The crate of finest malt arrived in Cardiff for distribution among the squad responsible for the famous win over England at Wembley one blazing Sunday afternoon in April 1999. It resulted in a double whammy – derailing an English Grand Slam and turning Scotland into the last champions of the Five Nations.
At Murrayfield next Saturday, the perennial wooden spoon contenders will be going for their first three-in-a-row since then. If Wales are to complete a hat-trick of away wins instead, they will have to outwit a familiar foe.
The last time Wales managed the same winning streak, during the Grand Slam journey of 2005, Scott Johnson went with them every step of the way as No.2 to Wales coach Mike Ruddock. Within 12 months, they’d gone their separate ways – a break-up which still intrigues and baffles after all these years.
While Ruddock returned to Dublin via Worcester, Johnson headed far and wide – to his native Australia to work with the Wallabies; across the Atlantic to run the American Eagles, back to Wales with the Ospreys and then north to the far side of Hadrian’s Wall as assistant to Scotland coach Andy Robinson.
When the honourable Englishman fell on his sword after Tonga’s victory at Aberdeen last November, Johnson stepped into the breach as interim coach, just as he did with Wales for the last three matches of the Six Nations in 2006.
Now the garrulous Aussie is one more win away from presiding over the best Scottish Championship performance since Jim Telfer’s last season in charge, in 1999.
“Interim” may be a dirty word as far as Chelsea’s interim manager Rafael Benitez is concerned but the Scots are big on it. As well as an interim head coach in Johnson, they also have an interim forwards coach, the ex-England No.8 Dean Ryan who has taken temporary leave from his work for satellite television.
Telfer, a gigantic figure in coaching by even the most demanding criteria, is impressed. “Scott Johnson, like most Australian coaches, will be looking for some invention and flair,” Telfer says. “Andy Robinson maybe had more of a set plan and most of the things Scotland are doing well now were put in place by Andy.”
Wales have won their last five matches against Scotland, racking up 15 tries in the process. After rediscovering their mojo to win in Paris and Rome, they will hit the road again as favourites to consolidate second place and so take their title defence to the final round – England at Cardiff.
Johnson and Ryan will spend the coming week dampening down the upsurge of public confidence in a Scottish team suddenly looking at horizons far above the usual scrap for bottom place with Italy. Against Ireland last week, they turned a starvation diet into arguably the most implausible win ever seen in the Six Nations.
“There will be an expectation against Wales, all right,” says Telfer. “Scotland will be up against a Welsh team which has been in the doldrums but whose rugby in the last few weeks has been as good as any played in the Championship.
“They always looked as though they were in the driving seat against France and Italy. What I fear about the Welsh is that they are very good rugby players who are always prepared to take the opposition on.
“Where Ireland were relatively weak at Murrayfield last week on the wing, Wales are very strong. They also have a very good blend in the back row – Ryan Jones, Justin Tipuric, Toby Faletau. The Scottish back row doesn’t have the same blend.”
Telfer, a Lions No.8 in his day, believes Wales are more of a threat with Tipuric on the openside of the back row instead of Sam Warburton and Jones as captain. “Jones has captained the team very well,” Telfer says. “He’s an old-fashioned professional. He knows what he’s doing and he makes the right decisions.
“I wouldn’t expect Sam Warburton to be playing against Scotland. I don’t see him as an out-and-out seven. He’s a good player, inspirational sometimes, but he seems to be plagued by injuries which prevent him from putting a large number of games together.
“I like Tipuric. I would expect him to be in the starting side. He has a big influence on the game at the breakdown because he’s an honest, hard-working kind of player.
“The Irish scrum wasn’t good whereas the Welsh front row are fitter than they have been for a while. Scotland will bother anyone in the lineout because of the way they defend, especially Jim Hamilton.”
Should Wales win the final Celtic eliminator before the tournament reaches its climax seven days later, Telfer believes that beating England will be too tall an order, even with home advantage.
“England are a different kettle of fish,” he says. “They had a big result against New Zealand before Christmas and they’ve moved on.
“They showed mental courage to beat Ireland in Dublin. They got a fortuitous try against France but they played well enough to win. I think they will beat Italy all right.”
If history repeats itself and Wales do their hosts almost as big a favour the following weekend, however unwittingly as they did in 1999, then Scotland could conceivably finish runners-up.
That would guarantee them another £1m or so in prize money, more than enough to pay for another crate of Scotch.
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