Was the Six Nations emerge from the wintry darkness, it’s important to give a respectful nod to the gladiators of yore. Coincidentally, one of English rugby’s unsung heroes also celebrated his 80th birthday in the deepest Dorset on Sunday, a fitting milestone for a man who coached his country to a grand slam in 1980, their first championship clean sweep since 1957.
Mike Davis has been struggling with Parkinson’s lately, but can still practice a few wedge shots now and then on the playing fields next to his home in Sherborne. Even in his coaching splendor – he also won 16 caps as an England lock forward – it was never about him, whether he was teaching clumsy kids like us the basics of basketball, or tutoring the best rugby players in the country. Only the cozy purple tracksuit with a red rose offered a clue to his ‘other’ sporting life.
That all-conquering side of 1980, spearheaded by Bill Beaumont, was justly celebrated – not least because they let England escape with some dignity from the 1970s when they at one point collected three wooden spoons in a row. But again the curtain fell with a dull thud. In the early 1990s, the triumph of 1980 under Davis’ selfless leadership was only England’s second grand slam since 1928.
Therefore, 30 years later, it feels equally fitting to remember the other great English side of the late 20th century that completed back-to-back grand slams in 1991 and 1992. In between they managed to lose a World Cup final, but, in some ways, that adds an extra dimension to their performance. To put it in context, only one other male side in the past 98 years – France (1997 and 1998) – has conquered the holy grail of the Northern Hemisphere twice in a row.
The double grand slam remains a remarkable achievement – even the greatest Welsh teams of the 1970s never succeeded. And not only did England come back into the circle of winners in 1992, they did so convincingly. Under Will Carling and Geoff Cooke, they set a new record for most tries scored in the Five Nations (15) and conceded just four after starting the game by beating Scotland 25-7 at Murrayfield in their opening game.
Three decades later – and with Scotland awaiting Eddie Jones’ England on Saturday week – it is that match, rather than the explosive match at the Parc des Princes (more on that later) that Simon Halliday chooses as his most satisfying game. Part of that was due to his own display – “I had one of those games where everything seemed to be going my way” – and partly it was the psychological baggage that ended up being thrown overboard. “In 1986 we were beaten by 30 points at Murrayfield, 1988 was a kick-off on and off the field, and then there was the grand slam that was never for us in 1990. I had a real history with that location.”
Ireland was then defeated 38-9 – Halliday remembers it as “one of the best Twickenham performances I can remember being a part of” – and two weeks later England left for Paris. On paper, they had every physical foundation covered — a pack made up of Dean Richards, Peter Winterbottom, Mick Skinner, Wade Dooley, Martin Bayfield, Jeff Probyn, Brian Moore, and Jason Leonard would always be outspoken. In addition to the halfback pairing of Dewi Morris and Rob Andrew, more top players with a lot of experience in big games were also lurking: Carling, Jeremy Guscott, Rory Underwood, the in-form Jonathan Webb and Halliday on the right wing.
As Richards later recalled in the beautiful recently republished paperback edition of Behind the Rose, staying cool and gently rushing the French was a big part of the plan. “The policy was that if they hit you, you smile and then give them a wink to turn them on even more.” Moore had already annoyed his hosts by publicly predicting “a boxing match” before kick-off.
Sure enough, it all started in earnest in the second half when two of France’s front row, Grégoire Lascubé and Vincent Moscato, were sent off for stomping and headbutting respectively. The home crowd went wild for a moment, so that Irish referee Stephen Hilditch got a police escort from the field at the end. Halliday was as grateful to the Irish official as anyone after an incident five minutes after Moscato’s departure. “I kind of involuntarily checked their left wing and that whole side of the Parc des Princes was trying to get me out. I remember saying to Hilditch, ‘I haven’t headbutted anyone, I haven’t stamped anyone’s head, you can’t send me away from that.’”
But when the dust finally settled, England had scored four tries in Paris for the first time since the war, winning 31-13. The last act, in comparison, was relatively comfortable. Wales were beaten 24-0 at Twickenham with Carling scoring a try in the first minute before Halliday returned to his day job as a stockbroker. Carling has since said that his England side was “at the height of their power” and history seems to confirm him.
Will anyone repeat this feat in this professional era that is increasingly becoming chien-eat-dog? Maybe someday, but England, Halliday warns, would be better off focusing on more immediate priorities right now. “This English team will have to come out on Saturday to beat Scotland. Don’t listen to people saying ‘It’s another day at the office’. I think Scotland has a team that doesn’t have to be afraid of anyone.” As Davis, Halliday and every other ancient warrior can attest, the warm glow of past victories doesn’t protect indefinitely from the chilly blast of modern reality.