FORMER Scotland prop Peter Wright has always been fearlessly honest, but admits that’s often been his downfall
WHILE driving to the Borders to meet Peter Wright, two thoughts occur. First, I should have taken the train. The new line runs alongside the A7 and it would be a whole lot more relaxing than being stuck behind this bloody big lorry. Then the second thought: What if the trucker is bloody big Peter Wright?
This is what he does now and remembering his monumental rugby belligerence I don’t think that riling him on the road would be a terribly good idea. Then the railtrack snakes off in another direction, avoiding Selkirk altogether. Dumped by the train, I’d have had to hitch a lift. But do you know what? Wrighty happening by would probably have obliged.
“See me?” he says. “I’m the nicest, most placid, most easygoing guy you could hope to meet.” It was only on the pitch that his mood could turn murderous, with that headband looking like a desperate attempt to stop his head exploding with rage.
He offers an example: “One time I got penalised at a scrum. Okay, that probably happened more than once. This time the referee was an ex-winger and that just got to me. What did bloody wingers know about scrums? I didn’t swear at him – you never do that – but I said it was an atrocious decision. He moved me back ten metres. ‘I’ve obviously got under your skin’, I said – another ten. Twenty metres in those days could have got me a red card – I ended up going back 40.” Tentatively, I ask if he regretted his actions afterwards. “Oh I did. I was an absolute arsehole that day.”
Really, there’s no need to be scared. Later, discussing the 1993 Lions tour of New Zealand and the excoriated dirt-tracker team, I’m wondering how to bring up the jibe aimed specifically at him when he mentions it. “They called me the teapot, didn’t they?” And he gives a demonstration, one hand on a hip, the other leaning on an imaginary middle-row, suggestive of line-out indolence.
Self-critical, funny, passionate about his sport, the first to admit when he’s been a “d**khead”, thoughtful, a chess player, a classical music lover and – on the radio, during another difficult afternoon for the Scotland XV – fearlessly frank. The 21-times-capped tighthead prop played all of the 1995 World Cup – a bold effort and an unforgettable trip when he got the length of our tiny bar from a herd of rhino, which of course means these lumbering, big-bottomed beasties were the same distance from Peter Wright.
We’re in Selkirk’s Station Hotel whose name presumably dates from pre-Beeching when trains served the town. There’s no one else here so the Coronation Street theme sounds particularly mournful. But Wright, 47, lights up the gloom with amusing tales of culture-clash rugger, such as his first encounter with the debonair Iain Morrison, who now covers the oval ball for The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday.
“Iain was a Cambridge Blue like Rob Wainwright and Eric Peters – I was a blacksmith from Bonnyrigg. The first time we met he was studying what I assumed to be the Pink [the late-lamented Edinburgh Evening News Saturday-night sports edition]. ‘Can I get a wee read after you?’ I said. He gave me a funny look but passed it over. It was the Financial Times! I thought to myself: ‘Do I pretend here?’ I did, and held the paper up to my nose, but I could see Iain sniggering. Eventually I said: ‘Can’t find the Lasswade rugby result anywhere. What a rubbish paper’”.
Right now, our man is driving a tipper and lugging armoured boulders to the banks of the Tweed to stop it overflowing. This is a big job so Wright, who lives in Livingston with his wife, Audrey, and their three daughters, is bunking down on site with the other truckers. It’s a handy job as well because, as coach of the town team, he’s always nice and early for training, when the props must be considerably more animated than those boulders.
Wright moved into coaching after his playing days, ran Scotland under-20s and was keen to work with a pro-team but, four years ago when that path was blocked, he quit rugby for a complete life-change. “Right from being a wee kid I always wanted to drive lorries. I’ve got my Class 1 licence so I can drive artics, anything. I haven’t tried long-distance yet but I might. The buzz of driving something so big is brilliant. When you’re sitting so high on the road it’s exhilarating, although maybe frustrating for folk in their cars because we need time to bring the 32 tons on our backs to a halt. We term ourselves professional drivers. The guys tooting their horns and sticking up their fingers are the amateurs and I know because I used to be one.”
