Colin Deans recalls Scotland's 1987 Rugby World Cup preamble

By Jamie LyallBBC Scotland
Colin Deans on the charge for Scotland against France
Colin Deans won 52 caps for Scotland between 1978 and 1987

On a football pitch adjacent to a non-descript motorway hotel on the fringes of Luton, a lone figure zips up his tracksuit and begins a gruelling self-prescribed training session.

It's the sort of clinical, featureless place that might be frequented in fleeting bursts by holidaying families and commuters in between flights bound for more desirable locales, but it is here, in 1987, that Scotland's captain prepared for the inaugural Rugby World Cup.

As Colin Deans flogged himself for 90 punishing minutes, shuttling and side-stepping and sprinting this way and that across the paddock, a gaggle of curious colleagues began to assemble.

One onlooker asked: "What are you doing this for?" Deans panted back: "We've got the World Cup next week."

"What's the World Cup?" came the reply, more puzzled than before.

"It was an experience that every Scottish rugby player should welcome. Playing for your country is one thing, but playing for your country in a World Cup is something else - it's just a wee bit better."

The game, of course, was amateur then, although even in 1987, eight years before professionalism finally took hold, the writing was on the wall.

Staunch Hawick native Deans spent his working life on the road as national sales manager of a major windows firm - he had journeyed to Luton for a managers' meeting - and his evenings and weekends becoming, in the words of the iconic coach Jim Telfer, "the best hooker I have coached in Scotland".

To reconcile these not-so-distant days of solitary sprinting and outrageous tour tales with the pre-season military commune nestled high in the French Pyrenees that presently hosts today's Scottish contingent represents a wonderful quirk of a sport that remains in its relative infancy as a professional entity.

Josh Strauss of Scotland trains in the gym
Scotland's Josh Strauss lifts weights at the Scotland's pre-World Cup training base in the Pyrenees

There was no Olympic weightlifting, no ice baths and certainly no such high altitude residentials.

"Oh, there was!" Deans, now 60, bursts in. "We went up the Vertish Hill in Hawick. It wasn't exactly high altitude, but it got you puffing a bit!

"It's difficult because it had never been staged before and you didn't know what you were getting into. No-one really had played in pool games; it was all just straight out internationals, one against one.

"Recovery at that time wasn't as important as it is now and hydration, nutrition. If you wanted to video a game and go through the video yourself, that was the analysis.

"We went on tour with a manager, a coach or two, a doctor, a couple of physios and that was about it."

Scotland had precisely seven weeks between rounding off their Five Nations campaign with defeat by England at Twickenham in early April and the start of this adventure into the unknown almost 12,000 miles away in Christchurch, New Zealand.

"It was exciting, it was different, it was nice to be involved but totally and utterly different from the preparation today," 52-cap Deans explains.

"There was no getting together for weeks on end and training camps here, there and everywhere. You have to look at it and think it was totally and utterly Mickey Mouse compared to what it is now.

"But I would love to have been able to button into what facilities are available now. You did your own training; you trained the way you thought you needed to train.

"No one actually told you what to do, when to do it, when to rest, when to train, what to eat. There was no ice baths - sometimes you couldn't get into the hot bath quick enough!"

Colin Deans prepares to tackle New Zealand's Wayne Shelford in the 1987 quarter-final
Deans prepares to tackle New Zealand's Wayne Shelford in the 1987 quarter-final

After a gripping 20-20 draw with France, Scotland trounced Zimbabwe and Romania as expected, teeing up a quarter-final against tournament hosts and eventual winners, the All Blacks. And so begins a favourite yarn of Deans' that could only be found in the memoirs of a rugby player of a certain age.

"We got to know the sales director of Steinlager quite well - don't ask me why," he begins, mischievously.

"They were one of the sponsors of the World Cup and New Zealand team. We decided - not me, some of the social committee - we might need some beer and got in touch with the sales director, who was extremely kind to us.

"We were playing pretty well and New Zealand weren't. The night before the game, I got a call from the sales director wanting to come in and see us.

"I thought, he'll just be coming in to say thanks and here are another couple of bottles. But he said, 'Look Colin, we don't know the way the game's going to go; there are people who think you might beat them'.

"'Well, we'll be going out to beat them.'

"'If you beat them, would you, Scotland, like to be the Steinlager team for the World Cup?'

"'Eh, I think we would!'"

Mark Dodson, Scottish Rugby Chief Executive, at Murrayfield Stadium
Deans respects Scottish Rugby chief executive boss Mark Dodson

Deans is as forthright and frank as ex-players come, but when he takes aim at outgoing coaches - "I think I could have done a better job than [departed scrum coach] Massimo Cuttitta running my business and doing it part-time" - selection decisions or underperforming players, he does so from a position of considerable stature.

"[Scottish Rugby chief executive] Mark Dodson phoned me a couple of days ago and we had a pretty open, honest chat," Deans reveals.

"He said, 'I admire you and what you did and who you played for, but we'd rather have you on the inside than the outside'. I am on the inside, because I'm doing things for the SRU without anybody knowing and at my own cost.

"I mentor Kevin Bryce at Glasgow Warriors, who is frustrated. As his mentor, do I tell him to bin Glasgow and move down to the Championship? Theoretically, he should, but he's still got a year left on his contract and he's going to see that out.

"We have discussed next season and there is an opportunity because Fraser Brown will be away with the World Cup and Kevin will be gunning for his position.

"I admire Mark and what he's done, because I think he's made a difference. I do think he's moving forward. It'll take about five years to sort the SRU, if they ever sort it out."

Deans' frustrations at the current incumbents of navy jerseys one-three are well-documented - he is adamant the succession plan must begin now.

Kevin Bryce scores for Glasgow Warriors against Zebre
Kevin Bryce is one of several young players mentored by Deans

"Zander Fagerson's a find and I hope they don't just stick him on the bench," he says. "The guy's 20-21-years-old, he's had a great Under-20 World Cup and you have to play him.

"It frustrates me that we're not letting these youngsters play. It also disappoints me that a lot of the players are signing up for Edinburgh and Glasgow and knowing they're not going to get a game for a couple of years. These under-20s have to be put into the environment where they sink or swim."

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