Class of ’83 back Cotter’s Scotland to break Twickenham hoodoo

1:41 PM GMT

Things were very different in March, 1983. Mobile phones had yet to be made commercially available, people still thought of an Apple as a fruit and Men at Work were flying high in the UK charts.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that against such an unedifying backdrop that the 1983 spring Calcutta Cup clash was a Five Nations wooden spoon decider. Or that Scotland actually won at Twickenham.

That feat has not been repeated since, but there are some uncanny coincidences that may well warm Scottish hearts as they travel south this weekend. The game took place on the championship’s penultimate weekend and those wearing dark blue arrived in west London quietly confident, minds focused on an impending British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.

Hooker Colin Deans set the pace for an electric game plan, and behind the pack — unburdened by the captaincy — Roy Laidlaw manoeuvred a back line containing John Rutherford and ‘lucky’ Jim Pollock. England didn’t stand a chance.

Scotland charge towards England’s try line in 1983 (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

“We’d won in Australia in ’82, away, and we’d won in Wales as well so we were beginning to carve out a bit of belief,” Jim Calder, in the back row that day against England, told ESPN this week.

Scotland’s current iteration might not have quite beaten Australia but the manner of this season’s victories over Ireland and Wales have given them belief.

Ranked fifth in the world, Vern Cotter’s side are a coming force in his final season in charge. Now seems as good a time as any to soothe the hurt of the last 34 years.

“As good a chance as we’ve had for a long, long time,” is how Calder sees it, while his former teammate Deans believes Scotland have a “fantastic opportunity” to rewrite the record books.

Neither will quite believe the Calcutta Cup can be won on English soil until the trophy is held aloft above John Barclay’s head on Saturday evening. But when speaking to Calder, Deans, Pollock and John Beattie this week it was clear that there is a buoyancy about Scottish rugby — and not just because the fast-paced game that served the Scotland side of the early ’80s so well has been fine-tuned and transported onto the modern stage.

“Vern has built one solid, solid base and the solid base is that our squad is better,” Calder said. “We used to have 11, 12, 15 players who could play a bit of rugby, maybe four or five who were world class, but he’s put together 23, if not beyond 23 players, who could all step in and do the job for the Scottish cause.

“We’ve never had that before and he’s been very instrumental in introducing that. For Hamish Watson to come in a couple of weeks ago for John Hardie [against Wales], you’re thinking ‘Ah, no’, and then Gordon Bennett Hamish played out of his skin. But he’s played out of his skin week in, week out.

“The development of players like that under Vern Cotter has been priceless. Absolutely priceless.”

Pollock — nicknamed ‘lucky Jim’ because his eight-Test international career included wins away at England, Ireland and Wales — had the chance to watch Cotter’s Scotland up close when they trained at his school in Newcastle during the 2015 Rugby World Cup. And it’s fair to say that he walked away impressed.

“There’s a lot of purpose to it [training], a lot of focus, but I think the biggest thing is – and it’s the same with England – I think there’s a firm belief,” he said. “There’s just a belief that if they keep playing, and they keep playing the same game, they have the players and the talent and the ability to be successful and win.

“I firmly believe we won’t give England the same opportunities and space in the second half because that’s when they win games.”

Scotland’s 1983 hero Colin Deans predicts this crop of players can win at Twickenham on Saturday

“And I think that’s manifesting itself, the second half performance against Wales was magnificent. Nothing short of that.”

The reasons for Scotland’s rise up the rankings are manifold. Cotter’s arrival north of the border coincided with a talented group of players — and coach in Gregor Townsend — emerging, and winning, at Glasgow.

In turn, the New Zealander harnessed the confidence produced by the PRO12 club’s success, while taking advantage of the backroom knowledge available, and recruiting well from overseas.

Huw Jones’ ascension from the fringes of Super Rugby to starting Test centre over the last nine months is indicative of the ability for talent spotting within the current Scotland set up.

“We have gone and recruited well around the world, no doubt about it,” Beattie said. We have then got one of our sides winning, which helps. We have then brought in a guy, Vern Cotter, who is just a pretty rough, tough taskmaster, who has effectively adopted the Glasgow Warriors game plan, stuck it on Scotland and is ruthless about it.

“If you can’t carry the ball up as a second row, you’re out. If you’re too Fancy Dan, you’re out. You play this structure, then Finn Russell calls it and when it needs to go wide, it goes wide.

Roy Laidlaw races towards England’s try line in 1983 S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

“I do think the big difference is we’ve got a bunch of players who are quite good. It is within a very structured and organised, prescriptive game plan, but you can play really quickly and still be in position because it’s a simple game plan.”

Beattie believes a lot of the credit for the team’s improvement lies with defence coach, Matt Taylor.

“Somebody will fly up and try to go low on the first ball carrier and try and get him on the ground, second bloke onto the ball,” Beattie said. “He [Taylor] has reinvented the defence as a very quickly moving defensive line.”

When considering Scotland’s improving fortunes, and the potential of the current squad, it is natural to ponder why the Scottish Rugby Union has chosen to meddle with a structure that is working so close to a World Cup.

Townsend knows the players inside out, of course, and few would doubt his ability to coach his national team, but will the incoming Dave Rennie prove as able a cog at Glasgow?

In that context, a win at Twickenham on Saturday, and the Triple Crown and potential Six Nations championship that would follow, would only underline the work done over the past three years.

“It’s a huge carrot, the Triple Crown is ‘here we go’ sort of style and it’s an opportunity we haven’t had for a long, long while,” Deans said. “When I captained the side in ’87 we were going for the Triple Crown as well and it tipped it down rain all day and we were a fair-weather team unfortunately.

“One thing that I have a lot of respect for with this Scottish team is how they are stronger in the second half than the first half.

“They put their bodies on the line for the whole game, but in the second half they have started to control games and their fitness level, I think, is probably higher than it’s ever been.

“I firmly believe we won’t give England the same opportunities and space in the second half because that’s when they win games.”

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