Saturday interview: Scotland great Colin Deans on how to beat England at Twickenham

When Colin Deans skippered Scotland to what stands as our most thumping victory in a century and a half of the Calcutta Cup, what do you suppose he said in his pre-match speech?

Deans in one of his final Five Nations games against Wales at Murrayfield in 1987
Deans in one of his final Five Nations games against Wales at Murrayfield in 1987

Surely the dressing-room echoed to fine words and big words. Maybe words from the battleground, military or political. Something from the Classics, perhaps? Or the Bible? Possibly a sentence or five attempting to explain our complicated relationship with England. Rounded off with a ribald joke at their expense.

Just to be sure, how about a megamix of Robert the Bruce and Robert the Burns, William Wallace and William - Billy - Connolly. That would do the trick, no?

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Actually, in 1986 this is what Deans said: “Nothing. There was no need. We’d been rubbished all week,” the dark blue immortal remembers. “And to top it off the England players had just been swanking around the park for photos with the wives. The boys had seen this. I didn’t have to say anything. It was red-rag stuff. They were all clawing at the door to get out and kill someone.” Result: Scotland 33, England 6.

Four years later, after Deans had bowed out on a then record-equalling 52 caps, England did the exact same thing, making themselves right at home. And Scotland reacted in the exact same way, as if the opposition had grabbed their wives for the picture-shoot, making them pose in fluttery-eyed awe of the English bicep. The outcome was the exact same, too, another win for us, to add to the hat-trick of stirring successes against the Auld Enemy achieved by our man when he was one of the best hookers in world rugby.

There was the biggest-ever. There was the one en route to the Grand Slam. And, something to inspire the team today, there was a triumph at Twickenham, 22-12 in 1983, the last to be achieved by Scotland at what the Red Rose like to call “HQ” and only the fourth in history.

Surely the brilliant Borderer, now 65, must have great memories of that one? “A horrendous day!” he roars. “Well, it was a fantastic win but I’d been rooming with The Bear [Iain Milne] who was suffering from this stomach bug and on the morning of the game I was feeling decidedly ropey.”

Missing the match, though, wasn’t an option. Deans, always such a fierce competitor, battled through his queasiness to help the team to victory, throwing from touch for the skyscaperish lock Tom Smith to fall over the line for the clinching try. “I was so relieved to hear the final whistle that I threw up.”

Here's mud in your eye - Deans as a potential Question of Sport mystery man at the Gala Sevens in 1979

So was he able to pronounce himself fit for the celebrations, almost as legendary, when the players sneaked an epic drinks bill onto England captain John Scott’s hotel account?

“You know, ’83 wasn’t the only year we did that. It was tradition to dispatch one of the younger boys like JJ [John Jeffrey] to identify the relevant room number. I know after that game that the guys were carousing long into the wee small hours [with captain Jim Aitken playfully instructing a guest he mistook for the house pianist to keep playing otherwise fingers might get broken] but I was tucked up in bed by half-past ten with just a bottle of coke.”

‘Big, cumbersome, predictable and boring’

Back then, the Scottish pack of Deano, Faither Jim and The Bear could take on their English counterparts in their sleep. They didn’t always win, of course, but generally knew exactly how the dear rivals would play.

Deans with fellow hooker Fergus Thomson in 2008

Deans explains: “Up front in the 1980s, England were big, cumbersome, predictable and boring. The charge of being boring has come up again recently. I’m sure it’s not intentional on their part so is the problem Twickenham? Do they need a new stadium?”

His Twickers record includes a draw and a marvellous six-try ding-dong - lead changing hands five times - ending in narrow defeat. “The place was never intimidating. Champagne and oysters out the back - that used to rile us. England were always super-confident - that was annoying, too. And superior. The attitude was: ‘We invented the sport - you’re not coming down here to beat us.’

“We were normal guys from normal towns. And we always upped our game at Twickenham when history would kick in. We were never as big as them but we knew there would be a very good chance we’d be able to run them off their feet. The likes of David Leslie, John Beattie and Iain Paxton loved to get the ball in their hands and I did too. England would try to grind us down, make us submit, so we would move the ball and run them around. They couldn’t grind us if they were peching.”

