The 1990 Grand Slam duel was a match for the ages. Played to a toxic political backdrop, the story of Scotland's win is told in the classic book The Grudge, recently re-released
150 years of the Calcutta Cup – the Scotland v England 1990 Grand Slam shootout
Rugby’s oldest international fixture has reached a notable landmark. England and Scotland, who meet in the Six Nations on Saturday (4.45pm), will renew battle 150 years after the two nations first crossed swords at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh.
The military metaphors have always felt apt for the Calcutta Cup. And never more so than for arguably the most legendary England-Scotland clash of them all 31 years ago. It was a match that spawned a book, a true and timeless classic.
Let’s step back a few years. In 2010, former England and Lions hooker Brian Moore brought out one of the best rugby autobiographies ever published. Beware of the Dog won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award and the Best Autobiography gong at the British Sports Book Awards held the following summer.
Yet at those latter awards, it didn’t win the Rugby Book of the Year. That honour went to The Grudge, published then by Yellow Jersey Press and recently reissued by Polaris. Peter Burns, MD of Polaris, has published a tonne of outstanding books. His verdict on The Grudge? “It’s my favourite ever sports book.”
Written by Tom English, a grand master of the writing world, it centres on the 1990 Calcutta Cup match that also doubled as a Triple Crown, championship and Grand Slam decider. Ironically, Moore is one of the central characters.
From the very start, the brilliant prologue based on Jim Telfer’s final beasting of the Scottish forwards in the week of the match, you are hooked.
English’s special talent is being able to transport you not only to playing fields and hotel rooms but to inside people’s minds. Happy to embrace a dash of poetic licence, he recreates both the dialogue that would have ensued and the innermost thoughts of the cast. He paints a scene with the artistry of a Turner or Constable.
The match is insanely famous, of course, because it produced an against-the-odds victory for the Scots, one of only three Grand Slams in their history. It is equally entrenched in history for the toxic political backdrop. Maggie Thatcher’s incendiary poll tax policy, imposed on Scotland ahead of the rest of the UK, was the subject of a memorable Spitting Image sketch. It was also the catalyst for a storm of spite that reflected poorly on many.
Jeremy Guscott, England’s try-scorer in the 13-7 defeat, says: “I’d never played a Test match in Edinburgh before. I’d heard everybody saying what a wonderful place it was, but I didn’t see that. As an Englishman you weren’t welcome there. I didn’t mind banter. I enjoyed it. But hate and jealousy, they’re evils really.”
Moore and Will Carling in the one camp, and Telfer, John Jeffrey and Ian McGeechan in the other, are the book’s principal figures.
Carling was inaccurately portrayed by sections of the Scottish media as Thatcher’s blue-eyed boy. In fact, he was a somewhat insecure 24-year-old in the early stages of his Test and captaincy career and still coming to terms with having to lead giants of the game like Mike Teague, Peter Winterbottom and Wade Dooley – Winterbottom had been his childhood hero.
Years later, the England captain was labelled a ‘love rat’ by one tabloid and his reputation (and bank balance) nosedived to such an extent that he considered becoming a taxi driver. That may be but this reviewer warmed enormously to Carling in The Grudge, with his openness and honesty about shortcomings and vulnerabilities.
And taking no nonsense, as when he was asked by a Scottish reporter what he thought about the whole of Scotland hating him. “No problem with it,” replied Carling. “I hate the Scots every bit as much as they hate me. It’s mutual loathing.”
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Telfer celebrated his 50th birthday on the day of the big match, 17 March, and the players gave him a cake in the shape of a tackle bag. The son of a shepherd who worked for the Duke of Roxburghe, Telfer was scornful of privilege and aligned with socialism from a young age.
As a coach, he was brutally hard on his charges, particularly on laid-back No 8 Derek White and hooker Kenny Milne, a pieman. Both players suffered from verbal lashings but also physically as Telfer would get them to lie on the ground while the rest of the pack trampled all over them in rucking practice.
