In their 20th anniversary year, Scotland Rugby League won their first European Championship on Sunday, after an extraordinary afternoon in Wrexham – and they weren’t even playing.
But the foundation to their success was built on Friday night at Netherdale, Galashiels, when a heroic last push ensured they were still in the running, despite losing to France by 38-22.
It was a glittering night as well – the guests included 1954 World Cup winner David Rose (Jed-Forest), brothers Stan and Ron Cowan (Selkirk), George Fairbairn (Kelso) and Rob Valentine (Hawick), who were introduced to the Netherdale crowd at the interval.
Steve McCormack’s men needed to avoid defeat by 17 points to end France’s hopes and trailed by the half-time score of 38-6 with only 17 minutes to go. But, in a rousing finish, three tries and two Danny Brough goals denied the French the chance of taking the title and with it qualification for the 2016 Four Nations tournament and the 2017 World Cup.
“At half-time we told a few home truths, that wasn’t the Scotland way in the first half,” said McCormack. “But credit to France, everything they did was good.
“We asked the lads for a bit more honesty and reminded them we had an awful lot to play for and the second half was sensational.”
France looked to have well and truly spoiled the Scots’ 20th anniversary party, Richard Agar’s men running in seven tries in 24 blistering minutes.
That included a 14-minute hat trick for livewire scrum half Remy Marginet, who finished with 22 points in a man-of-the-match display. In front of several members of the very first Scotland team in 1994 – including Graeme Thompson, coach John Risman and current Gala coach George Graham – the hosts got off to a perfect start, Ben Kavanagh barging over from close range after three minutes and Brough goaling.
For the remainder of the half, it was all France. Marginet darted through to score and goaled to level. Skipper Jason Baitieri then went over, Marginet goaling, and, exploiting the increasing space at dummy half, the French went on the rampage.
Two quickfire unconverted tries by Marginet and Eloi Pelissier was followed by the former’s hat-trick. Marginet’s electric pace was key and his goal made it 26-6 – France now leading on points difference.
The French joie de vivre continued, Aurelian Decarnin finished off a sweeping move created by Kevin Larroyer and Jean-Philippe Baille to go over in the right hand corner, Marginet with the touchline conversion.
And just before the break, Tony Gigot crossed and Marginet’s fifth goal made it 38-6. It seemed inconceivable that his conversion would be the last Tricolors’ points of the game.
Scotland dominated the third quarter territorially, but without being able to crack the French defence, a knock-on just short of the line scuppering them in the 57th minute and a great jinking run by Thomas taking him to within a couple of metres of the line.
But, in the 63rd minute, Ben Hellewell outpaced the visiting defence to touch down in the right hand corner and, with the conversion missed by Brough, Scotland were 11 points short of the margin needed to stay top.
An intense spell of home pressure then paid off when Adam Walker forced his way over, Brough goaling to set up a nervous last five minutes. With two to go, Jonny Walker charged through the static French defence, Brough coolly converting to set off wild scenes of celebration despite defeat.
Joe Wardle, Thomas and the Walker brothers impressed for the Bravehearts in a second 40 minutes when they did not concede a point to remain on the edge of glory.
That ended the French hopes, and it meant Ireland had to beat Wales by 40 points on the Sunday to dislodge the Scots from pole position.
When Ireland led 28-0 at half-time, Scotland feared the worst and two late tries put them 46-10 up and needing one more try. As they pressed the line, a dropped pass saw Tom Hughes race 100m to score for Wales and hand Scotland the title as the game finished 14-46.
It is Scotland’s first championship in 20 years of senior international rugby league and builds on their quarter-final appearance in the 2013 World Cup. The title sees the Bravehearts qualify for the 2016 Four Nations against England, Australia and New Zealand, with at least one game expected to be staged north of the border.
“It’s a remarkable achievement and all credit to all the players and staff,” said McCormack, who spent the day with his family rather than going to Wrexham to suffer the 80 minutes himself.
“Dave Rotheram and I have been working at this for 10 years, John Duffy has been here even longer, Danny Brough has been here 10 years, so have some of the backroom staff.
“This is a reward for that commitment, giving up their spare time and holidays to help Scotland Rugby League. We’ve worked hard and with some quality and a huge amount of desire, we’ve won a trophy at last. No-one expected that, but we deserve it.”
Scotland coach Steve McCormack and the squad will recieve the trophy today at the Rugby Football League headquarters in Leeds.
z Also, on Saturday morning, scrum-half Lewis Clarke, who works for Scottish Power at Galashiels, was instrumental in Scotland’s impressive second-half comeback against England in the Under-19 international at University of Edinburgh. Scotland trailed 26-6 at half-time, but improved in the second half, losing 36-18.