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'No matter what anyone thinks, the English team were not arrogant'

By Liam Heagney
Jeremy Guscott gets to grips in 1990 with Tony Stanger and John Jeffrey (Photo by David Cannon/Allsport)

Next Friday’s premiere of the new BT Sport film which rivetingly recounts the story of the winner-takes-all 1990 Grand Slam showdown is surely the perfect way to whet the appetite ahead of this year’s Calcutta Cup start to the 2023 Guinness Six Nations. Thirty-three years ago, it was the era of Thatcher’s poll tax, rising nationalism, and animosity both on and off the field – and yet a slew of former England players, including Jeremy Guscott, had no qualms revisiting the painful Murrayfield ordeal they endured against a pent-up Scotland.

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It’s the rugby way even though the 80-minute movie is titled The Grudge. “It’s serious water under the bridge,” explained ex-England midfielder Guscott to RugbyPass. “It was an amateur game back there, there are lots of strong friendships there and to put a strong story across in a very good way with strong points of view and good memories, it’s nice. I don’t think you can get much better than that.

“It’s easy for us because we are not there (involved) now. At the time we might have been a bit more cagey and cautious but now, at the ages we are, there is nothing to hide and it’s nice to be able to give your point of view and perspective. Hopefully, it entertains and makes people think, ‘Wow, what a great time to have played rugby’.”

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It sure was wow for the now 57-year-old Guscott: Four Five Nations titles won with England, three World Cups tournaments played in, selection on three Lions tours – a total of 73 caps all-in across a decorated Test career that spanned a decade. And yet here we are talking about the scar, 1990 and the wounding loss that has now been given the Hollywood treatment with the actor Robert Carlyle narrating how the Scots famously gave the English that 13-7 shakedown.

The giddy build-up to the blockbuster March 17 Scotland versus England fixture bypassed Guscott entirely. At the time he was a fresh-faced 24-year-old still relatively new to the Test rugby scene. He was living the dream of representing his country in his first Five Nations campaign and the politics and all the rest of the high-pitched outside noise regarding the Grand Slam decider was something that didn’t concern him.

“It was only May the previous year that I first got capped, then went on the Lions tour, then had autumn internationals and we went on this run of games. I had only seen internationals on TV before that and I was only interested in rugby – I wasn’t interested in what was going on around. It was, ‘How do these players play? Can I be as good as them? Will I be there one day?’

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“Then I’m in the England squad, we go through our championship, we are winning and winning and winning and then we get to this game. Now there would have been a lot of noise, the newspapers, the TV. But back then, Jeremy Guscott, 24 years old, was working for British Gas in a very flexible job which meant anything that was rugby-related, anything connected with rugby, I could have time off for.

“It was me and rugby and my friends and the type of friends I had didn’t talk about poll tax, didn’t talk about Wales, Scotland, Ireland, didn’t talk about the rest of the world. It was, ‘Who are we playing on Saturday? Who do you think is going to be tough, Jerry?’

“My friends were stonemasons, policemen, firefighters, teachers, all across the board, and because I was so new to it, this game in my head wasn’t massive, there wasn’t a lot of noise going on. It was, ‘I can’t wait to get out there and play’. The only part of the newspapers I used to read was the back pages – and stuff about the poll tax and strikes and everything else wasn’t going to be on those pages. It was all going to be sport, so I was oblivious to it.

“There would have been more noise, for instance, in the camp when England used to travel to Ireland and play because we would have escorts because of the service people and police involved. That was more of a disruption, more of a noise than anywhere else we went. So going up to Scotland I was unaware of the enormity of it.”

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Even now, there are certain aspects, such as the story of the famed walk onto the pitch by Scotland, that Guscott is unsure of. “I’ve not read the book, I don’t know what was said. I’ve not talked to players about it but I imagine David Sole looking at his team and going, ‘Look, we want to remember this as much as we can so rather than run out, why don’t we just walk out and soak it all up and just take it all in?’

“So when looking back I can understand why they did it and what it meant but whether they ran out at a million miles an hour or whether they walked out, we just wanted to get on with the game.”

