Jon Welsh refuses to dwell on day that broke Scots hearts

Jon Welsh will win his 12th cap for Scotland when he lines up against Wales on Saturday. Picture: SNS
Jon Welsh will win his 12th cap for Scotland when he lines up against Wales on Saturday. Picture: SNS
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Are you sitting comfortably? In the brace position preferably. Let’s go through this one last time. Well, that may be wishful thinking, but it would be a nice idea if we could never speak of it again.

It is 5:43pm on Sunday
 18 October 2015 and Scotland are one play away from beating Australia and reaching a World Cup semi-final for the first time since 1991. A shot at Argentina for a place in the final awaits.

The rain is lashing down at Twickenham, that Castle Greyskull where no Scotland team had won since 1983. And yet, this field of screams seemed on the verge of dishing up the greatest victory in the history of the national team. Minutes earlier, Mark Bennett had gleefully gobbled an interception and streaked under the posts for a try that unleashed raw emotion from Scottish rugby fans that, arguably, hadn’t been experienced since Tony Stanger in 1990.

Scotland were 34-32 up but, so horribly inevitable, a 
cruel twist was to come. A 
lineout throw from Fraser Brown went long and the ball flew loose into a stomach-churning pinball. Scotland flanker John Hardie and Wallaby scrum-half Nick Phipps contested possession before substitute tighthead Jon Welsh instinctively snaffled. South African referee Craig Joubert adjudged it offside and awarded the penalty which Bernard Foley struck through the posts and Scottish hearts.

Joubert scarpered from the field of play but the debates lingered long. For Welsh, it seemed until recently that the fateful plunge on the ball would be his last act in a Scotland jersey.

He had left Glasgow at the end of the previous Pro12 title-winning season to join Newcastle Falcons and wouldn’t feature for his country for the rest of Vern Cotter’s tenure.

With fresher faces coming through it seemed that was that. But this season’s front-row injury procession has re-opened the door and the 31-year-old Glaswegian will earn his 12th cap in tomorrow’s Six Nations opener against Wales in Cardiff.

“It is what it is. I’ve hardly been asked about that until recent months,” said Welsh as the Twickenham wound is inevitably revisited ahead of the weekend.

“The worst thing you can do as a professional, in rugby or any sport, is to dwell on mistakes. We train hard on the rugby pitch to not make mistakes but they are going to happen. It’s pro sport. It’s something I don’t look back on at all. Obviously, it’s unfortunate, nobody wanted it to happen. But it did and it was on to the next thing for me.”

Hang on a minute, though. Mistake? In the fall-out that followed fingers were pointed at Joubert and the puzzling decision to go for a risky long lineout at such a stage, but Welsh has never been cast as a villain in the piece.

“My pals do,” he says with a rueful smile. “I will go on to tell them it was not my fault. I remember when it happened and everything was going on. We knew after it straight away when Greig [Laidlaw] and Gordon [Reid] were up screaming, ‘go back to the TMO. It came off the nine’. He made the call. In the game of rugby you respect the ref’s call.”

Many found that noble instinct stretched to the limit in the desolation that followed the loss but Welsh doesn’t waver.

“Has anybody tried to referee a game before?” he said. “There are a thousand things going on. Maybe other refs would have gone to the TMO. There was almost the exact incident on the Lions tour [involving Ken Owens and Liam Williams at the end of the Eden Park decider].

“[French referee Romain Poite] got the call right. He [Joubert] made the call and he stuck with it. Obviously if he had gone to the TMO he would have seen it came off Phipps. 
It is tough for a referee. He [Joubert] did not get the call right there.”

It was a trauma many felt for days and weeks to come but Welsh had a new job to start.

“That was on the Sunday. Newcastle phoned me and said what do want to do? You can take this week off, then come back in.

“I said I was happy, my family was there. So I got a flight straight to Newcastle and I was straight back into training on the Tuesday. It was light stuff and we got to the Thursday and the tighthead was injured and couldn’t play. They phoned me to say they were happy for me to start against Northampton if I was happy. I said definitely.”

Was it his way of dealing with it?

“It was at the least a different focus,” replies Welsh. “That was my first eye opener for the [English] Premiership, setpiece wise at least. I remember I didn’t know anybody’s name as I was just in the side. I was just running about saying, ‘pass the ball’.”

Following Welsh’s move to England, he drifted out of the Scotland reckoning, although he had been involved in training camps, including in November, and had never given up hope of getting back in.

His cause has, like others in the Scotland set-up for this Six Nations, been boosted by a mini-renaissance in the north-east this season as 
Newcastle Falcons have rediscovered their wings and pushed themselves to the brink of the play-off spots.

“As I have gotten older I realise it takes time for a team to gel together,” said Welsh. “That is what you are starting to see at Newcastle, a group that has been together for three or four years now with wee tweaks here and there.

“We have a good attack coach with Dave Walder down there and a good forwards coach in Mickey Ward. That said, the state of mind is a big part of it. When you have a group of happy players that translates out on to the pitch.”

Welsh will be joined by clubmate Chris Harris, who gets his first start at centre tomorrow, as well as hooker Scott Lawson, who also returns on the bench. “Chris is absolutely brilliant,” said Welsh of the Carlisle-born centre. “When I first joined Falcons he’d been a pro for about two years. I never knew that he had Scottish heritage at that point but speaking with a few of the guys I thought he was someone who could play for England in the future. We were lucky enough to snap him up.”

Of course, that is almost the polar opposite scenario when it comes to former Scotland Under-20 flanker Gary 
Graham, who is now in the England squad.

“That is Gary’s decisions,” said Welsh of his team-mate. “It is his choice. Surprised? Not really. He is a very good player but he got the call from England and answered it.”

Has there been some banter, though?

“Yeah. Lots,” replies Welsh with a broad grin. He will be hoping that tomorrow’s return to a Scotland jersey provides no “banter” material for his pals.