BREAK FOR THE BORDER
IT’S PRODUCED a World Cup-winning captain and hosted two Challenge Cup finals, but can rugby league ever take root in Scotland?
Attempts to establish the game North of the border stretch back more than one hundred years.
But despite plenty of effort, there are still only a small number of enthusiasts playing the 13-a-side code.
And since the high of reaching the quarter-finals of the 2013 World Cup, when Tonga were toppled before eventual defeat by New Zealand, and winning the following year’s European Cup, it’s generally been tough going for the men’s national team, save for notable draws against the Kiwis in the 2016 Four Nations tournament and Samoa in the 2017 World Cup.
Meanwhile the recent death at 66 of Keith Hogg, a former Scotland Rugby League chairman who was hailed as a “stalwart for the nation” but was forced to stand down two years ago due to illness, was a further setback.
However the thistle is a hardy flower, and while the dominance of football and rugby union will always make growth that bit harder, hopefully the 13-a-side code in all its forms will become healthier.
Scotland RL’s newly-appointed clubs’ liaison officer Barry McGuffog has unveiled plans to bring back the men’s Scotland ‘A’ side after a significant hiatus, with a Club XIII representative team made up of domestic players and an Exiles side to face each other in a trial match.
“I want to create genuine pathway opportunities for both players and coaching staff alike,” he explained.
“I’d like to think that Scotland ‘A’ could be a stepping stone for homegrown players to make the full international side too, and that having a chance to gain international honours will attract new players to rugby league.”
The country, particularly the Borders region, has long been a source of talent.
Go back to April 1904 and rugby league’s first international match, and the Other Nationalities side which lined up against England at Central Park, Wigan included two Scots – Oldham’s George Frater, who skippered the team to a 9-3 victory, and fellow forward Jim Moffatt, of Leeds.
When the newly-formed Australia national team toured Great Britain in 1908-09, the ambitious and extensive 45-match itinerary, which ran for more than five months, took in a visit to Glasgow.
Celtic Football Club’s Parkhead staged game number 35, against a Northern Union XIII.
But with it taking place on a Wednesday afternoon in February, when many potential spectators were working, and with heavy rain doing nothing to help, the 17-17 draw attracted only 3,000 to the vast venue – at the time one of the biggest football grounds in the world and able to hold more than 60,000.
Among those looking on was legendary Celtic manager Willie Maley, and legend has it he was so impressed by the spectacular running and kicking ability of Kangaroos centre Dally Messenger that he offered him £1,000 (around £125,000 today) to switch to soccer.
Messenger stuck with rugby league, while the organisers of the second Kangaroos tour of 1911-12, this time taking in 36 matches, stuck with Scotland, this time picking Edinburgh football club Heart of Midlothian’s Tynecastle, another 60,000-capacity arena, to stage the second Ashes Test against Great Britain in the December.
The Saturday-afternoon 11-11 draw was seen by 8,000, higher than the attendances for both the first Test at St James’ Park, Newcastle, where 5,317 saw Australia win 19-10, and the third at Villa Park, Birmingham, where 4,000 watched the tourists seal a series success with a 33-8 victory.
But home internationals became largely the preserve of the game’s traditional club grounds in the North of England, and what many believe is a far-too-parochial approach was illustrated by the rejection in 1953 of a bid to launch a new club Glasgow Eagles because of concerns over travelling costs.
Had the Eagles taken off, perhaps they would have tried to snare Dave Valentine, the star Huddersfield back rower who started out playing rugby union for Hawick in Scotland and skippered a Great Britain side which also included Leeds winger Davie Rose, from Jedburgh, to glory at the first World Cup in France in 1954, when the hosts were beaten 16-12 in the Paris final.
When the sport did expand in the eighties, with the arrival of clubs such as Fulham (now London Broncos), Cardiff City and Carlisle, both Glasgow Rangers and Hearts were among the other football clubs who made overtures about setting up rugby league teams.
The student game was becoming established in Scotland, and the national team was established in 1995 to take part in the Emerging Nations Tournament being staged alongside that year’s World Cup in England and Wales.
The Bravehearts played their first home match against Ireland in Glasgow in 1996 at Partick Thistle’s Firhill, which along with Tynecastle, was a venue for the 2000 World Cup, the first of the five Scotland have played in to date.
Also used by the national team have been rugby union grounds Old Anniesland, Hughenden and the Scotstoun Stadium (along with the multi-purpose Lochinch Park) in Glasgow, Meggetland and Myreside in Edinburgh and Netherdale in Galashiels.
In August 1997, the aforementioned Carlisle, by then with Border Raiders added to their title, took the high road to play a third-tier game against Lancashire Lynx at Hawick RU Club, where 424 saw them win 32-6.
And in July 1998, Tynecastle staged a Super League ‘On the Road’ match between Bradford Bulls and London Broncos, who scored a surprise 22-8 win before 6,863.
Scotland’s domestic league was inaugurated in 1997, and the 1996 Challenge Cup was the first to feature a team from the country, with reigning champions Border Eagles beaten 34-10 by Wath Brow Hornets in a first-round tie at Hughenden.
With Wembley undergoing redevelopment, the 2000 Challenge Cup final was played at Murrayfield, the Edinburgh base of the Scottish Rugby Union which is less than a mile from Tynecastle, with a major mopping-up operation following a flood preceding Bradford’s 24-18 win over Leeds Rhinos in front of 67,247.
And after the 2001 showpiece went to Twickenham, Murrayfield was used again in 2002, when 62,140 saw Wigan Warriors defeat St Helens 21-12.
First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 487 (August 2023)