Scots caught with their trousers down
March 11, 2011
Scotland's Wilson Shaw scores in the corner against England in 1938 © PA Photos
Just under 100 years ago, on the afternoon of March 18, 1911, George Cunningham was suddenly deprived of his lower garments. He reacted as anyone of his era, and many since, would have done - sitting down to minimise embarrassment and await assistance.
Too bad that Cunningham was at the time a few yards short of the try-line at Twickenham, with every English defender beaten - the last was fullback Samuel Williams, his inadvertent de-bagger - and Scotland trailing by only five points with a few minutes to go on their first ever visit to England's new national ground.
First to reach Cunningham was English defender John Birkett, who tackled him as an insurance against his reprioritising the competing demands of modesty and sporting achievement. A converted try would, under the scoring values of the time, have brought Scotland level at 13-13.
It would have been some achievement for a Scottish team of whom few expected much. Their season had got off to a miserable start when they became the first international team ever to lose to France, and had not got much better since. Scotland had also become lost on their way to the unfamiliar ground and had to trek through some allotments to gain entry.
Six new caps had been introduced for the Calcutta Cup match and one of them, Cunningham's co-centre and London Scottish clubmate Ronald Simson, had scored early in the second-half to bring Scotland back into contention at 13-8.
That was where it stayed, meaning that Cunningham's moment of shocked modesty had serious implications. It was the last time Cunningham, who had previously captained the team, played for Scotland - not because the selectors felt he had his priorities wrong, but because he joined the Indian civil service shortly afterwards and was no longer available.
This was something of a Scottish habit in 1911. Pat Munro, captain against Ireland, went off immediately afterwards to his imperial appointment in Sudan, taking with him a Scotland cap that he subsequently presented to a tribal chief. The chief was so delighted with the gift that he wore it ever after, in preference to his fez, for ceremonial occasions.
Cunningham's career seems to have contained nothing as colourful as that, or even his fateful moment at Twickenham, but it was clearly one of some merit - culminating in three separate spells as Governor of the North West Frontier Province, a knighthood and the rectorship of St Andrew's University. Nor did Simson play again, and his later fate was much sadder, as one of rugby's first war victims in September 1914.
The outcome mattered in the short term. It gave England their first ever Grand Slam, and made Scotland the first of the home nations to lose all four matches in a season. It also signalled a far longer-term shift in the Anglo-Scottish balance of power. The 'Twickenham jinx' was a Welsh coinage, devised in response to their inability to win there until 1933.
It was also a Welshman who remarked, as early as 1912, that 'there is an indefinable something in the atmosphere and surroundings of Twickenham which is not congenial to the Celtic temperament'. 'Jinx' hardly begins to describe the miseries that Twickenham has inflicted on Scotland. Before England moved to their new ground, Scotland had won 10 out of 18 meetings on English soil, including the last six.
That something had changed might have been evident from the time of the second club match played on the new ground in the autumn of 1909, when London Scottish were swamped 39-3 by rampant Harlequins. Maybe had a Championship point been extracted from that first visit by the national team, it might have turned out differently.
Instead Scotland won more matches in England during the first decade of the twentieth century than they have in 100 years since. Every other home v away pairing among the five longer-standing members of the Six Nations has produced at least 10 away wins over that period.
Scotland's record is a miserable four from 44 visits. Twickenham has been a consistent biennial dampener on their ambitions. They have arrived on nine occasions knowing that victory would mean a Triple Crown, and been disappointed on eight of them. Twickenham years have accounted for only one of Scotland's five Triple Crowns since 1911, none of the three Grand Slams and only two out of seven Championships.
The four victories have been so widely spaced that no Scotsman has ever won at Twickenham twice. Kenny Logan lost six times out of six, a melancholy record Chris Paterson will be keen not to equal on Sunday. Yet Scotland did have the distinction of being the first visiting home nation to win at Twickenham, in 1926, with a 17-9 victory highlighted by two of Ian Smith's 24 tries for his country - an all-time tournament record which survives to this day, albeit under fierce pressure from Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Williams.
The next win, in 1938, is that one time in nine chances when Scotland did clinch a Triple Crown at Twickenham. It was the first match to be televised, and few of the thousands screened since can have been better as Wilson Shaw schemed the Scots to a 21-16 win, an epic by any standards, let alone those of the low-scoring 1930s.
There was a 33-year wait for the next win, with Scotland squeezing home 16-15 in 1971 thanks to tries by centre Chris Rea, scrum-half Duncan Paterson and skipper Peter Brown, a No.8 whose place-kicking was so unorthodox that the commentating Bill McLaren had to resort to Hawick dialect for an adequate description, but whose second of two conversions was ultimately decisive.
It is 28 years and counting since the last Scottish team to emerge victorious, a 22-12 victory built on tries by scrum-half Roy Laidlaw and debutant lock Tom Smith, plus 11 points from Peter Dods and a drop-goal by centre Keith Robertson.
If there is encouragement for Scotland on Sunday, it comes in the fact that their last two wins also arrived on the back of defeats by France, Ireland and Wales. They might also want to note that the single scoring category in which Scotland lead across the century - they trail on tries by an overwhelming 112 to 45 - is drop goals, by a margin of nine to eight. Three of the four wins, with 1938 the sole exception, have featured a Scottish drop-goal. But it is hard to escape the feeling that the pioneers of 1911 set a pattern that subsequent Scottish teams have found it almost impossible to break. Lost and embarrassed might do as a description for all too many of them.
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