What a good word that is. But for Scotland to make a team pech they would themselves need to sign up for one of the great demonstrations of late 20th century Calvinist revivalism in the workplace: a Jim Telfer training session. “Sunday of international week, after we’d all had tough games for our clubs, the full 80 [minutes] because there were no subs, Jim used to hammer us for four bloody hours. Godawful.”

Deans with Bill McLaren - the commentator taught his the basics of rugby aged nine in Hawick

But hardly a shock to the system if like Deans you were a member of the Green Machine, Hawick RFC itself being no holiday camp.

Being a hero to Eddie Jones

“I remember the lead-up to a Scotland match, rushing back and forth to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary when my first son was born. It was the Tuesday night when club training wouldn’t have been compulsory for me but I thought I’d better show up. Battering down the A7 I was five minutes late getting to Mansfield [Park] and [coach] Derrick Grant said: ‘What time do you call this?’ I reminded him I wouldn’t be playing for Hawick that week, adding that I’d just become a dad. Derrick harrumphed: ‘A wee word of advice, Colin: best to plan the arrival of your children for the summer months.’ He and Jim were like two peas in a pod, both fully committed to rugby. Derrick whipped us but Jim was worse. He used to kill us.”

Thankfully Deans survived. To put his shoulder to the wheel for famous wins in Brisbane, Cardiff (first time in 20 years, those rampant Scottish forwards impersonating the Harlem Globetrotters) and the game some of us think could yet turn into a win, the 25-25 draw with New Zealand.

It’s a pleasure to be chatting to him, even just down the phoneline, with Deans currently stuck in Northamptonshire where’s he’s lived with his wife Katie for 28 years and right now unable to visit sons Roddy and Ross, both Edinburgh-based, or get back to Murrayfield any time soon. He says: “Rugby for me is family. I think of the guys all the time, and maybe right now especially Roy [Laidlaw, recently diagnosed with dementia], given what he’s going through.” And Deans is an obvious choice for this week’s big read, with England head coach Eddie Jones, never normally one to toss bouquets our way, declaring the Scotland No 2 his hero.

“I actually first heard about this a few years ago. Apparently down in Oz Eddie’s father used to wake him up as a youngster for the Five Nations on TV, saying: ‘If you want to be a hooker, watch how this boy plays.’ Recently, at a Northampton game, my lads spotted him so I went to say hello. As I approached he probably thought: ‘Uh-oh, another w***er.’ ‘Hi, Eddie - Colin Deans,’ I said, and I’m pleased to say his wee face lit up. He’s obsessed with rugby and won’t think twice about phoning staff at 3am about something which can’t wait until morning. Given his incredible attention to detail, it’s very nice of him to say he admired my game.”

On the charge against the Welsh at Murrayfield in 1983

Time you got a new watch

It takes an obsessive to know one. Ask Deans for an anecdote about the religious fervour rugby inspired in his home town and he comes up with a cracker: “In Hawick we were born into rugby. It’s like New Zealand in its devotion to the game. And honestly, popping off to bed aged nine knowing that the next morning it would be my time to be coached by Mr McLaren was even more exciting than Christmas Eve.” Mr McLaren is of course Bill, oracle, commentator and instructor in the rudiments to local schoolchildren. “He asked each of us our names. ‘Colin Deans, sir.’ ‘Peter Deans’ laddie?’ ‘Yes sir.’ ‘You’ll be a hooker then.’ You played the position your father played before you and that was Dad, who’d been a team-mate of Bill’s.”

Deans’ first involvement with Scotland came in 1977 with an unofficial tour of the Far East which still required official clobber - blazers and tartan trews despite the searing heat and sapping humidity with the players being greeted at the airport in Bangkok by a liaison officer dressed in shorts, flip-flops and a T-shirt reading: “F*** work - go fishing.”

He recalls: “Colin Fisher was the hooker at the time and he liked to enjoy himself on these expeditions. I was young, new, thought it best to get my head down and managed to be picked for the game against Japan when I took a kick to the face. My front teeth were sticking out; thankfully the ref was an English dentist who was able to push them back in. Ian McLauchlan, one of the senior players on the tour, ticked me off for not wearing a gumshield and then stuck his in my mouth. He’s got a much bigger cakehole than me. It wasn’t a good fit!

