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'I don't blame Andy, I blame the lads on the pitch'

Nobody ever doubted Gary Armstrong's dedication or relish for hard graft when he was orchestrating triumph and transcending adversity in the Caledonian cause.

Gary Armstrong, the legendary scrum-half, has questioned Scotland players' passion after dismal Autumn Tests
Gary Armstrong, the legendary scrum-half, has questioned Scotland players' passion after dismal Autumn Tests

This was a Border Reiver who would not only have run through a brick wall for Scotland, but asked his coaches if he could repeat the experience five minutes later, because he hadn't hit the damned thing hard enough first time round!

Yet, above all his other qualities, Armstrong was a winner, whether with the 1989 British and Irish Lions in Australia, or as part of the unforgettable 1990 Grand Slam team, or during his spell as Scotland's inspirational captain the last time the SRU's finest actually topped a table, when they destroyed France on a resplendent April afternoon in Paris and secured the last Five Nations Championship title in 1999.

In that light, the former Test scrum-half demands respect and a fair hearing. So when he condemned the attitude of some in the present Scotland squad yesterday, queried their commitment to former coach Andy Robinson, and quibbled about the modern pre-occupation with players examining statistics and videos rather than sharpening their skills where it mattered – on the pitch – Armstrong was merely articulating what many others have suspected for a while. But the fact that one of Scotland's greatest-ever players was voicing the sentiments should provide a wake-up call.

"I do question the attitude of some of our players and wonder whether the money or the honour of representing their country matters more to them," said Armstrong. "I watched the Autumn Tests and wondered: are these guys really putting their bodies on the line every time they go into a contact situation? Or have they spent too much time sitting in front of a blackboard, and being told what to do, rather than actually thinking for themselves?

"I am not pretending that we always won back in the 80s and 90s – of course we didn't. But when we had guys like Finlay Calder and JJ [John Jeffrey] in the team, they never took a backward step and usually found ways to make things happen. In the last few minutes of the Tonga game, the visitors were down to 13 men at one stage and we were camped in their 22, and we should have been able to get out of jail with a try which would have turned things round. But our guys just didn't have the . . . what's the word, the streetwise quality to get over the finishing line and, make no mistake, that was a bad defeat. But I don't blame Andy. I blame the lads on the pitch."

Considering his passion for rugby, allied to his love for his roots, one might imagine that Armstrong would have plenty to offer in the coaching and mentoring stakes, not least because he worked with some of the biggest names in the sport, including Rob Andrew, Jonny Wilkinson and Alan Tait throughout his spell at Newcastle Falcons. But, perplexingly – or perhaps not – the 51-times-capped scrum-half is no longer involved with the sport he graced, beyond watching Jed struggle at Riverside Park, whenever he can escape the rigours of the day job in the haulage business.

"If there wasn't so much bureaucracy and forms to fill in, I would like to be involved in coaching at some level, but these days, there is so much red tape that it is more trouble than it is worth, and that doesn't just apply to rugby," said Armstrong. "I have spoken to a lot of guys down here [in the Borders] and they are disillusioned, and there is still a widespread feeling that the SRU were wrong to shut down the Borders, because it was a kick in the teeth to the game in the South. I don't want to sound bitter – I am not – but the whole sport feels as if it is up in the air and I don't believe it really matters, in the short-term, who succeeds Andy Robinson.

"What we need is a long-term plan and a vision where we are encouraging our best youngsters to be excited by the thought of playing for Scotland again. When I was at Newcastle, we bought in Jonny [Wilkinson] when he was barely out of nappies and prepared him to start thinking about Test rugby when he was only 16 or 17. We should be doing something similar in Scotland, because we have areas where we aren't strong, but the authorities don't seem to be doing anything about it."

"I don't think we have particularly gone backwards, but others have caught us up and, in some cases, overtaken us, and, once that starts happening, it can be very difficult to stop things sliding," said Armstrong. "You look at the All Blacks and how every kid in New Zealand grows up wanting to play for them, and it shows you what is possible in a small country. Alright, rugby is their No.1 sport – whereas football will always be that in Scotland – but I still don't think we are reaching as many people as we could. But I am not saying I have the answers. I simply want Scotland to win again."

Ultimately, these words should be scrutinised by every single member of the Scotland Class of 2012. If they're not, then more fool them.

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