They were born in Yeovil and Yamba, in Torquay and Shellharbour, Lancaster, Melbourne and the Yorkshire Dales village of Steeton. Yet their families are from Cambuslang, Possil, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Lanark and Dalry. This is the cosmopolitan make-up of Scotland’s World Cup squad, which comes face to face with the World Champions – New Zealand – at Leeds on Friday night.
On their day off this week, some players felt the need to get tattoos of ScotlandRL’s saltire and thistle logo, others were happy with what shines inside instead. Although only two players were born there, all 23 players’ roots are in Scotland. They may have grown up all over the world and have the likes of Villenueve Leopards, Newtown Jets, Wigan Warriors and Brisbane Broncos on their playing CVs. But this group of disparate warriors, who range from 20 to 34 in age, have bonded beautifully. North Queensland Cowboys centre Kane Linnett, whose junior club was Windang Pelicans, is room-mate and now good pals with Doncaster winger David Scott, who learned the game at Easterhouse Panthers in Glasgow. It is that kind of camp.
“Everyone’s on a high because we’re undefeated,” says hooker Ian Henderson, who played with five of the current Kiwi team in his three-year spell at New Zealand Warriors. “For a small Rugby League nation like Scotland, every moment of this World Cup has been incredible, giving us memories we will never forget.
“New Zealand will be the best team most of the boys have ever come up against, me included. But it’s a really exciting challenge, looking at their talent across the park.”
There can be little doubt that this David has earned a shot at Goliath. Putting the convoluted pool stage to one side, Scotland have beaten Tonga, who beat Italy. They drew with Italy, who had just beaten England (in a warm-up) and Wales in the Millennium Stadium. They then saw off the United States, who had won a friendly in France and a crunch game in Wales. Finishing with five points from three games, and a positive points difference, it would have been cruel if they had not progressed.
In Rugby League terms, Scotland are still a teenager. Founded in 1994, they played their first international the following year. Understandably, Scotland have never been granted a game against one of the sport’s top three – Australia, New Zealand or England – and in fairness have never been ready for one. They are as close now as they have ever been.
“This is the best team we’ve ever had and that’s why we are where we are,” explains captain and talisman Danny Brough, the reigning Super League Man of Steel. “People harp on about our team spirit which has been amazing, but team spirit doesn’t win you matches. We need grafters and we’ve got them right across the park, great players who put a shift in for the cause.
“If we go down, we’re going to do down fighting – and playing some football. We’re not going to play five drives and kick: that would play right into their hands. We’re going to attack when we can.”
When it is over, whether that is on Saturday morning or after a potential semi-final with England at Wembley – or even a final at Old Trafford – Scotland’s heroes will return to planet earth. Scott will be in a lecture theatre at Hull University, Mitchell Stringer and Andrew Henderson will go back to coaching and cajoling at Sheffield Eagles, Brett Carter inspiring local kids at Workington Town’s community scheme. The Phillips brothers will go back to their electrician roles at Sellafield, Alex Szostak will be in Sheffield Children’s Hospital again, advising pregnant women on their genetics. Josh Barlow will keep fitting fire places, his brother Sam selling insurance. The full-time players in Super League will have a few weeks off to recover before starting pre-season training.
They could be forgiven for thinking it was all a dream.
By Gavin Willacy