With the final day upon us, the full list of Herald Sport’s 50 Greatest Scottish Rugby Players can now be considered in the round.

Obviously very few, if any, are likely to agree with the final running order and some spleens may be vented now there is confirmation that their owner’s heroes have been left out, on which note I am not expecting to be invited back on to John Beattie’s Radio Scotland show any time soon.

I have been warned, too, to expect to incur the wrath of the lady who tweeted me to advise: “I’ll be very disappointed if @johnbarc86 doesn’t make it into the top 50, and I won’t be the only one. He has huge support.”

Our agreement on his omission from this year’s World Cup squad is one thing, but the Scarlets flanker is part of a generation that has collectively struggled to make the sort of impact that some of their predecessors among the 1067 men to have pulled on the navy blue jersey have done.

The Aberdonian who expected us to “make room” for Ian “Spivvy” McCrae will be disappointed too, but in a list headed by a scrum-half there was no room either for Chris Cusiter, another fine No.9 from the Granite City, for much the same reason as Barclay was ruled out or, as will surprise more than a few, another of my own personal favourite in Gary Armstrong’s Dundonian contemporary Andy Nicol.

Apparently there have also been surprises for those in possession of a poster produced in a rugby magazine in the late nineties which listed its top 100 Scottish players and came up with some of the same names in a rather different order, but additional time offers additional perspective and, in any case, it is all about opinions.

Ahead of the Rugby World Cup the hope is, then, that this bit of fun has stimulated some memories of happier times when championship whitewashes were rarities, Scotland teams were regularly contending for honours and its players were key men on Lions tours.

Working through this list and outlining why they are on it was, though, a timely reminder of just how good well-motivated and drilled Scottish rugby players can be.


3 Andy Irvine

(1972-82) Heriot’s FP

Honours: 51 Scotland caps, one Five Nations Championship win, two Calcutta Cup wins, three British & Irish Lions tours (nine Test appearances, one series win)

What set him apart? If George Best was the fifth Beatle there is a case for claiming that Andy Irvine was the sixth Bay City Roller. This dignified Edinburgh businessman, who has been president of the Scottish Rugby Union and a British & Irish Lions tour manager, would doubtless be horrified by the suggestion but, at a time when Slade were regularly topping the charts, Irvine was Scotland’s main contributor to the glam rugby era of the early-to-mid-seventies. Long-haired and stylish he took the attacking full-back role introduced by Heriot’s FP predecessor Ken Scotland to new heights with a cavalier approach to counter-attacking, utilising his exceptional pace.

His career coincided with a curious time for Scottish rugby during which many of those regarded as greats of the game were playing, yet successes away from Murrayfield were such rarities that there was no chance of Grand Slams, Triple Crowns or championships being won. At times Irvine’s perceived defensive frailties were regarded as being part of the cause of that by large sections of the Scotland support which led to the remarkable events of February 16, 1980 at Murrayfield when his response to being heavily barracked after an hour’s play was to score two stunning tries in inspiring an astonishing comeback win over France which ended a sequence of 13 Tests without a win.

A regular Lions tourist, he made his first two Test appearances for them in South Africa where he scored a try and a penalty in the final drawn Test to help preserve the unbeaten record of the 1974 “Invincibles” and seven more in his preferred full-back role in New Zealand in 1977 and South Africa in 1980. He also shone as an amateur among professionals when a full range of sporting ability was put to the test in BBC’s “Superstars”, a category into which he fitted perfectly since he was to end his career with a then world record haul of international points.


2 Gordon Brown

(1969-76) West of Scotland

Honours: 30 Scotland caps, five Calcutta Cup wins, three British & Irish Lions tours (eight Test appearances, two series wins)

What set him apart? His first involvement in a Scotland Test was at the expense of the older brother he idolised and who was to be his international captain in the years to come. On that debut appearance he helped Scotland beat the Springboks. Two matches later, with family seniority restored – Peter having been preferred in the starting line-up against Wales only to succumb to injury early in the second half – he again made history by coming on as his brother’s replacement. 

One of the game’s great raconteurs, this son of a professional footballer loved the national game and would happily have focused upon it, only half-jokingly recounting how he might never have switched codes had he not been too frightened to return to Ayrshire junior football after sparking a near riot by upending an opposing team’s goalbound star player. Maybe, maybe not, but for all that he was a natural athlete and footballer Brown’s vast frame was surely even better suited to the sport he graced through the seventies than to keeping goal.

