The position of scrum- half is the fulcrum on which a fifteen-man game is built, and today we are very fortunate to have British and Irish Lion, Scotland and Bath Rugby legend Andy Nicol to give us his views on a pivotal position, and his time at the club.
There are no prizes for guessing what proud Dundonian Andy Nicol thinks is the greatest achievement and highlight of his career at Bath Rugby.
No need for our editorial team to offer the matter to the floor - the January 1998 European Cup victory over Brive saw Andy become the first man to lift Europe’s top prize on behalf of a British club.
In the interests of balance along national lines, as we canter towards the outset of what promises to be an exciting Six Nations in 2016, we should point out that by his own admission, Andy’s greatest career highlight was the 2000 defeat of England at Murrayfield for his country!
Fitting too that a scrum-half should lift the trophy as captain, the man at the heart of the action, leader in so much more than name.
“I think because it meant so much to so many people, that for me was without a doubt the highlight of my club career,” says the British and Irish Lion.
“It probably was our old amateur values that got us through and got us to win that tournament. That was what was so satisfying.”
Andy’s storied career straddled the shift from the amateur to professional era as the game took those crucial formative steps. Arriving to Bath in 1994 under Brian Ashton, Andy sadly had suffered a serious knee injury (ACL) in his final game for Dundee which prevented him from joining the fray immediately.
His debut actually came for Bath Spartans against Wasps at Sudbury, with his first league match at the Rec coming later in 1995.
A succession of poorly timed injuries cruelly cost Andy a Rugby World Cup appearance during his career, so perhaps that January day in Bordeaux where he got his hands on the biggest prize in the club game was some sort of recompense.
Arriving to a club which had won 16 trophies from an available 23, in the most successful period imaginable, meant that expectation was commensurate with the array of silverware recently adorning the trophy cabinet.
Andy contends that was why people came to play at Bath, that reputation as being in their own minds one of, if not the best side in Europe was alluring, but a mighty challenge as a result.
“It was big thrill for me, I have to say. You've got to remember, it was a very different year back in 1994 when I first came down. Even when rugby went professional in ’96, it happened very quickly, so even in ’94, it wasn't really on the horizon,” he recalls.
“I remember the first time I came down. Having watched games on Rugby Special as we had back then on the TV, the Rec would be crammed full of people. It always looked a bigger crowd than it was!"
Appearances could be deceptive however, as it turned out! Andy goes on,
“When I got to the Rec, the Teachers stand as it was then, was just being finished. All the temporary seating and standing terraces were down and the posts were down and the pitch was getting re-seeded.
“Whoever it was that picked me up - I can't remember - said ‘This is the Recreation Ground' and I said ‘No, it's not!’ It looked completely different to anything I had seen on the television!”
Normal service was quickly resumed however, as time went by and Andy got to savour the experience of playing in front of the passionate, baying masses in blue, black and white.He says,
“It was great for me. I left Dundee where we had crowds of 800 on a very good day. Then I joined Bath and I think back then we were getting 8,800 crammed into the Rec. Now I think it's up to 13-14,000 pretty much. I loved it.
“The Rec is just a wonderful place to play rugby. I think it's unique, with its situation within the city and how it's positioned. Next to the river, down from the parade, everyone looks down over it, everyone in the houses and the flats. The people hang outside of their windows watching. It's truly a unique place to play and a wonderful place to play rugby.”
Other luminaries have spoken on these pages this season about the culture at Bath during those times. The outrageous success was allied with a bruising and uncompromising reputation, despite the wonderful attacking talent outside him in the backs. Bath certainly at that time were as close to the definitive article as they could be.
Andy says it was apparent that reputations outside mattered for naught from the first minute he set foot in the Club.
“It was everything,” he says emphatically. “It was about the character that you had to show when you arrived. The fact that I'd played international rugby for Scotland prior to coming, had been called into the Lions in New Zealand as a replacement? It meant nothing when you got here. It was all about the respect that you got in the Bath changing room.
