My Scotland career started on 15 June 2002 in the Thunderbird Stadium, Vancouver, Canada. Scotland Cap no. 958. The experience created emotions that became familiar throughout my international career – exhilarating highs together with some crushing lows.
Ask the majority of test players of their proudest moment and most will talk of their first cap. I am no different. But it was an experience of contrasts: the incredible pride and excitement of fulfilling a lifelong ambition to represent my country (and I even scored a try), however a commanding team performance fell apart shortly after half-time and at the end of play we had suffered a 26-23 defeat. It was the first loss to Canada in the history of Scottish rugby… and I was part of it. For me, that one game sums up in microcosm the highs and lows of international sport.
I don’t know whether it was the care-free exuberance of youth but, looking back, when I was breaking onto the scene my whole approach to the game was so much more relaxed than it was when I became an established international.
Obviously there were excruciating nerves twined with an overwhelming excitement, but in those early days the expectations of my performance from the media and the public were low. Everyone gives you the benefit of the doubt when you start out, marvelling at the good stuff and putting any errors down to a lack of experience and even those are soon glossed over amid the furore that there is a new kid on the block. There are no demons when you start, you just go out and play.
It is a wonderful time when you’re starting out and I am envious of those who are beginning their international journey. It is a ride that will change their lives in so many ways. They will travel the world, encounter experiences that many in their lives never will, and live a dream that many have chased.
The more experienced you become, the more responsibility you have to shoulder. Whilst captaining the team against England in ‘08, I came off with five minutes to go having given everything I could. I watched the last few minutes by myself in the changing room. As the final whistle rang I broke down in tears, totally unexpectedly. The reaction should have been joy, but we had been under so much pressure from fans, media and ourselves to produce a performance and a victory, after some poor results, that relief was the over-riding emotion. Don’t feel too sorry for me though as this was soon forgotten and we were able to celebrate appropriately! That Six Nations campaign just emphasised to me that the higher up the food chain you are, the more accountable you become and that was a particularly stressful time for me but, ironically a time when I felt I was playing some of my best rugby.
It’s strange the things that have stuck in my mind over this 10 year period. Very few of them are individual, not moments where I did or achieved something but where we, as a group of players, achieved something together – and that is the beauty of team sport. The feeling of friendship and togetherness in the changing room after beating England in ‘06 and the bus journey back to the hotel after completing our unbeaten tour of the Southern Hemisphere in ’12, are moments I will always cherish. The official function after winning the second test against Argentina in South America in ‘08 and uniting with the Fijian team on the final whistle for a 44-man sing-a-long on the ‘12 tour, are just a few memories that have made my international career so rewarding.
Of course there have been times of despair, of sorrow, of disgust, at something I’ve done or something we’ve done and you live these darker moments over and over again, wishing that you could go back and set them right. Missed opportunities are the hardest to take. The WC in ’07 where a win against a solid, but beatable, Argentina would have taken us to a semi final or the disappointing finishes from positions of real strength against Argentina and England in WC ’11, preventing us from making the quarter finals.
However, on the pitch there were also the times of great unity when I felt that opposition teams could attack for days without ever scoring, such was the intensity and vigour of our defence. Simon Taylor, Jason White and Ally Hogg, in particular, battering anything that came their way in the rain in the England ‘06 win and I remember thinking that no player on the planet would have escaped their shackles that day. But also in attack, the control and the ease in which we broke down the French defence in the ‘06 win or the patience, understanding and determination to score a last minute match-winning try in Samoa, ‘12. And looking to today’s opposition, it would be remiss of me not to mention our win in Ireland’s last ever international at Croke Park in ‘09. These are the days you play the game for.
Every time I pulled on the Scotland jersey it was an incredible honour and a privilege. The excitement never waned; the magic never left the experience. From being part of the team environment, to walking down the tunnel to face the best players on the planet in the most incredible stadiums around the world, and from the shudder down the spine looking up at tens of thousands of faces during the national anthems, to the exhilaration of the heat of the battle itself.
I hope that I will be remembered as a player who fought for my country for every second that I played, and that I was part of a group of men who gave their all for the blue jersey and the thistle over our hearts.
I have been incredibly lucky, there is no doubt about that. It has been an amazing ten years. I have lived a dream. Thank you for sharing it with me.