“That was a good tour for Roy [Laidlaw], Rud [John Rutherford], Keith [Robertson], Euan [Kennedy] and myself and we’d all go on and win the Slam together. On the final night we were presented with lovely Seiko watches. There was an emergency meeting of the committee-men: ‘Sorry, boys, as amateurs no gifts over £50 allowed - you’ll have to hand these back.’ McLauchlan said: ‘If you want mine you’ll have to saw my arm off.’”

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Deans’ first proper call-up came the following year. “In those days you got a letter from the SRU which had to be posted straight back: ‘I am able/unable to play … ’ That confused me. I asked my father: ‘Are they wanting to know if I think I’m good enough for international rugby?’” Deans undoubtedly was, though there was a valuable lesson for him in that debut against France at Murrayfield: “We took a strike against the head, something which has completely died off in games now. As the hooker I was delighted and showed it. A muckle French fist came through from the second row and I woke up a minute later.”

Socked in the jaw by Tony ‘Crazy Eyes’ Shaw

Maybe he should have smeared himself with Capsolin, the vindaloo of muscle ointments. “That was Mike Biggar’s pre-match routine - really scary - and I think the stuff was eventually banned. Mike rubbed it all over his body and I was amazed. Capsolin was so hot he must have felt like an electricity sub-station and if I’d copied him I reckon I’d have been running around at 100mph, desperately trying to cool down.”

His first international was a defeat. Indeed he wouldn’t win one for two years. First time against England he was squaring up to Lions: “Peter Wheeler, who’s a good friend living near us, and that very funny man Mike Burton, God rest his soul. At least one of them will have called me a ‘Scottish t**t’, among other unprintable things.”

But Deans was soon giving as good as he got. In ’82, when Scotland won a southern hemisphere Test for the first time, he was socked in the jaw by Australia’s Tony “Crazy Eyes” Shaw. “I probably wound him up, asked to see his shackle marks or something. I was an aggressive little sod, a right pain in the arse. You had to be really to survive in the game.”

A year later Deans was back Down Under with the Lions but notoriously wasn’t selected for any of the Tests against New Zealand, the team persevering with a woefully out-of-form Ciaran Fitzgerald at hooker. The Irishman as captain declined to drop himself and a four-nil whitewash resulted. “I’m not saying we would have won the series if I’d played but I think I could have made a difference. It was tough knowing that on the other side of the world Katie was giving birth to our second child and I wasn’t even getting a game.”

Generously, though, Deans adds: “I’m sure the pressure of knowing there was this wee Scottish bloke on his shoulder got to Ciaran and maybe I could have helped him more.” But for the eight Scots there the tour was instructive. “Jim [Telfer] was the coach hammering everyone at training and at the end of some sessions we’d be the only ones still standing.” Any inferiority complexes were promptly dispelled. Fancy winning a Slam, guys? Yes they did.

Bill McLaren and the belt

Deans proved to be a luckless Lion, being awarded the captaincy for the next expedition to South Africa in ’86 only for it to be cancelled amid the apartheid row which ripped through Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Games. There was a consolation prize of a match in Cardiff against a world XV which slipped out of the record-books for a while, but Lions officialdom possibly hadn’t anticipated the tenacity of the skipper who led a campaign to have it accorded full Test status.

The inaugural World Cup back in New Zealand marked the last of Deans in the dark blue and he was pleased that Bill McLaren who was crucial to the beginning of his career was behind the microphone for its conclusion. This is the conclusion of our chat but there’s time for a final yarn: “Only once did Bill make reference in commentary to the fact I’d been a pupil of his and maybe just as well because he said that if viewers looked hard enough they might have been able to see belt marks on my hands. My mother - a bit like Hyacinth Bucket - was mortified.

“The BBC received five complaints and he had to write me a letter of apology. I don’t remember the belt but I did get a cricket bat across the backside from him for mucking about during Highland dancing when rugby practice was frozen off. When Bill died there was a celebration of his life at Murrayfield and I told Dougie Donnelly that story. I thought about dropping my trousers to show him the indentations so it’s just as well Mum wasn’t there!”

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