“That was a very challenging environment, but massively motivating and inspiring as well. Coming in as a 23 year-old, I'm a student of the game, I knew all the history.
“I knew how the club got that reputation. Crossing the Severn Bridge midweek, to play the Welsh sides, the Wednesday-Saturday cycle for months on end. That was where the hard edge within the club was formed.”
And players had to live up to high expectations from their peers too. No quarter was asked for and none given. Andy elaborates,
“It didn't matter what you did on the Saturday for your country. You found out when you came into Lambridge on the Monday night. There's a great story of Paul Simpson going from Lansdowne Road playing for England to Landsdown Hill.
“I didn't know Simmo back then. He finished when I joined. I actually met him for the first time back at Murrayfield two years ago. I said ‘Please tell me the story's true.' And it is, he corroborated the whole story about going from Lansdowne Road, playing for England and Landsdown Hill playing for Bath United.
“Back then, the United side was unbelievable. In some ways it was easier to get into the Scotland side than it was to get into the Bath side. Eric Peters was one that would certainly endorse that.
“Invariably United would go out with maybe half a dozen internationals and that's what made it so tough back in the day.
“On a Monday night we used to play a controlled training match and it was always the first team against United from the previous weekend. Sometimes they were the toughest games, certainly the most intense, that we would face back then because we were very competitive and really challenging. I loved it.”
That culture, the self-styled most professional club in the amateur era, was not for the timid. Andy muses that it wasn’t for everyone, that sink-or-swim mentality and constant demand for excellence meant the banter was high. He says,
“I also saw great players come and not quite cope with it. You needed a certain character to be able to stand up to it. It was a big ‘mickey-taking’ environment as well with the likes of De Glanville and Guscott and boys like that. You had to stand your ground and whereas it didn’t necessarily break a few people, certainly some people didn't flourish because of that.”
The transition to professional status was tough for all the clubs - John Hall spoke candidly about those challenges earlier this season. For the players at the time, Andy says it was a case of learning on the job. No-one really knew how to be a professional rugby player, after all.
“Some would describe Bath as the most professional of amateur sides, yet the most amateur of professional sides!” admits the 23-times capped Scotland hero.
“It's fair to say that we did make mistakes in that first year of professional rugby and it took a number of years to fix some of those elements. We weren't unique. A lot of clubs struggled in that transition.
“I think we thought it was going to be easy, because we had a very professional outlook in the amateur environment. So that was a bit of a tough time really. It was quite sobering.
“As of the 1st August, 1996, when we were deemed full-time professionals, I remember going up to the first training session up at Bath University, where we were training then. We all said ‘What do we do now?'
“Everyone thought you had to train all day and we were floored in that first year just trying to get the balance right, trying to utilise the time well - that didn't mean just running around the training pitch all the time.”
But Bath got it right in spectacular fashion by virtue of the 1998 win, an achievement of which everyone involved is rightly proud. Andy contends that the rugby group clung fervently to their ethos of hard work, which ultimately paid dividends.
The soul of the club fuelled their fire, the passion for the club in the city. Every man involved says the same thing - the achievement was for the city as much as the Club.
“I think what we managed to keep, which was really challenging at the time, was that Bath ethos. That got us through,” Andy says earnestly.
“I think the Bath supporters had got so used to success and that the Bath players had gotten so used to success. Not that anyone became blasé and took it for granted.
“We thought of ourselves as the best team in Europe. But there was no vehicle to ever prove that. To achieve that in ’98 when I was lucky enough to be captain that year was no doubt the highlight of my career.”
What were those crucial component parts then which were retained? Andy says plain old hard work and honesty were key. He goes on,
“I think that it was all just about being down to earth and hard working. If any changing room had the right to have egos, there were a lot of egos in that changing room and it was justified. When I say egos, there were a lot of people with big reputations, top quality international players, who had played with and won Lions series, etc.
