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FEATURE 'Murrayfield carries with it the feeling of a mugging waiting to happen'

'Murrayfield carries with it the feeling of a mugging waiting to happen'
1 month ago

Murrayfield can do strange things to an Englishman.

It is not like the space itself is particularly intimidating. The crowd are a long way back from the pitch, the setting genteel sandstone Edinburgh.

While some may argue otherwise, there is no language barrier or culinary hurdle to overcome in a trip to the Scottish capital.

Yet on Calcutta Cup match day, it has an otherness about it which many an England team has found unsettling.

Even the best of them.

Jonny Wilkinson
England’s Grand Slam attempt in 2000 came unstuck at Murrayfield, when current Scotland coach Gregor Townsend was on the winning side (Photo Dave Rogers/Allsport via Getty Images)

Jonny Wilkinson’s away record against Scotland was worse than against any other nation. He won at Murrayfield only once in four visits.

You would be hard pushed to say the Scottish teams he played against were the best he faced in his Test career but there was just something about the place.

England’s 19-13 Grand Slam-derailing defeat in 2000 on a rain-soaked skidpan was one of the low points of Wilkinson’s glittering Test career.

Woodward’s flaming post-match rant after England’s triumph there in 2004 felt more of an exorcism than an outpouring of joy. He took issue with everything from kick-off delays and pipers to the deafening speaker and obstructive pillar in the away dressing room.

It rankled so much with England’s World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward he used an image of Andy Nicol’s celebrations at the end as his laptop screen saver.

Woodward, by his own admission, used to hate going to Murrayfield.

When he won there, it meant a lot. His flaming post-match rant after England’s triumph there in 2004 felt more of an exorcism than an outpouring of joy.

He took issue with everything from kick-off delays and pipers to the deafening speaker and obstructive pillar in the away dressing room.

Scottish piper
Scottish pipers have not always endeared themselves to visiting England teams (Photo Gerry Penny/AFP via Getty Images)

The pillar seemed to lie at the heart of it all.

A green-tiled monstrosity, three feet square in size stretching from floor to ceiling, it is located in the centre of the changing room.

It looks oddly out of place. Yet it was not placed there by accident.

When Murrayfield was renovated 30 years ago, the revamp plans had a Machiavellian hand behind them.

For some reason the pillar, as with most things about Murrayfield, seems to be more of a problem for England than any other visiting side.

Scotland’s record points scorer Chris Paterson explained it as follows:

“Jim Telfer was the man in charge at the time and he decided that the away team should have a disadvantage – a big pillar stuck in the middle of their changing room so when the coach addresses his players it is very difficult to see everyone at once,” he said.

“The pillar, legend has it, has no structural benefits. It’s only there aesthetically to get in the way for away teams.”

Death by feng shui? Maybe that is the idea. The home dressing room has no such pillar.

For some reason the pillar, as with most things about Murrayfield, seems to be more of a problem for England than any other visiting side.

Mind you, some of the match-day furniture does seem to be pointedly directed at England.

In 2006, when Scotland regained the Calcutta Cup, England captain Martin Corry led his side onto the pitch past a sword-waving William Wallace. Or an actor dressed as him anyway.

Austin Healey, in the commentary box at the time, recalled wishing Corry had flattened Wallace.

When Dylan Hartley was England captain he complained about the snail-like pace at which the pipers had escorted the team bus into the stadium. It had felt to Hartley like David Sole’s 1990 walk in slow motion.

Luther Burrell and Dylan Hartley
Dylan Hartley (right) was able to celebrate three successive Calcutta Cup wins in Edinburgh from 2012 to 2016 (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

The pipers seem to be a common cause of irritation. Either there are too many of them getting in the way or too few of them, with the haunting lone piper on the roof unfairly raising Scotland to unplayable levels of emotion.

Then there is the noise of the instrument itself. The pipes are one man’s heaven, another’s hell, but they appear to grate more on English ears than anyone else’s.

John Spencer captained England to what was then their heaviest Calcutta Cup defeat in 1971 – a 26-6 trouncing in a match to celebrate the centenary of the Calcutta Cup.

He couldn’t stand the sound of them.

“My father used to say that a Scottish gentleman is a man who can play the bagpipes but doesn’t,” said Spencer. “They would just fill the stadium with bagpipes before the game and grind you down.”

England lost five successive times at Murrayfield during the 1970s, a bounteous period for the Scots in which the thistle habitually strangled the red rose north of the border.

On the whole the animosity surrounding this fixture – the oldest in the international calendar – remains just about right. The tension is set on simmer, the atmosphere on crackle.

England’s best run at Murrayfield was their five successive victories in the 1990s, including the 1991 World Cup semi-final.

The precursor though was the harrowing 1990 Grand Slam shootout defeat which left England hooker Brian Moore chewing glass at a function he had agreed to attend in Edinburgh the following week.

“For every second of the experience, and I exaggerate not, at the back of my mind was repeated the phrase: ‘I would rather die than allow the Scottish to do this to me again’,” he wrote in his autobiography.

England’s record over the past four visits has been an even split but there is still a feeling of unease about a trip there.

Murrayfield carries with it the feeling of a mugging waiting to happen – literally so six years ago when Ryan Wilson’s intimidation tactics on George Ford after the warm-up sparked a pre-match tunnel brawl.

Huw Jones
Scotland’s 2018 Calcutta Cup victory was their first for 10 years, starting a run of four wins and a draw from the last six contests (Photo by MB Media/Getty Images)

The trouble extended to the next day when Eddie Jones was jostled and abused by drunken Scots on the train back to England. That incident led to a court case and three men being fined.

If England are convinced the Scots are out to get them, they are almost certainly right but on the whole though the animosity surrounding this fixture – the oldest in the international calendar – remains just about right. The tension is set on simmer, the atmosphere on crackle.

The numerical imbalance between the playing stocks of the two nations should mean England dominate the fixture.

Overall they do but this is Murrayfield and at Murrayfield Scotland have a winning Calcutta Cup record.

In their idiosyncratic backyard, one way or the other they will be a handful for England this weekend.

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