Putting aside his work with Selkirk – he gave up coaching only to realise he couldn’t live without it entirely – Wright has two jobs where he’s installed in a glass-fronted cabin, although that’s their only similarity. In one he’s splendidly alone, save for two-wave radio contact with other truckers, warning “No 80” of upcoming hazards. In the other he’s squeezed up next to Radio Scotland commentator Bill Johnstone with a discerning listenership wondering what the hell he’s going to say next.
In the realm of rugby punditry, there are lots of personable, polite, not-too-cauliflower-eared guys in designer winter-wear with their scarves knotted in a manner which suggests they might say something bold, although this rarely happens… and then there’s Peter Wright.
Rarely dull, Wrighty calls it as he sees it. “I like to think I’m honest, which has probably been my great downfall,” he says, but this isn’t really him apologising for the on-air rants which have their own cult following. “I do praise sometimes… now and again… okay not very often! But people want to hear controversy, don’t they?”
So what does he think of his counterparts on TV and would he want their job? “TV is more political. There are guys stabbing each other in the back because the money is decent and they all want to do it. You don’t do radio for the money but I think I’m better there. Radio is classed as regional so I can be more partisan, plus I’ve got a good face for it. TV is network so you’re not supposed to be biased, even though Jeremy Guscott and Jonathan Davies especially, are. But, on the whole, I think the coverage on TV is pretty bland.”
Wright also shows up well next to the Scottish football pundits, over-gushing in their praise of their domestic scene which patently has problems. Unafraid to bite the hand that feeds, he says of the rugby he watches: “I find it pretty boring, to be honest. You know exactly how every team is going to play. The game has got too physical, there’s no space and very little flair.”
Wright loves doing radio even though he reckons that pulling no punches in his coverage of Scotland’s travails has cost him steps on the coaching ladder. “I tried very hard for pro jobs but wasn’t deemed good enough. It wasn’t my coaching that was the problem, but things I’d said during commentary.” He slagged off referees, Scotland coaches Matt Williams and Frank Hadden, the SRU – and did I mention referees? But maybe it was the lambasting of the guys on the field which finally did for him.
Stressing that he’s not provocative for the sake of it, Wright reveals it’s sometimes a player’s parents who’ll take him to task over a piece of sharp-edged criticism. “I was asked by the mum and dad of a well-known player: ‘Why do you hate our son?’ I don’t. He’s a lad I’ve coached and I like him. But I was just giving my opinion. I don’t think he’s an international 10 but he could be a 12 where he has fewer decisions to make.” (This player was omitted from the World Cup squad currently in Gloucester).
“Sean Lamont is another who took issue. I said during a match that he couldn’t pass. Now I like Sean, too. He’s a great winger and a great guy and I’d always have him in my Scotland team, but not at centre. We argued about this and I asked him: ‘Can you pass off your left hand?’ He said: ‘Not very well.’”
Considering why he never made it to the top as a coach, Wright also has to acknowledge his less than shy and retiring attitude on the touchline. Always snapping at officialdom as a player, this continued. He mentions the 2007 under-19 World Championship in Belfast when a replacement referee’s repeated resetting of a scrum in overtime turned a Scotland win into defeat. This time he did swear, but not directly at the ref, telling the fourth official, in what he says was a calm voice, that his colleague was a “cheating c***”.
“There was a complaint and I was banned from the rest of the tournament. Then when I got back there was a disciplinary hearing at Murrayfield and I was facing the sack. Instead they decided to send me to anger management.” Wright was initially embarrassed to find himself in the same room as pen-pushing powder-kegs during the sessions in London. “There was a housing association guy and the bloke from Reuters who looked after the computers. Ten of us in all, and we told our stories. But then the woman in charge said: ‘None of you should be here. This is a course for people who wake up every day, angry at the world. You’ve all just reacted badly to a specific incident.’
