For Scotland, bad luck doesn’t come in threes, it comes in four-year cycles. This weekend’s meteorological hullabaloo may yet take the biscuit when it comes to their litany of dramatic World Cup exits, but the opportunity to be ejected from the tournament by something as exotic as a Super Typhoon simply represents an ostentatious ramping up of a pattern of misfortune that has bedevilled the Scots since this event’s inception 32 years ago. For the men in dark blue, the majority of World Cups are remembered mainly for the dramatic manner of their departure.
You don’t think so? In that case you haven’t been watching very closely. Scotland’s participation in the World Cup has been cursed.
The evidence stretches right back to the first World Cup, held in New Zealand and Australia. Back in 1987 the bad luck and skulduggery started early when they lost star centres Scott Hastings and David “the Speeding Ashtray” Johnston in the run-up to the tournament. Suddenly, Derrick Grant’s gloriously free-running outfit, which had thrashed England 33-6 at Murrayfield the year before, was hobbled.
The rugby gods completely abandoned them in their crucial opening game against France, one in which the winner avoided a quarter-final against the eventual winners, the All Blacks. Within minutes peerless fly-half John Rutherford went off with knee ligament damage, his career over.
Bad went to worse when, with ten minutes remaining, referee Fred Howard awarded France a penalty and appeared to signal for both sides to attend to their injured, only for Serge Blanco to take a quick tap penalty and race under the posts. Howard shrugged: it was against the spirit of the game, but not the laws. Trailing 20-16, Scotland somehow fashioned a late try through Matt Duncan, only for Gavin Hastings’ touchline conversion to drift wide of the posts as the game ended 20-20.
From there it was a points race. Scotland thrashed Zimbabwe and Romania, just not by as much as France. In their last pool game, Scotland beat Romania 55-28, only for France to score 13 tries as they monstered exhausted Zimbabwe 70-12 and advanced on points difference. France then beat Fiji in one quarter-final, while Scotland – in a pattern that has become depressingly familiar – were on the wrong side of a one-sided 30-3 loss to New Zealand.
If 1987 was tough, 1991 at Murrayfield was a whole different magnitude of miserable for Scotland just 18 months after the elation of winning the Calcutta Cup and Grand Slam on the same ground. Every Scot knows the story: the concussed Gavin Hastings in front of the posts with a penalty to make it 9-6 and send Scotland into the semis; the miss; the Rob Andrew drop-goal; the tears of Big Gav. As if that wasn’t cruel enough, yet again Scotland’s tournament finished with the Kiwis applying the coup de grace in the third-fourth place play-off.
The 1995 World Cup was like a re-run of 1987, only back to front, Scotland thrashing Ivory Coast and Tonga before taking on France. This time the injury was self-inflicted, Gavin Hastings missing two eminently kickable penalties before, with the clock showing 80 minutes, French wing Emile Ntamack carved past several would-be tacklers to go over in the corner with the last move of the match to make it 20-19 before Thierry Lacroix’s touchline conversion ground salt into the gaping wound. Once again there were tears. Once again the booby prize for failure against France was a quarter-final against the All Blacks. Once again, with Jonah Lomu in his pomp, the outcome was assured. Adios Ecosse.
In 1999, the newly-crowned Five Nations champions’ bad luck was a draw that decreed Scotland’s involvement would be terminated by New Zealand for fourth time in as many World Cups. After losing to the Springboks and restoring some self-worth by banjoing the mighty Uruguay and Spain, the meeting with their nemesis at the quarter-final stage resulted in the inevitable – a hard-fought 30-18 defeat at Murrayfield and a shot at the ejector seat.
The 2003 World Cup in Australia represented a spot of good luck – of a fashion. Thrashed 51-9 by France, an ageing Scotland side made an embarrassing scene by emulating flanker Martin Leslie’s facial tick after the flanker was banned from the tournament for foul play; not that indignation fuelled righteous fury – in the final pool encounter to decide who advanced to the quarters, they just scraped past Fiji 22-20 courtesy of Tom Smith’s injury-time try. Once in the quarters they were swept aside 33-16 by hosts and eventual finalists Australia. But at least there was no quarter-final defeat to the Kiwis, no easier-to-score-than-miss penalties catastrophes, no last-minute dramas against the French. Seriously, is this what success feels like?
The bad luck in 2007 belonged to Scotland’s long-suffering fans. Coach Frank Hadden fielded a reserve team against New Zealand at Murrayfield in a move that made his football counterpart Craig Levein’s infamous strikerless formation against the Czechs look like a bold innovation, with Hadden’s sacrificial lambs duly slaughtered 40-0 in front of 70,000 paying, patriotic, pissed-off Scottish punters. After beating minnows Portugal and Romania, Scotland won their final pool game 20-18 against Italy on a dreich night in St Etienne in an astonishingly turgid encounter. After a campaign of unremitting drudgery, the sotto voce 19-13 quarter-final defeat by Argentina felt like sweet release.
Scotland weren’t unlucky in New Zealand in 2011, just off the pace and narrowly eased out by both England and Argentina, but by 2015 the jinx was back with a vengeance. This time it waited until the quarter-final to strike when, with Vern Cotter’s men surprisingly leading favourites Australia 34-32 at Twickenham and an encounter of epic drama entering the last minute, referee Craig Joubert made a mystifying and devastating mistake, gifting Wallaby kicker Bernard Foley an opportunity to thwart the Scots with a wrongly-awarded injury time penalty, a chance he took. The South African was later excoriated by World Rugby, but it made no difference. “We cried buckets of tears in there,” said a distraught David Denton as he left the dressing room.
So excuse me if I don’t get hyperventilated by Scotland’s latest, if most ostentatious, bout of bad luck. The nation’s rugby players are now simply beginning to emulate the spectacular pratfalls inflicted on the Tartan Army by their round-ball colleagues, who long ago turned snatching defeat from the jaws of victory into an art form. Tomorrow in Yokohama, we have double jeopardy – if the weather gods don’t get Scotland first, what price Japan finishing the job? Still, if they can conquer those twin challenges, then Gregor Townsend’s men will face New Zealand in the quarters – it’ll be just like old times…