Six Nations: Roger Baird on Scotland v England

Roger Baird
Roger Baird
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THE Scotland rugby internationalists of 1983 will attract a fair bit of interest this morning as they head south on the train bound for London and into a dream of marking 30 years since their triumph with another incredible, unbelievable Calcutta Cup win by Scotland over the “Auld Enemy”.

Some are destined to utter “if only he was playing”, flicking a thumb in the direction of John Rutherford or Roy Laidlaw or Jim Aitken. It is part of an almost compelling urge in Scottish sport to anoint winners. We don’t have too many, so when a body of men surpass the odds and claim historic victories they instantly become legends, men of abilities that shift nearer to Gods’ with each passing year.

Roger Baird, right, and Colin Deans celebrate during the Scots' historic 33'6 victory

Roger Baird, right, and Colin Deans celebrate during the Scots' historic 33'6 victory

Roger Baird will meet them when they arrive. The grain merchant frequently travels between the Scottish and English capitals, and this week is no different. He was darting between meetings in London yesterday, bumping into Gavin Hastings after one at the Caledonian Club. But he laughs, and laughs some more, at the notion of legends.

“The word ‘legends’ gets kicked about far too much,” he says. “Playing for Scotland is special at any time and that doesn’t change with any generation.

“The boys going out there at Twickenham today will feel just the same as we did 30 years ago, knowing that this is the greatest achievement in their careers – representing their country in a Calcutta Cup and Six Nations match, and going out with belief that they can do it.

“We were very lucky that we played in an era with some good Scottish players coming together at the same time and who were blessed with some very good coaches, when you look at Jim Telfer, Colin Telfer, Derrick Grant and then Ian McGeechan.

“The other thing I feel is that amateur rugby suited us. There is no getting away from the different resources in Scotland and England, and elsewhere, the number of rugby players to choose from, and I think we were always able to produce 20 Test-quality players, sometimes less sometimes more, but not many more.

“England actually had it harder in some ways because they had so many more top-quality players to choose from that their problem was getting the right team on the park. And they didn’t have the meritocracy they have now. In those days, you had selectors who would want their own players, from their club or their county, in.

“We had a great chairman of selectors in Ian McGregor, who knew the game and knew players, and a shrewd guy like Robin Charters from Hawick as well, and, with Jim Telfer, they generally got the best possible team on the park. And, when you look at that 1983 squad, most of us had played together countless times with the South, so we knew each other’s game by that stage. That was a big part of that success.”

“Bairdy” retains his trademark youthful charm. The hair is jet black still, he insists with no bottled help, he shrieks with laughter at regular intervals and, when he moves, to illustrate a point or a try he recalls, his body twists this way and back in a flash that leaves one with the same feeling of being sold a dummy.

He is also still small. It should come as no surprise but, in a world of giant rugby players, Baird’s 5ft 10in frame – “I said 5ft 10in for the programmes but I’m just a bit over 5ft 9in really” – is another reminder that he comes from a game long ago. The Scottish back line was relatively small in the early eighties, before Gavin and Scott Hastings muscled into the picture.

“I couldn’t play now, or certainly I couldn’t play on the wing,” he insists. “I was 11 and a half stone when I started playing for Scotland and never got near 13 stone in all my career. The only position I’d have a chance in now would be scrum-half.

“That’s another indication of how the game has changed. Guys from my time talk about how we couldn’t fit into the game the way it’s played now, and I have nothing but admiration for these boys that put their bodies on the line week in week out, and that intensity now.”

But there was more to rugby then, or it seemed so. Baird was something of a cheeky kid among some more seasoned veterans in that 1983 squad. We were coming to the end of the Andy Irvine and Jim Renwick era, two great Scottish players who stand comparison with any in Scottish history. John Rutherford was finding his feet as a stand-off who had added kicking skills off both feet to his running flair and his confidence was soaring again with his South scrum-half Roy Laidlaw providing the service.

Hawick and Gala were the teams of the day, sharing the Scottish championships from 1980 to 1987 and pushing on the standards in district and national trial matches. Jim Aitken came to Netherdale to push himself, as did David Leslie and Tom Smith.

