the oblivious hero

The Cult: Tony Stanger

In honour of the Six Nations, we’ve inducted an iconic rugby player from each country into The Cult. Here, we look to Tony Stanger, the oblivious hero of Scottish rugby.
31 January 2017, 10:45am

Illustration by Dan Evans

Our latest inductee to The Cult was a young winger who supposedly took on England, Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax in the name of Scottish national pride. The only thing is, he knew very little about it. You can read previous entries here.

Cult Grade: The Oblivious Hero

When Scotland won their last Grand Slam in the old Five Nations in 1990, it was a symbolic blow against the old foe. Having narrowly triumphed over Wales and Ireland, thumping France in the interim, the Scots faced England in the deciding match, held at their ancestral home of Murrayfield. England were fitting enemies for a rugged Scots side, led as they were by Will Carling, possibly the plummiest England captain of all time, and widely seen as Margaret Thatcher's representatives on the field in their upper-middle class arrogance and general hauteur. This was mere months after the attempted implementation of the poll tax in Scotland, and anti-Thatcherite sentiment was running higher than ever. Just over two weeks after the match, the Poll Tax Riots would erupt in London; in Scotland, non-payment as a form of protest was rife, and a spike of fierce anti-English sentiment served as the backdrop to the game.

So, come kick off, the match represented a clash of identities. As Flower of Scotland, the just-sanctioned pre-match anthem, rose up amongst the crowd, the clash between the Scots as political and sporting underdogs against the cruel haughtiness of their English overlords was set. The Scots went out to play a rugby match, but they also fought to preserve Scottish pride in the face of political and social oppression. To the sound of the bagpipes, they routed the English in triumphant fashion, just as the poll tax protesters would rout Thatcher over the ensuing months. The scorer of their winning try, and hero of the day, was a winger named Tony Stanger. In his own way, he delivered the first blow to English hegemony that year, and set the sporting and political precedent for what would happen next.

Except, actually, much of that isn't really true.

The truth of the fixture at Murrayfield that day is that, in reality, it wasn't overtly political. That narrative, all-pervading in some retrospectives, has largely been written in hindsight, with the limited contemporary political agitation mainly an attempt to get working-class fans interested in the match. In Scotland, rugby union has always had a cultural association with the middle classes, no doubt many of whom were not so averse to Thatcher as we might now imagine. The rugby fans at Murrayfield that day were probably fairly ambivalent about the poll tax, which was deeply unpopular amongst less well-off voters for obvious reasons that are nonetheless peripheral here.

So, in a political sense, the match wasn't all that symbolic. Likewise, plummy as Will Carling may have been, the England team were anything but overwhelmingly upper-middle class. They had tough nuts like Mickey Skinner, Paul Rendall and the brilliantly irascible Brian Moore, while the Scotland team was far from a ragtag bunch of working-class heroes. Indeed, Tony Stanger was a bank clerk from Hawick – an apposite champion of the pre-professional era if ever there was one – and by his own admission had little comprehension of any political aspect to the game.

Strangely, according to Stanger, he has little comprehension of his matchwinning moment, either. Speaking to The Sunday Herald in 2015, he said: "I have no internal memory of it. I can place it in my brain from outside in that I have watched it on television since many times, but I have no memory in the sense that I recall the moment, or the feel of the ball, or anything." As such, he was an oblivious hero, both in a political and a sporting sense. No matter how much that moment has been romanticised since, it was essentially a split second of muscle memory for Stanger, an instinctive burst, which no sooner had it happened, disappeared away.

In a way, Stanger's try exemplifies the vast gulf between the way that we, as spectators, understand sport, and how sportsmen themselves comprehend the process. For us, a game can have political, social and cultural significance, and for the players, it can be little more than a series of high-adrenaline reactions, intuitive movements and subconscious shows of skill. In the aftermath, a rugby match comes to symbolise different things to different people, and can take on meaning that it didn't necessarily have before. In the moment, however, it is an instant of nothing. For Tony Stanger, it was a deft kick, the thunder of feet, a wall of noise, a flutter of blue shirts, an instinctive snatch, a crossing of the line, the roar of the crowd – and then it was gone.

