Sport Rugby

Saturday 20 January 2018

Neil Francis: Scots' relationship with English is a complicated song

It can be hard to reconcile on-field hatred with off-field togetherness

Courtney Lawes of England and James Hamilton of Scotland go up for the line out ball during the RBS Six Nations match between Scotland and England in February
Courtney Lawes of England and James Hamilton of Scotland go up for the line out ball during the RBS Six Nations match between Scotland and England in February
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I had the privilege of being at the All-Ireland hurling final three weeks ago. It was as good a sporting encounter as I have ever seen. The football final last Sunday, which I also witnessed, less so. At least the good guys won.

I have been to quite a few All-Irelands now and the one thing that stands out is how little voice is given to Amhrán na bhFiann. I was told at the first final I was at 25 years ago that the hairs on the back of my head would stand out, my eyes would moisten and the corner of my lip would suffer a quivering indentation. Underwhelmed, I sat down afterwards on each occasion hoping that the match would be better than the rendition of the anthem.

Le Marseillaise in Parc de Princes, whether I was watching or playing, had a stiff kneed magnificence to it and was only beaten once for puissance and passion - at Croke Park strangely enough. The Ireland v England rugby game in Croke Park in 2007 was one of those games when the responsibility of the occasion and burden of expectation weighed heavily on those who played. More than a few wept openly as they tried to sing the national anthem that day. It was a great occasion, one which any player would want to play in.

England that day lacked the mental starch required to deal with the enormity of the task. Their resolve was broken early and they dealt with the result with feckless nonchalance and equanimity.

I felt privileged to witness the event and the intoxicating jingoism before, during and after. It was a good day to be an Irishman.

I met an Ulster rugby supporter who had travelled from his home in London and spent £600 on a ticket - wouldn't have missed it. England had been hosed on the scoreboard but it was the occasion that did it for him. "The anthems were special" he said. I was thinking, this guy is a sash-wearing, umbrella-holding, bowler hat-wearing and card-carrying lodge member, surely he was talking about Ireland's Call or God Save the Queen, what was he talking about singing the anthem. This fella had been going to rugby internationals for 30 odd years and he knew the tune to Amhrán na bhFiann - such was the conductive atmosphere in the stadium that he stood up and without knowing the words lip-synched and hummed as loud as he could in a thick Ulster brogue Amhrán na bhFiann.

An unwavering believer in the union yet it was his island against England. On occasions like these anything can happen. Sometimes the English have that effect.

Seven years later and last week's referendum in Scotland was an awful lot closer than I thought it would be. It was a reasonably civilised affair initially. If the 'Yes' vote had a charismatic and iconic leader with a clearer definition of where he intended Scotland to go and if David Cameron had opened his gob a few more times it would have been too close to call.

A few rugby nuggets came out in the lead up to the referendum. The story about calling the Lions the British, Scottish & Irish Lions was asinine and is now a moot point. I thought the grief that David Sole took in his defence of the union was a disgrace. Morons dispensing invective behind false names on twitter barely qualifies as a disgrace these days - it's normal practice. Sole displayed the sort of bravery and clarity of purpose that he did on the pitch in his playing days and he stood up and nailed his colours to the mast from a long way before the referendum date, unlike Andy Murray who posted a tweet only a day or so before the vote saying he was voting yes.

What is remarkable about Sole and quite a few of his Scotland teammates, is the observance of the intricacies of being bound by the union to England and yet loathing them at the same time. In 1990 Sole famously led Scotland to an improbable Grand Slam against England at Murrayfield. Again it was a great sporting occasion, but it had so many side lines and as usual had political implications.

In the 1970s and '80s, England and Scotland played in so many matches where there was fighting between fans and widespread destruction of property. It became too difficult to police and eventually all Scotland v England football matches were called off indefinitely.

Because these matches, where both sets of fans could vent their spleens at each other, no longer took place, suddenly the rugby match became a vehicle to harangue the opposition and megaphone their enmity.

In 1990 the very stuffy and conservative Scottish rugby union decided to ditch God Save the Queen. There were three or four songs which were shortlisted but Flower of Scotland won it. It was a controversial choice. Songs like Scotland the Brave, which was also shortlisted, pretty much extolled the virtues of the land and people of Scotland whereas Flower of Scotland had a militaristic/antagonistic flavour to it "and stood against him, proud Edward's army and sent them homeward tae think again". A point not lost on their Patron, Princess Anne. The Scottish football team also took that song in place of God Save the Queen.

As the fixtures unfolded in the 1990 season, both England and Scotland remained unbeaten and stood to face each other in the final match in Edinburgh for the Grand Slam. Suddenly Scotland's rugby team were a cultural touchstone for a heck of a lot of anti-English feeling.

There was a political dimension too. Margaret Thatcher had brought in the Poll Tax and had decided to introduce it a year early and trial it in Scotland first. England, and more importantly their troublesome little brother the English sporting press buttressed by Will Carling and Brian Moore, displayed the sort of arrogance before the match that would lead to only one conclusion. This one would run deep.

In an interview with the BBC's Nigel Starmer Smith, John Jeffrey, the eminence grise of Scottish rugby players, was talking about his farm in Kelso. "Over here are the Cheviot Hills, such beautiful scenery, and down there are the border hills, which is God's country and unfortunately over there, well that's England which spoils my view when I draw the curtains in the morning."

John Jeffrey's views were crystalline and strongly articulated. Poor old Starmers, looking for reassurance that this was only a joke, got none and was left to draw his own conclusions.

England and their supporters were given a rough time all the way up to the start of the game. When England ran out they were met with a hostility that left them in no doubt as to where they were.

When Sole led his team out at walking pace in a deliberate play, the place exploded. Scotland would win a taut, physical game with a Tony Stanger try from a bounce that only the sporting Gods could concoct.

Carling and Co, as they always did, took their beating well, folded their tents and slinked off south of the border. David Sole and his team, heroes and patriots forever. That win fortified the whole of Scotland.

Strange to some so, that days before the poll half of that team would line up outside Murrayfield stadium to promote the better together 'no' campaign. Gavin and Scott Hastings, David Sole, Finn Calder, Iwan Tukalo, Andy Nicol, etc - no John Jeffrey.

As Irishmen sometimes it is hard to reconcile it. The Welsh and the Scots are first in the queue to have a pop at the English and when they play England on the rugby pitch their resolve is doubled - yet they want to keep the union intact.

It was terrible to hear Sole called unpatriotic and he himself expressed regret at the anti-English sentiment and Union Jack burning which went on. A proud Scot, a strong man and like the man he is once again stood firm for his principals. Well done Soley. Alba go brea!

PS: Paul McGinley probably made the best political pick of his life when he selected Stephen Gallagher ahead of Luke Donald for this weekend. The Scottish crowd will get behind the European team with a Scot in their ranks but four Englishmen? I don't think so.

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