Getting blanked on the pitch by Scott Hastings was the first example of the ‘welcome’ that was to follow for Guscott. “I spent more time with more Scottish players on the ’89 Lions tour than I had with the England players, other than the ones that were on the Lions. So to see Scott and be blanked, it was like, ‘Whay, okay’.

“I genuinely didn’t think anything more of it, I didn’t even go, ‘That’s rude’ or ‘Have you forgotten who I am?’ As you got more experience at this level you just accepted it. You can’t waste any more time or energy on it. I was that type of person. It was in those two seconds, ‘Oh okay’ Then a shrug of the shoulders and ‘let’s get on with’.”

Guscott did, running in a sweetly-taken England try on 15 minutes to cut the margin to 4-6, but he went on to ship a heavy bang at a 61st-minute breakdown and he trudged off five minutes later, spending the closing 14 minutes distraught in the dressing room. “I got banged in the back somehow by someone. To this day I don’t know who.

“Rugby is a collision sport and I just got caught and that was it, I couldn’t carry on. I have had sciatica and it was worse than that. I just couldn’t continue. That was it for me… And I shut down. I remember knowing how the game was going by the noise I could hear from the changing room.

“I just thought the more noise I heard we weren’t doing so well… and when the guys came in at full-time everyone was pretty quiet and I would be guessing what (Will) Carling or Brian Moore said. But make no mistake: no matter what anyone thinks, the English team were not arrogant in the belief that all we had to do was turn up.

“Anyone who had been on the Lions tour the year before knew the quality of the Scottish players and you would have been a fool, a genuine fool, to think England were going to sail through that match and be Grand Slam champions. The amount of Lions that were in that Scotland team, the amount of Lions that were in that England team, it was quite level.”

The legacy of the seminal defeat for Guscott was that facing Scotland in the years that followed was always the biggest England fixture for him. He was a winner on all four of his subsequent Murrayfield visits, including the 1991 World Cup semi-final, and was also victorious in the four Calcutta Cup games he took part in at Twickenham.

“I always felt after that 1990 game that Scotland was the game I wanted to win the most. That was personally the big game, so it did leave a mark. It left a mark, for sure. That was the game I wanted to win but if we had that (1990) game against Wales it would have been Wales, if it had been France, France would have been the team.

“It happened to be Scotland and the way we were treated by a minority of supporters, a small minority of supporters back then, made me feel that if we could fly up on the morning of the game, play and go home straight after, I would be happy.

“When you look back through history we had some good results, we had a good win ratio, we had a hard pack of forwards and a decent backline that could finish off stuff that was put our way. And Scotland in the Five Nations – as it was – was my biggest game, particularly when it was in Edinburgh.”

This year’s championship renewal will be in London on February 4. It was November 26, in the immediate aftermath of being at Twickenham and seeing England well beaten by South Africa, that Guscott tweeted: “Can’t remember the last time I felt so frustrated after watching an Eng rugby team play. Serious reboot of some kind needs to happen for the players to rediscover their brilliance.”

Seven weeks on from that anguished social media post, he is encouraged by the fresh impetus that is Steve Borthwick taking over from Eddie Jones. However, with the England Six Nations squad set to be named this Monday by the new head coach, there is one particularly symbolic development he still wants to see happen.

“I’m definitely pleased there has been a change because I would not have been looking forward to this England-Scotland match. Borthwick is a good choice, he has got a good track record. He announces the squad on Monday and for me, who he chooses as captain will be significant.

“When I think of Geoff Cooke, he picked Will Carling as a young player, a young captain. (Clive) Woodward picked Lawrence Dallaglio and then Martin (Johnson) took over. Jack Rowell went close to home, Carling stopped and Phil de Glanville took over.

“For change to take place, mentally you need to hear from a different voice. Borthwick is the main different voice although a number of that squad have heard him before, but (Kevin) Sinfield will be new, (Nick) Evans will be new.

“To make the complete change, you need a new captain and if Borthwick changes the captain from what people are expecting from (Owen) Farrell and not (Courtney) Lawes but someone like (Maro) Itoje, I think we will see an even bigger change in England in attitude and performance.”

  • The Grudge, the latest in the BT Sport Films series, premieres on BT Sport 1 at 10.15pm on January 20

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