With Colin Deans maintaining the Hawick charge, attracting the likes of Alan Tomes across the border from Tyneside, Rutherford was striving to keep Selkirk in touch, encouraging players like Iain Paxton to head to Philiphaugh to help, while Laidlaw was doing likewise at Jed-Forest. Baird was part of a Kelso revival that was to bring back-to-back titles at the end of the decade and Keith Robertson was giving Melrose supporters a style to warm to.

Throw in some talented city boys in the shape of Heriot’s tighthead Iain Milne, David Johnston, the Watsonians centre, and Stewart’s Melville’s Jim Calder, and some west coast beef in John Beattie and Bill Cuthbertson, and a squad was coming together. In came Baird at the end of 1981, Paxton and Calder the same year, Derek White and Jim Pollock in 1982, and Peter Dods in 1983.

After a lean period, a lot of competitive and entertaining rugby, but too few victories, the wins started to come too. A run of 13 Tests without celebrations ended with a beating of France at Murrayfield in 1980 but it was not until Scotland ended a long run of Welsh domination in Cardiff, with a stunning 34-18 triumph in 1982, that belief began to rise in Scotland.

Many talk of how Wales’ run came to an end on that day, so great a shock it was. Fewer recall how important it was to Scotland. That win was Scotland’s first away from home in seven years, since beating Ireland in 1976, the last before that had been the 1971 defeat of England at Twickenham.

These were Scottish teams of British and Irish Lions, Sandy Carmichael, Gordon Brown, McLauchlan, Renwick, Ian McGeechan, Bruce Hay, Irvine and Billy Steele. But, bar some exhilarating performances and tries, wins hadn’t happened for them.

“People forget that. It’s great to reminisce and have all the talk this week about 1983 and then the 1984 Grand Slam, but we were by no means perfect players. We got things wrong and had some terrible performances for Scotland, where it just didn’t go right. Then you had days like that one where it all came right, the opposition were off, we were on song and we had a game-plan, players and coaches that came together well on the day. But don’t think we were like that every week!”

Bizarrely, although Baird holds the record for most number of tries for the South of Scotland, and scored for the British and Irish Lions, he never dotted down over the whitewash once in 27 Scotland Tests. Or not officially anyway. To best understand Baird’s talent, we need to listen to one who played with him. Rutherford has this to say of his left winger.

“Roger was an outstanding player and the tries thing is irrelevant,” opines Rutherford. “We used to leak tries on that wing before he came in, and he shored that up. People talk about him not scoring tries, but he did actually score a try for Scotland. It was against Romania in 1986 in Bucharest and it was disallowed, but there was no doubt that it was a good try.

“But everyone who played with Roger, at club, district and international level will remember tries that he created. A lot of Scotland fans will remember how he launched the attack against Wales in 1982 for that great try finished off by Jim Calder – that was Baird at his best – but the one that sticks with me was the Triple Crown try in 1984 that Peter Dods scored against Ireland. Dods came in on Roger’s inside and Roger gave an outstanding pass that few players could give, for Dods to go in and score.

“When you think of the tries that other people scored where Roger gave the last pass, there are a lot of people who have him to thank for their memorable moments.”

Baird’s wide smile returns.

“I did score in Romania. The touch judge thought I’d stood in touch and put his flag but he didn’t realise he was infield and I was running down the five-yard line, but, hey, I’m infamous for not having a Scotland try and I wouldn’t like to lose that!”

Like his peers, Baird remains a passionate individual and heaven knows what time they may leave the London Scottish clubrooms tonight, or tomorrow, once they get going. He agrees with Roy Laidlaw’s comments in The Scotsman this week, that a district championship should be restored to help players develop better, and he has also been speaking to a lot of people recently about another idea he believes would significantly improve the game north of the border: scrap payments to club players.

He explains: “I have a strong belief that the professional game has made it more difficult for us to compete in Scotland, but we don’t help ourselves. I hear of money being spent at clubs across the country, not just top clubs but clubs lower down the leagues, and my own club Kelso is spending a bit of money attracting players this season too.

