ex-internationalists’ backs up.
“There is no doubt that bringing some players in from abroad does have a benefit for our game and our players, but the numbers seem slanted a bit wrong at the moment.
“It is more difficult for us in Scotland now in many ways, so we need to make the most of the talent that we do have. I, personally, find it difficult to see so many extremely talented young players at independent schools walk away from the sport at 18 because they have a choice of a career or rugby, and no option to marry the two now.
“I think we need to do more there. It is not impossible to allow players to develop both on leaving school, as Geoff Cross did [in medicine] and Jamie Roberts has proved by continuing his medicine studies while playing for Cardiff, Wales and the Lions, before going to France.”
France. That is the challenge now coming headlong at Scotland. Will the nation’s fragile sporting psyche cope with another dip on rugby’s rollercoaster ride or will the blind optimism that courses into Murrayfield this evening be rewarded with a first win against the French in eight years?
As a Scot, Wainwright needs no reminder of the travails of Test rugby, but today is the first time he has accepted an invitation to the ex-players pre-match event, and his enthusiasm rises another notch when he speaks about rediscovering an appetite for physical challenge.
“I am signed up for a couple of big charity events this year and I’m now hoping that we can raise as much money as possible for the charities and get as many people as possible involved.
“I did the Sport Relief event around Britain that my old team-mate Cammy Mather organised and, having done nothing since I gave up rugby, I was amazed at how I hadn’t kept up my fitness. Getting on a bike was a ‘road to Damascus’ moment, and finding the old bones could still do it was a pleasant surprise.
“And it gets you going, wanting more. So I’m doing a 770-mile cycling trip from Oban to Cape Wrath, John O’Groats and back down the Great Glen, to raise money for ‘Mary’s Meals’, and then the Alliance Trust Cateran Yomp for The Soldiers Charity, which is a 54-mile hike from Blairgowrie up to Glenshee and back down another glen, in 24 hours.”
The first event features a group of Wainwright’s friends – at least they are before undertaking the cycle – while the second is one of the growing number of mass events open to everyone to complete at their own pace.
Poppy Scotland launched a popular hike across the south of Scotland with Melrose RFC a strong supporter of the event and the Cateran Yomp (on 28/29 June) is becoming a firm favourite in the Highlands, with a strong rugby involvement.
“When you stop playing rugby, I found that it was good to get away from it, but there comes a point where you realise that you miss the competitive element, or really simply the opportunity to push yourself a bit.
“That is what the Yomp is about. Anyone can join in because it has three routes – the 52-mile hike, a 36.5 mile one and a 22-mile event – and teams of up to six people take part.
“I would encourage people to look at it. They are great days. Many people will think it’s beyond their capabilities but, having done a few now, you’ll be amazed at how much you benefit from the event and getting to the end point. And last year it raised £350,000 for a great cause.”
For today, however, the sporting enjoyment will be far more leisurely. At least, Wainwright is hoping to remain in his seat.
“Richie Gray was quoted last week as saying that the Italy win doesn’t mean anything unless we back it up against France and I would agree with that.
“There is no reason why France cannot be beaten at Murrayfield but we have to step up.
“I can remember beating France here in 1996 with a great first 20 minutes and a rather disappointing second half, but we had demoralised them by then.
“There are days when France come and their heads are right and they sweep us away, but the French still don’t particularly travel well, and if we get off to a good start this is a match we can win and build on.
“If we get a really dynamic performance the mood of the country will lift again.
“That is what rugby does. But it is recognising that, in Scotland, we have to be more that our constituent parts.
I know how amazing the feeling is when you get that, and I know how horrible it is when you don’t. But onwards and upwards.”