Interview: Keith Robertson on beating the Wallabies

Keith Robertson – the last man to score a try in a Scottish victory over the Wallabies when even the Aussie fans cheered the winners – recalls a different era when a jinking 11st back like himself could go on to win 44 caps for his country

Former Scotland international Keith Robertson, who now runs a car dealership in Earlston, is pictured at Scotts View, Bemersyde, near Melrose. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Former Scotland international Keith Robertson, who now runs a car dealership in Earlston, is pictured at Scotts View, Bemersyde, near Melrose. Picture: Ian Rutherford

If England fans get behind the men in dark blue at Twickenham tomorrow, it won’t be any more bizarre than the day 33 years ago an Australian crowd in Brisbane cheered Scotland to victory – against Australia.

Ahead of the Rugby World Cup quarter-final, Keith Robertson – the last man to score a try in a Scottish win over the Wallabies – recalled how a rivalry almost as intense as Scotland-England, the one between the states of Queensland and New South Wales, became an issue in July 1982 at Ballymore for the first Test.

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“It was a strange one because Bob Dwyer had been appointed as the new Australia coach. He was a New South Wales man and had based the team on players from that state,” explained Robertson. “The Queenslanders gave Dwyer and the coach a bit of stick and we had a lot of support that day, even from the Australians.”

Keith Robertson scores a try during the Scotlands 32-13 defeat by Australia at Murrayfield in November 1988. Picture: Jack Crombie

Robertson’s try helped the tourists to an historic 12-7 victory, which was the nation’s first in the southern hemisphere. It would be 27 years before they beat Australia again, although the back-to-back wins of 2009 (9-8) and 2012 (9-6) were all secured by the boot.

The former Melrose wing was speaking to The Scotsman at his car dealership in Earlston and, while the Borderer, now 60, could not have expected his score that day would remain a piece of rugby trivia, he said the team did appreciate the importance of the moment.

“Someone like Andy Irvine was coming to the end of his career but he felt the same and said it was the kind of moment that doesn’t come along too often in a career and you have to savour it.

“The try itself was a pretty simple one. It squirted out from the base of a scrum and [stand-off] John [Rutherford] decided to come right instead of left, which is what the original call was, due to the way the ball came out. It caught the Australians by surprise and I went over nice and easy in the corner.

England winger Mike Slemen makes a grab for counterpart Robertson during Scotlands 7-7 draw at Twickenham in 1979. Picture: Denis Straughan

“All I had to do was catch it and run. A simple try but one of huge significance for us in terms of a team that was starting to build.

“Scotland hadn’t won in the southern hemisphere before and haven’t too often since. It is a tough thing to do.

“Australia at that time were considered a level below the All Blacks and the Springboks, but that Bob Dwyer team was the start of a very strong Wallabies side which developed into a real power of the game.

“We got hit by the backlash down in Sydney when he picked a different side.”

Robertson goes over for Scotlands opening try against France in Paris. Scotland lost narrowly 21-17 in 1979. Picture: Ian Brand

Australia won that second Test 33-9, although perhaps more portentous was the stand-out display by a young Canberra winger by the name of David Campese in an under-21 trial that acted as a curtain-raiser for the match.

Robertson would have a few duels with the future Wallaby legend and added: “Playing against Australia, never mind Campese, you always know you are coming up against a side who are forward thinking and look to play the game a bit differently from other teams.

“I think, funnily enough, that was a bit of their downfall up in Brisbane in that first Test, they were maybe doing so many different things that just weren’t coming off and we defended well. We were lucky to win the game, but it came from them overdoing the new stuff they were trying to develop.

“Facing Australia you always know you’re going to have different questions to answer than in other games and Campese epitomised that. There’s not many like him. He had the ability to pull something out of nothing and do something completely different.”

The team that Dwyer had started to build, which pioneered the flatline attacking style of Sydney club Randwick, arrived in the UK two years later on a Home Nations tour and secured the Grand Slam at Murrayfield with a swashbuckling Campo-inspired thumping of a team that had won a clean sweep of their own in that year’s Five Nations.

