The Big Interview: Tony Stanger on the Grand Slam try, Bill McLaren and the art of coaching

Ask most Scots of a certain age what their abiding memory of Rugby’s Greatest Championship is and there is a good chance Tony Stanger’s name will pop up.

Ask most Scots of a certain age what their abiding memory of Rugby’s Greatest Championship is and there is a good chance Tony Stanger’s name will pop up.

For the man himself, the recollections of that famous score – to earn Scotland the Grand Slam against England back in 1990 – have faded to the point he remembers it in the same manner as any Scotland fan.

He explains: “I don’t have any internal memories of the try but I’ve been shown it so many times that I almost remember it as other people see it from the TV screen.

“It was nice to score it and it’s nice to be remembered for that sort of memory.”

For Stanger, it is not a case of how he reacted when Gavin Hastings kicked through, nor whether he was going to be able to hold off the chasing Rory Underwood.

He watches it back like the rest of us.

As the great Bill McLaren relayed it: “Stanger could be there. It’s a try, a magnificent try for the 21-year-old. His first try in a Championship match.”

The fact it was McLaren’s silky voice describing the try is all the more special – the legendary commentator was also Stanger’s rugby teacher in primary school back in Hawick.

“I was very fortunate as I was born and brought up in Hawick in the Scottish Borders,” he says.

“It was a rugby town. The good thing about the environment was that there were so many good young players. It was very culturally significant, playing rugby in Hawick. If you wanted to build a reputation as a young man, rugby was the way to do it.

“Bill McLaren was the person who took us for rugby at primary school. You would listen to him commentate on games at the weekend and then on the Wednesday after, at my primary school, he’d be taking you for rugby.

“A wee pat on the back or a ‘well done’ was like gold dust. It was a brilliant environment steeped in rugby.”

The 21-year-old Stanger got more than a wee pat on the back on that March day at Murrayfield. A stadium erupted as he scored the only Scottish try in a 13-7 victory.

At that stage, the winger was still undefeated at Test level, with six tries and six wins from as many caps, and a Grand Slam to boot.

It might have seemed easy – maybe too easy – but it certainly was not.

He recalls: “The build-up to the England game was all about whether I would play. I hadn’t played particularly well down in Wales a fortnight earlier.

“There was a question mark over whether I would start. I remember a newspaper journalist suggesting it would be the same again for Scotland except maybe for Tony Stanger on the right wing.

“That wasn’t great to hear but you get the message and the call on the Tuesday after the game to find out ten days in advance, so I was selected.

“I went back to play for Hawick the weekend in between for my confidence. I hurt my collar bone during the game and had to come off in the first half.

“So most of the week, in the build-up and what turned out to be the biggest game of my life, was about a very sore injury. It was a pain management type of injury.

“It was very sore and you just had to grit your teeth and get on with it. I didn’t really feel it on the day as the adrenaline built up but I was pretty sore for a few weeks after it. Nowadays, I’m not sure if I would have played.

“So I didn’t get too caught up in the hype of the occasion because I was more focused on making sure I did what I needed to be fit for the game.”

He certainly was fit and produced the standout moment of the match – 29 years on, that remains the last time Scotland won the Grand Slam.

He added: “It’s incredibly difficult to win a Grand Slam. It doesn’t come along that often and a lot of good players have come and gone in the 30 years since that game who haven’t won a Grand Slam, so it was really nice to be part of that sort of memory.”

After Stanger’s perfect start to his international career, he went on to win 52 caps for his country over a ten-year spell with Scotland, touring with the British & Irish Lions in 1997.

As one of those to cross over the amateur and professional eras, Stanger’s post-rugby career is an interesting one.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that he took a close interest in coaching. After all, in Jim Telfer and Sir Ian McGeechan, he worked with two of the very best.

“What I do now is I help people to become outstanding coaches in sport and business,” he added.

“It was interesting with Jim and Geech to see how different they were but they shared the same passion.

“As a back, most of what I did was with Geech but we also did a lot with Jim as well. They were very clear on their approach and expected you to work hard and put time and effort into your game.

“Geech was much more quiet and measured, Jim more of a shouter and more direct. Jim, with the forwards, got a lot out of them.

“Geech, particularly, I have always loved because of his innovation. For years, there was this idea that you put the ball in the middle at kick-off and a right-footed kicker puts the ball just past the ten-metre line on the left. and the opposition catch, drive and give to the scrum-half. who kicks for touch and you have a lineout.

“That was rugby for a long time, and Geech said: ‘why don’t we kick off long to the opposite corner?’. That was one of the key reasons that we beat England.

“They had a very good team and could have beaten us but we mixed things up and didn’t let them settle into their rhythm.

“That was crucial in our success. He took that on in the other teams he had and he changed the way rugby is played now.”

As well as studying applied sports science at university alongside his later playing career, Stanger went into rugby coaching initially, with Leeds and London Irish.

Since then he has branched out, though, firstly working with the Scottish Institute of Sport for seven years, and more recently starting his own business – Stanger Pro.

He explains: “The role at the Scottish Institute of Sport was a fascinating job, helping governing bodies, looking at their talent systems.

“If they wanted to get more Scottish athletes into GB programmes, if they wanted world-class athletes, what did that mean and what did they need to do?

“I learned so much about the power of coaching. It’s not telling people what to do. It’s supporting someone else’s learning. Don’t take that responsibility away from the learner.

“Too often, we do that. I worked mainly with commonwealth sports. I really learned an awful lot and really enjoyed it.”

That role continued through to 2015, with Stanger then setting up his own business in the same area.

The variety is what appeals, the chance to work on sport, in business and use concepts that he has developed over the years.

Now 50, Stanger is a self-confessed ‘forward-looking person’.

Still, a little nostalgia never hurt anyone – especially when it involves looking back to his 21-year-old self, scoring one of the most important tries in Scottish rugby history.