Scotland v South Africa: History offers red-blooded taste of battle

THERE have been histories of Scottish rugby before, and scores of tomes about individual greats of the game. The histories, no matter how well written, too often lack vitality; the biographies, by their very nature, paint no more than a partial portrait of the sport.

• Scotland scrum-half brian Shillinglaw in action against england in 1960. New book Behind TheThistle provides graphic accounts of the way the game was run 50 years ago, compared to now Picture: TSPL

Behind The Thistle by David Barnes and Peter Burns avoids both pitfalls. It is a history, but, barring a short introduction to each chapter, one told entirely in the words of the actual participants - players and coaches who have represented Scotland. And, by collating the memories of so many men, it offers a composite, not a tendentious, picture.

In essence, then, it is a conversational history of the national team from the resumption of international rugby after the Second World War right up to the series win in Argentina this summer. The conversation is at times rueful and reflective, but more often robust and red-blooded.

Not only the matches, but also the circumstances in which they were played, are recalled in telling detail. Those circumstances have changed drastically since the game went professional 15 years ago, and some of the early episodes must now seem scarcely credible to younger readers.

When professionalism did arrive, it was to a large extent a formal recognition of what had been going on surreptitiously for a couple of decades. At the start of the era dealt with in the book, however, the game was strictly amateur - and often in every respect of the word.

The stuffy atmosphere of the immediate post-war years, and the poker-faced parsimony which was so characteristic of the Scottish Rugby Union, is best evoked by some tales from the late Frank Coutts. Although he won three official caps in 1947, Coutts also played a year earlier in two Victory Internationals - the first outings for the national side since before the Second World War.

"(There were] five men who played for Scotland both before and after the war," he recalled. "And the famous story is that when they turned out to play for the first time since hostilities had ceased, they each found out there was no strip for them to put on, and Harry Simpson, the secretary, said, 'You got your jerseys before the war'.

"When they first re-introduced the national trial after the war we all turned up at Murrayfield and the great innovation was that we all had to have our height and weight measured. So I stepped up on to the weighing machine. 'Where's your penny, Mr Coutts?'

"I had to pay a penny to be weighed. Harry Simpson certainly liked to keep a tight ship."

As post-war austerity was left behind, foreign tours became more commonplace. The notion that rugby could be openly enjoyed by players and spectators alike became more acceptable, and some of the most amusing episodes in Behind The Thistle tell of the attempts by players to enjoy themselves - and those of officials to thwart them.

That aspect of the book amounts to a social history of the sport, and offers glimpses of the increasing affluence which would fuel the drive to professionalism. But the evolution of the game itself is as big a theme, and every bit as fascinating. At the start of the period covered, for example, and indeed for decades afterwards, the convention was for the throw-in at lineouts to be taken by wingers. Tap penalties, though in no way against the rules, were simply ignored as an option - until one day Ian McLauchlan took one and the referee rightly allowed play to go on.

McLauchlan - "the toughest guy I ever saw on a rugby field", according to Jim Telfer - had a liking for taking the law into his own hands in other respects as well. In a match against Argentina, for instance, the prop's opposite number was "a strong, strong boy. And there was a bit of jiggery-pokery going on early doors, so I smacked the hooker and then turned to him (the Pumas' prop] and said, 'You're next'.

"This guy spoke pretty good English, and he said, 'No, no, I don't play like that.' I said, 'Great, I do'."

Another theme which runs throughout the book is the game's increasing physicality - of the legal kind, that is. For instance, some time before McLauchlan's day, Donald Scott won ten caps, including one for the 44-0 defeat by South Africa which left Scottish rugby stunned. "When I played in any match there were three things I thought the man opposite me might do," Scott remembers. "They would run at me and try to beat me, they would run at me and pass the ball, or they would kick the ball.

"Well, the South Africans did all that, but they also did something I had never seen before: they ran into you. They looked at you and said: come and take me.

"You watch rugby now and it is all about contact, and laying the ball off in different ways. That was the first time I saw that approach."

The closer we come to the present, the more detail the book goes into. Although punches are pulled in some respects, such as the fiasco in 2000 over player eligibility, other errors are handled frankly. And in recent years, there has probably been no bigger error than the appointment of Matt Williams as Scotland coach.

"I have to hold my hand up and admit that I made a mistake in taking on Matt Williams as my successor as head coach," Ian McGeechan says. "He talked a good game and I was impressed by that, but when he took over he never respected Scotland or the players and spent most of his time telling them what they couldn't do."

The book closes with that two-Test victory in Argentina - proof of how successful Scotland are able to be when coached by a man who tells them what they can do. Between that triumph for Andy Robinson in South America and the rebirth of rugby after the war, there have been so many highs and lows. Behind The Thistle sheds light on them all from many different angles, and in the process takes the reader as close to the action as it is possible to get, short of invading the pitch.

lBehind The Thistle: Playing Rugby For Scotland by David Barnes and Peter Burns (Birlinn, 20).