The Sixties and Seventies were dark times for English rugby. While Wales were enjoying a golden era, each turning year across two decades brought unremitting disappointment for those who follow the Red Rose.
England needed a leader of substance to lead them out of the darkness … that man was Bill Beaumont. The Fylde lock was a mere five-year-old when fellow Lancastrian, Eric Evans, led England to the clean sweep in 1957 but now, 23 years on, he stood on the brink of ending the drought.
Beaumont had first been handed the poisoned chalice of the England captaincy in 1978 and the cycle of failure did not abate – third and fourth place finishes failed to show the promise of things to come. England’s confused selection policy did not help, with players going in and out of the team like revellers at a fairground.
The key to the 1980 triumph lay in the appointment of school teacher Mike Davis as coach the previous autumn. It was an unlikely move but the combination of two unassuming characters sparked something in a talented group.
“Mike was a top man, a fantastic character who should have been made coach for a lot longer,” says No.8 John Scott. “Mike and Billy worked really well together – two of the nicest men you could wish to meet.”
“Yes, Mike did a great job,” agrees Paul Dodge, who played alongside Leicester clubmate Clive Woodward in that Grand Slam side. “He came straight from England Schools, which was a bit different, but he had the respect of the players. He was a schoolmaster by profession but he did not act that way with us. Bill and Mike were very close. Mike was forward-orientated and very articulate. Billy gelled with him, and it showed.”
The Davis influence resonated in a mighty pack, built on the solid foundations of Fran Cotton and Phil Blakeway at prop and Peter Wheeler at hooker, with Beaumont in the engine room next to the late Maurice Colclough.
Scott recalls that bristling combination of strength, power, experience and know-how: “Maurice was an outstanding athlete, while Billy was the workhorse and then we had Nigel Horton as back-up … one of the best technical second rows we’ve ever had.
“We had guys who had so much skill and ability in that pack. ‘Nearo’ (Tony Neary) was on a different planet, Roger Uttley was a fantastic guy and Wheeler was before his time as a hooker.”
Scott, himself, was in his prime playing in an awesome Cardiff side, who would win the Welsh Cup three times in the next four years.
The road to the Grand Slam was a tumultuous one. France and Wales, the heavyweights of the era, were beaten in desperately close, fractious matches at Parc des Princes and Twickenham respectively and then there was a month-long wait for the climax, a trip to Murrayfield to face a Scotland side desperate to deny the auld enemy. For the Celtic nations England’s demise over those two decades was a source of great satisfaction.
In the circumstances, the welcome north of the border was surprisingly friendly, according to Dodge: “I remember that we stayed in a hotel outside the city and they baked us a giant cake! It was not what we were expecting – very nice and not very Scottish to a visiting English side!”
Full-back Andy Irvine had been chosen to lead Scotland for the first time and, faced by a vaunted pack, he admitted afterwards that the strategy had been to run the legs off the big English forwards. That Scotland failed to put the plan fully into operation was due to the organisation and skill of Beaumont’s men. A mighty white umbrella enveloped the ball and strangled the life out of the Scots in the first half-an-hour. It was a period of play as impressive as any in Five Nations history.
But it was not all down to the forwards, Steve Smith and John Horton kicked well and Woodward’s silky running was a factor in both the opening two tries for wings John Carleton, who was to have his day of days, and Mike Slemen.
“I really enjoyed playing with Clive,” adds Dodge. The 1980 Grand Slam was the initial mark made by Woodward on the international stage; he would go on to win two Lions caps in South Africa that summer and the rest is rugby history. Currently he is plotting British athletes’ success at the Olympics. So, was there any hint on that day 32 years ago of the great accolades that would come the Leicester centre’s way?
Emphatically not, is Scott’s view: “Not a flicker – if he’s a genius then 22 others are sleeping giants. In his mind he was always the greatest but ‘Dodgy’ was the real player.”
Dusty Hare’s reliable boot slotted both conversions and England were 12-0 up. England marched on, smothering any Scottish advances in their tracks and dominating the set-pieces. Beaumont and Davis’ plan was going like clockwork and England were playing like winners; a thoroughly unfamiliar feeling for most wearing the white shirt, even if elsewhere they had found success in spades.
The Leicester contingent of Dodge, Woodward and Wheeler had been involved in English Cup victories. Beaumont, Cotton, Uttley, Neary, Smith, Carleton and Slemen had all been in the North side that beat the All Blacks earlier that season. Uttley and Cotton were Lions on the triumphant 1974 tour of South Africa.