“It was obvious that I was an HR box-ticking exercise for the SRU but I stayed and listened and the course was really interesting. Did you know about the reptilian part of of your brain? It’s the bit which causes all the problems of impulsive behaviour. What you have to do in such situations is switch over to the modern part, which is logical. I think I learned from the course. Now, if a referee annoys me I say to myself: ‘This man’s incompetent’, and just smile at him. The refs have got to know this grin, they know exactly what I think of them. But they can’t touch me for smiling!”
Wright talks about this smile a lot. Out on the road in lorry v car confrontations, he uses it to assuage the road rage that, in the past, he would have suffered from. Despite his claim to easygoing-ness, some additional mellowing has been useful. A lust for horror fiction is also a thing of the past.
As well as trucks, Wright’s mother would tell you that her youngest son always had the ambition of starring at rugby for his country. “There was no rugby in the family. Dad drove a JCB and was on the committee at Bonnyrigg Rose, but we lived 200 yards from Lasswade’s rugby pitch. My folks liked a drink on a Saturday night so the club became my babysitters on Sunday mornings. Even at five years old I loved the rough and tumble.” Now Wright has a stand named after him, the first from the club to be capped.
The biggest influence on his career was Bruce Hay: “Hard, funny, would stay up all night to win an argument and one of the best coaches never to get the Scotland job.” Wright’s first cap came on tour against Australia just as David Sole was bowing out. “He was strange. We roomed together in Queensland. I was dead excited to be on the trip, and thinking that every time the phone rang it would be Auntie Isobel in Brisbane who’d helped bring me into the world. But of course it was always for him, the captain. Then I refused to answer it, just carried on reading my Stephen King. ‘Hello, David Sole,’ he said, and you can guess who he got. He didn’t really give me the time of day at first but then I had a good game and and he was fine. I guess you had to earn his respect.”
There were team-mates he loved, such as Dave Hilton, Bryan Redpath and Craig Chalmers. “I would have died for those boys,” he says, “but you can’t like everyone. For instance, I thought Kevin McKenzie was selfish. So what do you do when one you don’t much care for is involved in a fight? I rationalised, decided I was jumping in to save the jersey. We are only brief custodians of the Scotland shirt. It was around long before us and will still be there after we’ve gone.”
Wright was hungover after a booze-up with Hearts goalkeeper Henry Smith when told he’d been picked for the Lions, only six caps into the career, and thought his leg was being pulled. The call-up had been “political”, a sop to those who grumbled about the squad being English-dominated. He helped make up a Scottish front five in the midweek team but bad defeats brought press ridicule with Wright singled out. “I got called the worst-ever Lion and wanted to give up. It took me a long time to look at those games again but, apart from one, I thought I did alright and certainly I’d say there’s been worse than me. It was said there was a big drinking culture on that trip. Yes, it was massive – like any Lions tour back then.”
Wright came home, salvaged his reputation and, by the South African World Cup, reckons he was playing his best rugby. He scored his only Scotland try in the thrashing of the Ivory Coast but the key game was an epic battle with a grumpy France in Pretoria.
“The French had fallen out with their journalists and shaved their heads in protest. Then they spread a rumour that we’d trashed a restaurant. I’m not saying we were tucked up in bed at 10 o’clock but we hadn’t done that.” The Scots led but were pipped at the last. “That was absolutely gutting. But then we heard Max Brito of the Ivory Coast had suffered a broken neck. Yes, we lost, but the next day we would wake up, still able to walk.” That 1995 team exited after an honorable defeat by New Zealand. Wright, who’ll be at the mic as usual, hopes for a better outcome this time. He envies the current players their money but not their gym-bunny existence. “I just caught the start of professionalism but had been fitter lugging heavy gates about as a blacksmith than I was hanging around gyms. I couldn’t get into them – quite literally. Entry was by keypad and I kept forgetting my number. So I kind of rebelled.”
Not for the first time and, despite the emergence of that smile, you just know it won’t be the last.