“Yet when they came back in the Bath environment, it was all about just doing it for Bath. I think that the success of Bath came about with the group of local lads like Roger Spurrell, John Hall, Ollie Redman. Those guys like John Palmer - back in the early eighties really.
“Success bred success, and I suppose over the years the likes of Audley Lumsden, Ben Clarke, Phil De Glanville, Tom Callard, myself and numerous others. Adebayo, Victor Ubogu. These guys were all attracted in because of that core of local talent and local character. So I don’t think we ever lost that.
“As soon as you came into that environment, you were embraced into it but you also had to embrace it as well.”
Starting paying at the age of six for Panmure Minis in Dundee with his brothers was perhaps written in the stars - Andy’s grandfather Gareth played for Scotland in 1932. Meeting coach Sandy Hutchison at the age of 12 on arriving at Dundee High School was a huge influence on the young man.
A quick stint at Edinburgh was followed by a return to freshly promoted Dundee and a first cap - an immense source of pride for the area, football country through and through. In January 1992, Andy famously recounts going from playing in front of those 850 at Dundee to 56,000 for Scotland against England at Murrayfield, a remarkable transition.
Andy is passionate about the venue in which we stand today. He had never before played for a club in a rugby-mad city and says the Rec is at the heart and soul of the city. He says,
“Well, it's intangible. You can't quantify it in many ways. The debate has been raging about the Rec since I joined in ’94. I think for me, the thing that always stopped Bath from moving from the Rec is what I just described, it being literally at the heart of the city of Bath and how important that is.
“On match day, suddenly the whole town was just full of blue, black and white. I stayed in St James' Square and I went into the newsagents or the deli or the launderette around the corner, and that's all anyone wanted to talk about.
“That meant that the responsibility there wasn't just for your team mates but you really were playing for the town and never more was that proved than when the 7,000 came to Bordeaux for the final in ’98.
“Then when we came back on the Sunday night, most of those 7000 were still travelling, there were still 3,000 in Victoria Park in the freezing cold January night who welcomed us back into the city.
“I really got a sense of the community when you represent Bath. That meant as players that you had that responsibility to take onto the pitch.”
Andy says that the role of scrum half remains as crucial as ever it has been in the game, although some changes have manifested in the professional era. In Chris Cook and Niko Matawalu, Bath Rugby are blessed in the department, he agrees.
“I think it's still a hugely important position on the pitch because it links the forwards and backs,” he begins.
“Back when I played, it used to be very confrontational. You could have a right go at your opposite number and there's a real battle to be had there. The way I played was probably as the ninth forward, but now it's not like they don't get touched, they're not in a bubble, but it's not nearly as confrontational.
“You're not trying to get the ball out of a sea of legs and mud and then perform the pass. Nowadays, your 9, 10 and 12 are the playmakers. For many years when I was playing, it was the 10 that was your playmaker. He was your decision maker. The main role of the scrum half was to keep feeding the stand-off.”
For Andy that functionality was key. Nowadays scrum-halves can often be the marquee player, a virtuoso dimension of running the ball, creating excitement for fans like a Jerry Guscott or a Simon Geoghegan all those years ago at the Rec. He continues,
“We always worked to that sort of formula. You pass half a dozen times and then you have look, and then you had a little snipe. It meant that the defences were back half looking at you, freeing up a bit more space for your 10 and so on.
“The nines are key playmakers now, running scrum-halves as I would call them. From the scrum, you run a couple feet and throw long passes, inside passes, bring forwards on. It's a different role and some people are more suited to that and some people are not.
“Peter Stringer is a great example. He had a lightning-fast pass. His game, which was so effective for so many years was just zipping that pass out to Ronan O'Gara, sitting in the pocket behind the Munster pack which was the Irish pack as well.
“He had to change his game from what was his real strength. You can't get away with just passing the ball these days.”
Andy, wife Janet and daughters Natasha and Gabriella are enjoying life, his business development consultancy is going great guns and his media commitments are about to explode with the perennial Six Nations - Andy says he feels ‘blessed.’
Interview by Patrick J.Lennon
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