There is a definite buzz about, as a keenly anticipated weekend looms on the horizon. For diehard fans such as myself, the Guinness Six Nations, an annual event featuring the national sides of France, Italy, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England, gets sets to begin. It is merely the greatest and most competitive rugby union tournament in the world.
The championship rarely disappoints. Its arrival in 2022 is particularly welcome, providing much-needed relief from a dreary, Covid winter as well as the welcome return of spectators. Better yet, the competing teams look either in robust form or hint at the possibility of doing something unpredictable.
The most intriguing opening round contest will play out February 5 in Edinburgh. At Murrayfield, the national stadium, Scotland will host England, “the Auld Enemy.” For the two teams, up for grabs is not only the coveted Calcutta Cup, but, as importantly, the chance to begin this year’s tournament with a crucial victory. For the players, the coaches, the 67,000 fans in attendance and the millions more watching on television, there will be excitement, shredded nerves and stress aplenty.
The prospect of such a mouthwatering clash takes me back in time, over three decades ago. To another Scotland-England confrontation, similarly full of intrigue and suspense.
Saturday. March 17, 1990.
I am coaching a high school rugby squad from Victoria, British Columbia, at the start of a spring break tour of the UK. Tickets to the above international, purchased more than a year earlier, are pure gold dust. Likewise, our timing is impeccable, both teams, one somewhat unexpectedly, entering the final round of the competition unbeaten. Both therefore with an opportunity to capture not only the title but a rare and precious Grand Slam.
Our group spends the morning on a walking tour of Edinburgh. The “Old Town” is the heart and soul of the city, a labyrinth of allies and chambers hidden beneath the streets and bridges. We stroll the Royal Mile, the thoroughfare that links the Castle and Royal Palace, visit the National Museum, take a peek inside St. Giles Cathedral. Then, after lunch, via the souvenir shops on Princes Street, west past Haymarket, we join an ever-growing throng on foot heading for Murrayfield.
Thousands of England supporters are among the swelling numbers. White national team jerseys much in evidence, the visitors exude supreme confidence. Smug and condescending, their attitudes mirror the media avalanche suggesting the result of the game is a foregone conclusion.
In contrast, the home faithful, ever the underdogs, seem wary, more hopeful than certain. Yet, their determination is clear for all to see. Furthermore, patriotic fervour swirls about, fueled to a large degree by the political backdrop. Indeed, the Scots are highly unimpressed at being guinea pigs for the hated poll tax soon to be introduced south of the border by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
We move along Corstorphine Road, then angle left on Roseburn. Up ahead, the massive stadium looms.
What follows is pure theatre. To the side of the road, on our left, a man, wearing jacket and tie but draped in an England flag, stands atop a builder’s van. Megaphone in hand and pointing to boxes stacked neatly below, in a polished voice he announces, “England. 1990 Grand Slam Champions. Sweaters available here.”
The lineup grows, visiting fans queueing up, keen to purchase, perhaps even wear, the smartly embroidered merchandise in advance of the actual game. The cheek and arrogance do not sit well with the hundreds of Scots streaming by, some of the commentary and language directed at the salesman and his customers decidedly X-rated.
Moving on, we finally settle in our seats high in the South stand. Await the kickoff. The tension around the ground is palpable. Nerves jangle, most in attendance thinking the same thing. Might the home side somehow come up trumps, topple the overbearing visitors, claim one of rugby’s biggest prizes?
Warmups complete, from the changing rooms England burst on to the field first. By way of contrast, the ensuing Scotland entrance, a slow march, is now enshrined in folklore. Perhaps gamesmanship, to this day the act can still move to tears those who witnessed it. The noise in the stadium, wave after wave until reaching a massive crescendo, clearly rattles the overconfident visitors.
The game begins. With so much at stake, it is never going to be a free-flowing, attractive encounter. And so it proves. Two penalty goals put Scotland in front 6-0, before England registers its solitary try. 6-4. Another home three pointer extends the margin to five before winger Tony Stanger claims a vital second half marker, successfully chasing down a kick in the right corner.
England, now two scores behind, cannot get untracked. Battling a pesky wind and harried incessantly by a brave and ferociously committed Scots outfit that digs in and thwarts every attack, they manage only a single penalty goal. After 80 grueling, taut, drama filled minutes, the final whistle sounds. 13-7 Scotland. The locals erupt, applauding, shouting, screaming, celebrating wildly. Moreover, the euphoria from Murrayfield reverberates far and wide, and not just in rugby circles.
Still, for me at least, the best is yet to come.
We retrace our route, head back towards the Edinburgh city centre. On the ground, various boxes lie scattered about, alone and forlorn, still to be opened. The budding entrepreneur, so cocksure three hours earlier about the result, his sales and his profit, is nowhere to be seen.
Instead, a burly Scot, replete with tam, bushy beard, ample stomach and kilt, stands atop the same builder's van. He looks like an extra from the movie Braveheart. In a booming brogue he points to the abandoned boxes and, now the source of considerable merriment, bellows for all to hear “England Grand Slam sweaters……Going Cheap!!”
Amidst the guffaws and laughter, eventually we continue on our way. A magical, unforgettable night awaits. A country, a city, pubs, restaurants and streets, awash in beer, spirits, camaraderie and pure, unadulterated joy.
Meanwhile, I contemplate the valuable lessons reinforced. Chuckle at an English team done in by hubris and a pompous sweater salesman and his buyers done in by conceit. All "sent homeward tae think again.”