Entry Point: New Anthem, New Hope

Prior to Flower of Scotland being used as Scotland's official rugby anthem, the Scots side would sing God Save The Queen before kick off. It's not hard to see how this might have dampened the atmosphere in games against England, what with their opponents laying rather greater claim to the song and the Scots unable to express a distinct identity to their foes. While the political aspect of the game might have been played up in hindsight, there is always a frisson of nationalism when Scotland face England on the sports field, and that was perhaps a more significant factor in the febrile mood at Murrayfield that day. Besides, in a purely sporting sense, Scotland were underdogs. Against an unbeaten England side who would go on to win the tournament four times over the course of the next decade, they needed the crowd to help them on their way.

READ MORE: The Six Nations Cult Series

Prior to kick off, Stanger and co. needed not have worried about their reception from the stands. Murrayfield was absolutely thunderous, with several commentators saying that they had never before experienced such an atmosphere at a Scots rugby match. The fans were not to be disappointed, with the game to come a worthy finale to the tournament. Stanger was about to produce a moment which would capture the collective consciousness, even if he can't actually remember it himself.

The Moment: Crossing The Line

Though he went on to make the telling contribution in the match, Stanger might never have played against England. He'd had something of a stinker against Wales in the previous fixture when, despite the fact that the Welsh were wooden-spoon winners in the making, Scotland had only managed to creep past them by a scoreline of 13-9. He was already a selection doubt when, the week before the Grand Slam decider, he played for his club side, Hawick, and almost broke his collarbone in a tackle. He had only made his Scotland debut the previous year and, as such, he was far from a nailed-on inclusion, unlike concrete starters like Gavin Hastings, Gary Armstrong, John Jeffrey and the by-now heavily bandaged David Sole.

In the end, however, Stanger's incipient talents were enough to convince Scotland's head coach, Ian McGeechan, to start him in the crucial game. Though Scotland began well, kicking two penalties to put them 6-0 ahead, Jeremy Guscott then turned the match on its head by finishing off a beautiful team try. It was unconverted and the score remained 6-4 – tries were only worth four points back then – before Scotland kicked another penalty to give themselves a bit of breathing room. Then came Stanger's pivotal intervention. Early on in the second half, Scotland broke quickly from the scrum, the ball went through hands to the wing, Hastings booted it high towards the try line, and Stanger tore forward with desperate speed.

For a country so enthralled by football, rugby union was usually relegated to second place in the Scottish consciousness. What happened next, however, made a genuine impression on the collective memory, despite not penetrating Stanger's own. Murrayfield might not have been packed out with anti-Thatcherites and poll tax protesters, but it was filled with proud Scots who wanted to see their side put one over on that most reviled (and successful) of rugby nations, England. Those listening over the radio, or watching on at home, may not have felt rugby was their national sport, but there was certainly a voracious appetite to see Scotland triumph over their adversaries of old.

It is that appetite, that passion, that has seen Stanger go down in Scotland's sporting folklore. With a characteristic burst of pace he neared the line and then, hands outstretched towards the heavens, plucked the bouncing ball from the skies and grounded it in the welcoming turf. He may not have beaten Thatcher that day, he may not have downed the poll tax, but he did at least seal the Grand Slam for Scotland. He may not have been conscious of doing so, but he made sure that England would go home empty handed, and that Scottish rugby would claim a proud victory which fans of all creeds and classes could call their own.

Closing Statements

"I never got any of that. I spent the build-up worrying about whether I would be playing. That aspect of politics or whatever passed me by."

– Tony Stanger, speaking about the supposed anti-Thatcherite sentiment of the match.

Words: @W_F_Magee // Illustration: @Dan_Draws