“I don’t think a lot of those that came through after us knew what we went through in those days,“ reveals Scott. “When we played, Billy’s team talk would be, ‘come on lads, we haven’t beaten this lot for 23 years’, ‘come on lads, we haven’t beaten this lot for 15 years’. I remember looking around the dressing room in disbelief at the players in that side and thinking how on earth have we not beaten anyone for so long?
“I learned more in three years playing with Uttley and Neary than with anyone.”
With half-an-hour on the clock Scotland were already facing a massive task and the situation became grave when England notched a third try. A scrum close to the home line was going only one way, Scott controlled the ball at the base but rather than waiting for a probable pushover, he popped the ball up for Smith, who put Carleton over for his second score.
England were in total control and Scotland were seemingly powerless to prevent the Grand Slam which, with no World Cup in those days, was then the ultimate prize for any player in the Northern Hemisphere.
“It always amazed me, we had used that move so often – I would pick up, feed to Steve and John would go over – yet I couldn’t understand how people didn’t work it out,” jokes Scott. “Having that big lead made it feel like it was like a game of snooker – I’ve got the points on the board, you can’t get past me.”
Irvine got Scotland on the board with a penalty but Hare put over two of his own and shortly after half-time the title was virtually in Beaumont’s grasp, as his forward machine ground their way across Murrayfield to set up Smith for England’s fourth touchdown.
Would Scotland accept defeat? Not a bit of it. Possession may have been scarce but when they got the ball Irvine’s men attacked with vigour and spirit. A classy back-line including the talents of John Rutherford, Roy Laidlaw, David Johnston, Jim Renwick, Bruce Hay and Keith Robertson, alongside their skipper, tested England’s resolve.
“They were a good side. They played a very open style of game. We were in confident mood and played very well but Scotland came back strongly at us,” admits Dodge.
Scotland were rewarded for their adventure with a pair of tries that raised the metaphorical roof at the famously open-sided Murrayfield circa 1980. First, a stirring piece of continuity led to the elongated frame of Allan Tomes galloping over. The second was a piece of individual artistry by the gliding Rutherford. Both were converted by Irvine, it was down to 18-23 and England sides of old could have wilted under the onslaught. Not this one.
“We were not going to lose – if we had lost it from there I think we would have all packed up the game,” states Scott.
Hare kicked another penalty to ease the nerves and the rubber stamp was made by Carleton, with a landmark hat-trick try – the first time an England player had dotted down three times in a full international for 56 years.
Dodge concedes, though, that a lucky bounce of the ball played its part: “I just hoofed it up in the air and the ball bounced into John’s hand.” He quips. Carleton sped to the line and his moment of history.
Carleton was one of seven of that team who got the nod to fly to South Africa under Beaumont in the Lions shirt, while Dodge and Smith would be called up during the tour. Beaumont was the first Englishmen to lead the Lions for 50 years. His elevation was unquestioned throughout Britain and Ireland.
“Billy led by example. He would be the first over the top and was always at the bottom of rucks and mauls,” says Dodge. “Billy was a great guy–- a real top man,“ adds Scott. “That whole England team was a bunch of characters, everyone was a character and he held it together. Billy was great for us, the management and the supporters – the perfect captain.”
Beaumont’s Lions were beaten 3-1 in an injury ravaged and politically charged series, where the late Dr Jack Matthews was a harassed man. Through it all, though, Beaumont kept his dignity having grown in stature through that Grand Slam campaign. A moment he had worked for five years to achieve.
“It was a feat that meant a lot to us, we knew we had achieved something but I believe it meant a lot more to the likes of Billy, Fran, Nearo and Roger – outstanding players who had not won anything with England, who had failed and failed a lot before.
Dodge adds: “Yes, I was pleased for those world-class players who had played in the Seventies – it was fantastic for them. The quality of those players, who went on Lions tours but never really put it together in an England side, made it fitting for this to happen at the end of some great careers.”
It was the last hurrah for Neary and Uttley, Cotton would retire within a year and Beaumont himself would be forced to quit in 1982 due to injury. It took England a decade to get themselves back in a position to win a Grand Slam, but Will Carling’s 1990 side failed where Beaumont’s men triumphed.
“It didn’t move on after 1980, it stagnated,” says Scott. “There was a lot of talking behind the scenes which finally led to Geoff Cooke coming in and lessons were learnt. It was the amateur days and I think that 1980 team was a prisoner of its own success.
“Where do you go from there? We had some great moments – the 1983 win against the All Blacks – but there was not a lot of planning in those days, the teams were thrown together. There was no progression.”
Perhaps the RFU should have grasped the nettle and utilised Beaumont the organiser to knock teams into shape. They did not, and he went off into a TV career before his subsequent return to the game at the highest levels of administration. Now its chairman, the RFU appears to have a solid, and popular, hand on the tiller.