Head coach McGeechan was the Yin to Telfer’s Yang, a less forceful personality but revered for his wisdom and work ethic. A schoolteacher in Yorkshire, he would spend evenings analysing opponents on his video player, remote in one hand and a pen in the other. When his school boss started moaning that McGeechan was away too often doing his rugby, ‘Geech’ resigned and received a flood of job offers.
Players Moore and Jeffrey each had a chip on their shoulders and were happy to keep them – anything that fuelled their drive and intensity made them better players. Both had toured with the Lions in 1989, a victorious mission achieved with a largely Anglo-Scottish squad.
Any friendships forged in Australia were forgotten come Grand Slam day, when England arrived as 1-4 favourites. They had blown away Ireland 23-0, then smashed France 26-7 at Parc des Princes – les Bleus’ biggest hiding in Paris for 60 years. Next, Wales were crushed 34-6 in a defeat so overwhelming that coach John Ryan quit the following day. England manager Geoff Cooke said there was a “stamp of greatness” about his team.
Cooke had been largely responsible for enforcing professional standards in the squad. In one of many sublime snapshots that provide crucial context for the Grand Slam match, English relates a savage drinking contest between Dooley and Steve Brain that took place on England’s 1985 tour of New Zealand. It occurred just three days before a Test against the All Blacks. “England’s idea of rest and recovery in the mid Eighties was having just the ten pints and calling it a night at 2am,” English writes.
That was history by the time England rocked up at Murrayfield, however. Scotland’s players – a nominated quartet of Jeffrey, Finlay Calder, Gavin Hastings and skipper David Sole – had spent the previous fortnight praising England to the hilt.
If the visitors were over-confident, it would not have been surprising. The Scots had scraped past Ireland with a late try by White (13-10), benefited from a sending-off and a freak change of wind against France (21-0), and won a poor-quality contest in Wales (13-9).
But Scotland had planned an ambush. Telfer set out to destroy the English lineout, Dooley and Paul Ackford its pillars. The slow walk onto the field initiated by Sole, whilst not unnerving England’s players in itself, helped fire up the crowd and produced a cacophony of noise seldom heard before or since.
An added ingredient was the passionate rendtion of Flower of Scotland, only the second time it had been sung at Murrayfield.
The new anthem, which celebrates a famous victory by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314, had replaced God Save the Queen because of the embarrassing booing that greeted the British national anthem.
From the off, the Scots got momentum. They won a penalty for offside. Mickey Skinner complained and England were marched back 10m. Scotland stole a lineout, then won a scrum penalty after Milne got under Moore and popped him up. Scotland drove a maul 15m and it led to a penalty which Craig Chalmers kicked for the lead.
England had never been behind in that year’s championship and suddenly they were having to search for answers. They were ruffled.
They worked their way back but were ultimately undone by two major factors: first, the failure of referee David Bishop, a New Zealander, to award them a penalty try when Sole, under pressure from Jeff Probyn, repeatedly dropped the scrum on his own line.
And second, a beautifully executed Scottish try straight after half-time, from a move they named Fiji, but which required a friendly bounce for scorer Tony Stanger. Did the wing actually touch the ball down? Even Telfer called it “dubious’. Watch the try below.
No matter. Sport is all the richer for chance and controversy. Scotland got the job done and celebrated raucously, England retired to lick their wounds. Carling, who was spat at the next morning at Edinburgh airport, and Moore were among those who vowed never to lose to Scotland again – and they never did.
A decade on from the book’s publication, English went for a few catch-up chats. He sat with Moore at the same table at the same Wimbledon coffee shop where they had spoken in 2010. He chatted to Geech in Leeds, and to Telfer in Galashiels. We are told about how life unfolded for them and indeed for all the players involved that unforgettable day.
It brings the story, satisfyingly, up to date. But you suspect many Scots would be happy to be stuck in a time warp. 17 March 1990, the day England went to Murrayfield to collect their Grand Slam and had it ripped from their grasp by the auld enemy.
The Grudge by Tom English is published by Polaris, RRP £14.99 for the hardback or £9.99 for the paperback. Don’t miss it.
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