Robertson said: “It was a period when we had a very strong team as well, playing what we thought was a pretty good brand of rugby.

“But they were a top, top quality side, though, and, at that time, probably the best in the world.”

There was no World Cup to determine that at the time but, when the inaugural tournament in New Zealand and Australia took place in 1987, Robertson was in the squad and relished the trip to the land of the long white cloud six years after missing a Kiwi tour due to the birth of his daughter, Nicola.

“Having missed that tour in 1981, it was my first chance to experience what a rugby trip to New Zealand was all about. It was nothing like the crowds we are getting for this current World Cup, which are absolutely brilliant, but the atmosphere in New Zealand, because it is the main sport there, everybody was talking about rugby. It was a great experience.

“We were a bit unlucky with the [20-20] draw against France in the first game, losing that quirky try after a quick throw-in, Serge Blanco going in under the posts.

“If we had won that we would have avoided New Zealand in the quarters and who knows how far we would have gone. We took a bit of a stuffing from the All Blacks.”

Robertson, who also scored a try against the Aussies in a 32-13 loss at Murrayfield in 1988, is no longer involved directly in rugby but still enjoys watching his beloved Melrose and son Mark, who is contracted to the sevens squad, on the world circuit. The car dealership and grandchildren take up most of his time. He comes from a different era, when a jinking 11st back like himself could go on to win 44 caps for his country between 1978 and 1989, and he hasn’t been down to England for the World Cup games.

“I’ve been watching on the box with friends,” he said. “I find it very difficult to go away and watch games now. You get such good coverage on the television at home and you can follow everything that’s going on. When you’re at the games you seem to spend half your time looking at the big screens to see what’s going on anyway.

“But I have been hearing from people that the atmosphere at the games has been sensational. I think a lot of the people who are going are rugby people who go and make a noise. I’m a great believer that, at Murrayfield, a lot of the tickets go to people who are not necessarily rugby supporters.”

Robertson has been a vocal critic of the SRU’s strategy in the professional era and, when he retired from playing, had a spell as chief of the Scottish First Division Rugby Ltd, which pushed the interests of Scotland’s leading clubs.

Of course, Murrayfield ploughed on down the professional team route and even Glasgow’s victory in this year’s Guinness Pro12 has done nothing to soften Robertson’s beliefs.

“My view is that Scotland continues to go down the wrong route,” he said. “We cannot develop our game properly with just two professional teams. Our young players aren’t getting to play at a high enough quality quickly enough. We just have a structure that is not conducive to producing a large number of quality players. There are really good young players just not getting the opportunity to play professional rugby. It’s crazy. Players develop at different times and we’re losing a lot far too early. They just stop.”

On rugby’s controversial residency rules, Robertson takes a less hard-line position, although he is less enamoured by the “parachuting” in of players, such as New Zealand-born John Hardie in the current World Cup squad.

“If someone comes over and commits themselves to our game for the rest of their career, their three years are spent here and they qualify, then I’m accepting of that,” he said.

“I do not accept that you pull someone in from abroad and he gets put straight in. I just find that wrong, a blight on our own talent. I can’t see how anybody could accept that’s right, irrespective of how good they are.

“There should be a time period served. The Sean Lineens of the world are not a problem, that’s fine. The South African boys [WP] Nel and [Josh] Strauss, they’ve done their three years here, given their effort to developing our game and proved they’re good enough.”

More than three decades on from that win in Brisbane, Robertson believes this current Scotland side has a puncher’s chance of knocking out the Wallabies tomorrow.

He said: “The front five are starting to develop well, a front row who can compete physically and are good rugby players. In relation to the way the game is developing, Scotland are going the right way I think. We’re very close to being a very good side. And the great thing is we are a young side, so you would hope we are only going to get better. I was in a team that nearly got the Wooden Spoon one year then won the Grand Slam the next. So anything can happen.

“We’ve definitely got a chance at Twickenham but we’ll need to be at the very top of our game and take whatever chances come along, then defend what they throw at us. But we have the capability of beating them. It will need to be one of those special days when everything goes right.”