Firmly established in the side alongside Peter he was part of the Scotland team that beat England on four successive occasions between 1970 and ‘72 and during that run he went on the first of three Lions tours, coming into the Test side for the crucial third Test in New Zealand in 1971 and again partnering Willie John McBride in the second row for the fourth Test in which a draw sealed the series win. He was again McBride’s partner for the first three Tests as the Irishman led his “Invincibles” through the Lions’ only unbeaten tour in 1974, scoring tries in both the second and third Tests as the series was won before he missed the final drawn Test.

His sending-off after having been hideously attacked in a district match ahead of the 1977 Five Nations Championship brought a ban which ended his Scotland career. However the Lions selectors tellingly told him to keep in shape which he famously did with the help of then Rangers manager Jock Wallace and he toured New Zealand in 1977, coming into the Test side along with debutant Bill Beaumont for the second meeting with the All Blacks which was duly won to level the series.

Only at the seventh time of asking did he suffer defeat in a Lions Test for the first time and a one-point loss in the final Test meant he was also on the losing side in a series for the first time. This was, though, a true rugby great who would go on to gain celebrity status as a TV pundit and his premature death in 2001 drew tributes from all over the world and a vast attendance at his funeral in Troon.


1 Gary Armstrong

(1988-99) Jed-Forest, Newcastle Falcons

Honours: 51 Scotland caps, one Grand Slam, two Five Nations Championship wins, one Calcutta Cup win, one British & Irish Lions tour

What set him apart? On November 19, 1988, as Scotland and Australia took to the Murrayfield turf, a sportswriter covering his first international match for the Dundee Courier muttered darkly about the home team’s half-back selection.

Admittedly Richard Cramb, the stand-off, was never to represent Scotland again. However, the main criticism the scribe was levelling was at the choice of the scrum-half on the basis that it was ridiculous to think that the little Jed-Forest club could possibly produce another scrum-half who might approach the quality of club-mate Roy Laidlaw, who had been Scotland’s No.9 in their previous match.

A youngster was certainly badly exposed that afternoon, but only in the press box. Scotland were well beaten in the end by one of the great Wallabies sides that was beginning to build towards winning the 1991 World Cup. However the emergence of Armstrong, who had been helped on his way by Laidlaw’s move to stand-off at club level to accommodate his development, was one of the day’s most significant features and made mockery of my pre-match analysis.

Earlier that afternoon Craig Chalmers had also put in his first Murrayfield appearance on a big occasion, playing for Scotland under-21s against a New Zealand Rugby News XV and those wrongly maligned selectors made another bold, inspired decision a few weeks later when pairing the two young Borderers for the 1989 Five Nations Championship opener against Wales. Armstrong registered one of his side’s three tries in a comprehensive win that day and he and Chalmers were to provide a vital axis over the next two years as 11 more Scotland matches were played at Murrayfield – including the following year’s Grand Slam decider – before a home defeat was suffered again in the 1991 World Cup semi-final.

While Chalmers contributed most of the points in the Grand Slam campaign it was Armstrong’s awareness that proved decisive on Scottish rugby’s greatest day as he saw the chance to dart down the blind-side to launch the attack that resulted in Tony Stanger’s match-winning try.

Very different to Laidlaw in terms of physique, what they shared was an intuitive awareness of what was on in almost every situation. As much an auxiliary flanker as the link between forwards and backs, however, Armstrong had learned from the master, then brought additional qualities.

His disdain for his own well-being contributed to two serious knee injuries and was never better demonstrated in one of the worst matches he played in, the 6-6 draw in Lansdowne Road in 1994. Scotland played abysmally that day but, having had his thumb ripped out of its socket, Armstrong fought relentlessly to keep his team in the game to the extent that he was credited with figuratively and almost literally single-handedly preserving an unbeaten record against Ireland which, by the end of his career, extended to 12 meetings in all. That recklessness meant he played around half as many Tests as he might have and almost certainly explains why he went on only one Lions tour, at the end of his debut season. His international career, however, came to an end with a final flourish in 1999. Appointed captain amid a crisis in 1998, he tellingly missed that summer’s embarrassing tour of Fiji and Australia, but his leadership by example was vital as momentum was subsequently built towards winning the 1999 Five Nations Championship, the last trophy won by Scotland, and he subsequently led them to another World Cup quarter-final at Murrayfield.

By then he had also done great things for English rugby by helping bring on the young Jonny Wilkinson at Newcastle and he won considerable silverware with the English club before finishing his career back home with the Border Reivers.

Suffice to say that a quarter of a century on, the scribe who demonstrated his naivete so spectacularly on the day of Armstrong’s debut is relieved to have somehow survived in the business long enough to be able to put the record straight with this tribute to Scotland’s greatest rugby player.