Rugby interview: Jim Aitken talks about how to win at Twickenham

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HE can’t remember when he last saw a Test and admits modern rugby baffles him, but Jim Aitken knows how to beat the English – by being a bloody nuisance with a hard edge, writes Iain Morrison

There is nothing new under the sun. In two weeks’ time Scotland will pitch up at Twickenham on the back of three dispiriting losses as three-legged longshots in a two-horse race.

Back in 1983 the same was true but the Scots produced one of the upsets of the Five Nations tournament by defeating England by two tries to nil in front of a huge, vociferous home crowd. It was fully 30 years ago but the skipper that day, Jim Aitken, has no trouble recalling Scotland’s last victory at Twickenham.

“I just got brought back into the side. Roy [Laidlaw] had been captain for three games previous and they were three straight defeats. It wasn’t doing Roy any good so they brought me back in as captain.

“We went down as complete no-hopers on the back of three losses. No-hopers. There were quite a few changes. We dropped Alan Tomes. We had five backrow forwards, well, four and Tom Smith. Iain Paxton was the other lock. We went down and ran England off their feet. We had to keep the pace high and that’s what we set out to do.

“The backs on that day were midgets if you think about it. Peter Dods, Roger Baird, Jim Renwick, Keith Robertson, even in those days they were small. John Rutherford was probably the biggest. It was just one of those days when things went right for us.

“We definitely were no-hopers. I am quite sure that the alicadoos that went down with us thought that because the atmosphere for the game was not right. You know these bloody Glasgow selectors! They were obviously full of drink the night before if the truth was known. I was on the verge of falling out with them on the morning of the game, just their attitude, f**k them, you know.”

It’s not just the buffers that are in his firing line because Aitken has a reputation as someone with a “f**k you” for pretty much anyone who crosses him. He refers to one of Scotland’s very early coaches as “a cretinous old bugger”, labels another as “ten times worse” and argues of the current set-up “we have an Australian coach who’s got to prove himself. What’s he done?” When I suggest he is a contrary old whatsit himself, Aitken just laughs out loud. Goodness knows how he made all his money but it certainly wasn’t by buttering up the right people.

Aitken has interests in grain, property and mining/mineral rights, including the opportunity to extract marble from Iran, a project that is currently on hold until the politics of the region improve. His wealth is probably better known than his generosity, although those close to him will testify to both. He has helped out many a friend in need, quietly and without any fanfare. The offer of a job here, a leg up just when someone needed it most there. And he continues to do so.

Most of that 1983 team went on to win the Grand Slam the following year and one of them let slip that the former skipper has personally funded the team reunions to date. Aitken is trying to get the gang together again for a trip to Twickenham come the first weekend in February and it looks like it will happen. They will stay in the same Charing Cross Hotel that put the team up 30 years ago, but will he dip into his own pockets to personally fund the boondoggle?

“We’ll see,” the former prop says with a wry smile. “We’ll see.”

He comes across as a natural leader, even if he had to wait until the age of 29 before making his debut in 1977. He was dropped after one season and endured another frustrating four years before being re-called in 1981... only to be dropped again for the 1983 season until the last game against England.

It was often said that Aitken was a good player but a great captain, although it can’t have helped that his Test career coincided with the end of Ian McLauchlan’s, who was a difficult character to shift. Aitken will have none of it.

“No, I was never flavour of the month in the Scottish set-up,” says the man who still looks much as he ever did, only with grey hair. “There are a lot of myths about what I used to say before internationals. I was never a heid banger. We knew exactly what we were down there to do. There was a big contingent of Borders players.

“To be a good captain you need to enjoy it and I enjoy being in charge of things. It’s not everyone that enjoys being captain and taking things on. I can relate to players and especially to the Border players, Colin Deans, myself, Iain Paxton, David Leslie, Tom Smith, both halfbacks, the two centres, Roger Baird and Peter Dods. We were used to playing with each other.

“I can remember the first quarter of an hour because they were a big pack of forwards and they put us under real pressure but we knew they were going to blow up and it came quicker than we thought. They just evaporated and we just kept them running and running and running.”

The man who was brought back for his captaincy as much as anything else can’t see too many leaders in the current Scotland set-up but, almost more importantly, he bemoans the lack of “nuisance players” such as David Leslie or John Jeffrey, who would spend all afternoon in the opposition’s face, all knees, elbows, attitude, spit and vinegar.

“The recent New Zealand team looked like an old-fashioned New Zealand side,” says Aitken. “Hard, hard men but none of them were huge. Absolute hard men but they don’t spend hours in front of the mirror trying to bulk themselves up. It’s obvious they don’t. I’d like to see us hardening up!”

“We have to stop trying to play like anyone else. We’re Scots and we have to play like Scotsmen. The day they stopped rucking is the day we started to toil.”

For all his pontificating Aitken both understands and admits that he is too far removed from the modern game. He simply can’t understand much of the stuff that goes with it. He insists that he can’t recall when he last attended a Test match. He also knows that, in the old amateur days, the Scots could always rely upon one unlikely ally in England’s selectors who would pick the wrong team every time. Sadly, no longer.

So he could be forgiven for writing off this Scotland squad in much the same way that his own side were labelled “no-hopers” 30 years ago. Instead, Aitken reveals an optimistic streak that lies buried deep inside the layers of cynicism that he wraps around him like a comfort blanket.

“I honestly believed we were going to win and I think the whole team did. I had no doubt in my mind that we were going to win that game. It was just a great feeling and there was a good atmosphere amongst the players. You have to get the dressing room right. Get that right and you’re halfway there. Without that you’ve had it and that is a player thing. This is a player thing. The only people who can win at Twickenham come 2 February are players and it doesn’t matter how many coaches they employ and how good they are.

“The players need to take a look at themselves and ask, ‘what are we here for?’ It’s not a lost cause by any means. I think winning at Twickenham will be the greatest experience any of these guys will ever enjoy!”

It would also save Aitken from having to do this self-same interview in another ten years time.