A repeat of Cardiff 2002 would suit Gordon Bulloch nicely

The new millennium was still in nappies, Mr Tony was happily ensconced in Number Ten and Scotland hooker Gordon Bulloch was just 26 years old the last time Scotland won in Wales. The year was 2002, although the elation of victory was tempered by the knowledge that the highlights reel would not detain anyone for long. One English newspaper called it 'second division stuff' and, despite grabbing two tries from lineout drives on the day, Bulloch is inclined to agree.
Then Scotland hooker Gordon Bulloch scored two tries the last time Scotland won in Cardiff in 2002. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRUThen Scotland hooker Gordon Bulloch scored two tries the last time Scotland won in Cardiff in 2002. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
Then Scotland hooker Gordon Bulloch scored two tries the last time Scotland won in Cardiff in 2002. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU

“Certainly it wasn’t a great game. Both sides were going through a…” – he searches for the right word – “…transition period and the rugby wasn’t good. England and France were playing good stuff at the time but we were usually scrapping for a win so it was good to get one.

“We went with the gameplan because we had practised driving lineouts against the 18s and the 21s in the week ahead of the match so it all came to fruition on the Saturday. We managed to get into positions and we took the chances that were on offer.

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“Apart from that it was not a game to remember. It was very broken, not a lot of continuity, not a lot of flowing rugby. It was one of these games, you look back and think, ‘it was great to win down there’ and scoring two tries will stay with me all my days but the actual game wasn’t anything to write home about.”

It was the final appearance for Wales scum-half Robert Howley and also for the great commentator of our times, Bill McLaren, both of whom deserved a better send off.

The former Scotland and Lions’ hooker recalls, if only vaguely, celebrating the win with a few beers. He worries that the game has lost some of the fun in the interim and, anyway, a win in Wales wasn’t such a big deal at the time. Scotland had triumphed in Cardiff in 1990 and again in 1996, a match Bulloch watched as part of the U21 squad, as they then were. The Scots who played that day were not to know that 2002’s victory would be the last for a while.

In addition to Bulloch’s twin tries, Brendan Laney kicked one conversion and added four penalties, one in the 82nd minute (when they still played injury time) to seal the game. He then went off injured and Duncan Hodge came off the bench to kick the final three points.

The strength of that Scotland side resided in a powerful forward pack; Martin Leslie and Budge Pountney either side of Simon Taylor in the third row, Scott Murray bossed the sidelines, stealing any number of Welsh throws, and he was partnered at lock by the immovable object that was Jason White. Tom Smith and Matty Stewart on either side of Bulloch up front.

Things are very different now and I put it to Bulloch that Scotland’s current trump cards mostly lie in an exciting back division spearheaded by Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg.

“That is a very fair statement,” he agrees, “but that also helps the forwards. We had some good packs in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we churned back a lot of ball. Maybe it wasn’t the quickest ball in the world but as soon as you have backs who are asking questions and breaking gain lines, then the forwards’ job gets a lot easier.

“If you are asked to defend, defend, defend and then run backwards to a ruck because the backs are 50 yards behind the gain line, that just takes it out of you.

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“We have a set of backs now who are breaking the gain line for fun, scoring tries for fun so all of that makes the forwards’ job a lot easier. It makes things a lot more enjoyable and a lot easier.”

The other big difference between now and then is that Gregor Townsend has options that Ian McGeechan, who coached the side back in 2002, could only dream of. Despite injuries to key players in the front row and midfield, Scotland will be highly competitive and some insist they are favourites.

“You don’t want someone to take your position but it [competition] does push you on to become a better player,” Bulloch concedes. “I think I maybe suffered a wee bit from not having someone to really push me and raise my performances. But you can only play in the era you are in and with the players that are around.

“Luckily we have the strength in depth because, what is it, four hookers out just now? And six props? If that had happened when I was playing we’d have been calling up club guys. It just shows how far things have moved on.”

Things have moved on apace but few teams have developed quite as quickly as Scotland over the last few years. However, winning on the road is mighty difficult. When you strip out Rome/Italy, the Scots have won just two Six Nations games away from home – Cardiff in 2002 and Dublin in 2010.

Despite that statistic, Bulloch is optimistic the Scotland can pull this one off and end the long wait for a win in Cardiff.

“I am,” he says enthusiastically. “I am optimistic. I would have liked a little more experience in the pack but I am not worried as I might have been years ago. Now we have so much strength in depth that any time the question has been asked in the last 18 months the forward selected has put their hand up and said; ‘yes, I can fill that position’.

“The more I watch rugby these days the more you have to have performances coming from all 23 members of the squad. You find now that, invariably, everyone gets a game and your performance either tails off or things get a boost around the 50 minute mark.

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“You don’t want someone to come on and do what the other guy was doing, only not quite as well. If you can bring guys in and change it up, that is where the Six Nations will be won.”

So Scotland’s bench wins the game in the last 20. You imagine that, after 16 win-less years in Cardiff, Gregor Townsend would settle for that.