“Why? I don’t have any time for that. They’re trying to remain competitive and paying is allowed, so I would scrap all payments below professional team level. I believe quite strongly that the SRU has to look at that as a matter of urgency, because I feel that could help to strengthen our game again.

“People will say it can’t be done and, of course, there were payments going on to players before professionalism, supposedly, so it will never be stamped out now altogether, but if we got clubs across Scotland to agree to stop paying players anything other than travel expenses, we could use that money much more effectively to help our game.

“Without club rugby, Scottish rugby is absolutely dead, and we’re suffering a slow death in some areas at the moment. It’s no wonder if all clubs are doing is bringing money over the bar and fundraising to hand it over to players, who are just amateur players at the end of the day, who earn a living elsewhere.

“Clubs struggle now to afford tours, and tours gave me the best fun I ever had in rugby. Youth club tours were where players came together, where they learned about the game, where they got the real enjoyment for rugby, made the friendships that last a lifetime and that was where the clubs sowed the seeds of a lifetime’s love affair between one person and their club.

“It might not seem a lot to people, but one tour every year lay at the heart of player and club development and, sadly, we’ve lost a lot of that because clubs don’t have the money any more, but they’ll pay players. Youth rugby is a huge area for me and it’s a problem right now. We have to change that.”

Intriguingly for anyone given to feel that Baird is yearning for a bygone era, Chris Paterson, quite unprompted, made exactly the same point last week. He has spent his career entirely in the professional game, before retiring last year, but waxed lyrical about how youth tours were crucial to developing his interest and passion for rugby, and backed Baird’s call for clubs to put them back at the top of the priority list.

As he prepares to join the 1983 squad at Twickenham today, Baird is hopeful and even excited but, for all the reasons we discussed, he believes that beating England now is a bigger challenge than it was for his teammates 30 years ago. Not impossible though.

“Never. It is harder now because of professionalism and, as I said earlier, England now have better selection policies and have exploited their greater resources in facilities, strength in depth and ‘professionalism’.

“But we are going believing that the boys can do it. We went down there with belief when few others had it in 1983. We’d won in Wales the year before and that had provided some confidence, and we had some very good players, Renwick, Rutherford, Laidlaw, and you go into the pack and we had great players dotted all over the place.

“They [England] were a big pack, and a good pack, but we scrummaged well against them, Jim [Aitken], Deano [Colin Deans] and the Bear [Iain Milne], and as long as we could get a platform for the backs, we were sure that we could do something.

“And that was the way it turned out. We had a fast gameplan. That was the way we played. We have five back row forwards in the pack and so that was what suited us.

“In 1985 it was a crying shame because we should have won it there too. Peter Steven and I had a huge chance on a bouncing ball to hack on and score down the right-hand side, but we recycled it, and we went left. John Rud [Rutherford] will always hold his head here because all he had to do was give the pass and Iain Paxton was in, and that was us winning two years in a row down at Twickenham, but he went himself and got tackled.

“But that just shows how we never always got it right either. It is a very difficult place to go and win and, again, nobody’s expecting anything of us this weekend, but that’s always when Scotland are at their most dangerous, so I travel in hope, as they say, that the boys can believe in themselves and bring us back a win.”

One never forgets the privilege it is to speak regularly with the likes of Rutherford, Laidlaw, Baird, their coach Jim Telfer, and others of that generation. They think nothing of dispensing their thoughts and sharing their passion and remain wonderfully grounded characters.

Were they heroes? To youngsters of the time, undoubtedly. Did they always get it right? Clearly not. But rugby took them deep into the country’s heart, and it is what feeds their passions still. The receding temples, greying hair – in all but Baird – and extra wrinkles may reveal men in their fifties/sixties to train passengers heading south from Scotland today, but the laughter, the banter, the wicked jokes and unforgiving wind-ups will point to a boyhood camaraderie found in rugby which has never been lost.

Eternal youth. Magic. Trains into London. Unbelievable scripts. Daring to believe. This Calcutta Cup malarkey writes itself.