The Invincibles | 30 years on from Glasgow’s unbeaten season

The Invincibles | 30 years on from Glasgow’s unbeaten season

Everyone loves an underdog story.

A cast of
characters coming together to get the better of their more-fancied rivals and
claim the glory. It’s a tale relished by sports fans and Hollywood directors

The 1989/90
Glasgow District team was one such underdog. Yet in that season, the underdogs
found their bite. 30 years on and told by those involved in that campaign, this
is the story of the Glasgow ‘Invincibles’…

Setting the scene

Whilst the
Warrior Nation may be accustomed to seeing their side consistently challenge at
the top of the Guinness PRO14 these days, it was a very different story 30
years ago.

“We were the
sort of also-rans of Scottish rugby at that point,” smiled Fergus Wallace, who
captained the Glasgow District team from the back-row.

“It was easy
to captain that squad in a way – we all knew we were the underdogs, and we were
all out to prove a point.”

Even before
the squad kicked a ball in the 1989/90 season, though, there was a sense that
this year could be different. A group of players already familiar with how each
other played gave Glasgow coaches Richie Dixon and David Johnston an early
upper hand.

“We all came
through the age levels together,” said winger Derek Stark, who was just
starting out on a long and successful career for club and country.

“We’d played
at U21 and B team level together, and a lot of the boys played at the same
clubs so probably played mini and youth rugby together too.”

established in the Glasgow setup was back-rower Derek Busby, who remembers the
new-look squad gelling almost immediately.

“We all knew we were the underdogs, and we were all out to prove a point.”

“The crux of
the team that season came from four teams – GHK, West of Scotland, Ayr and
Stirling County,” said Busby.

“We knew
that individually we might not have been as strong as the other teams, but
collectively we were more than a match for anyone. That’s what we played on –
we had a real team spirit that’s still embodied by the Warriors today.

“Any sense
of club rivalry was put to one side when we came together for Glasgow.”

With so many
talented players to choose from, potential selection for the Glasgow District
side made competition for places fierce. It even brought an additional edge to
club matches, with everyone vying to catch the eye of the selectors.

“It made the
club games quite fun too, because you were knocking ten bells out of each other
and then coming in to play for Glasgow!” laughed hooker Kevin McKenzie.

“We had a
really close bond because we all knew each other from playing against each
other. To get into the team you had to be on top form, because there was a lot
of competition and rivalry amongst the clubs feeding into Glasgow District.

“It’s funny
though, because that rivalry breeds a friendship too. A few boys felt aggrieved
that they hadn’t been properly recognised by the Scotland selectors before that
point, and that manifested itself by coming together like we did. We knew that
if the team did well, though, then we’d start to get recognised.

“It was a
good time to be involved in Glasgow rugby.”

Below: Richie Dixon – one half of the 1989/90 coaching team – takes charge of Glasgow Warriors in 2001.

Inter-District Glory

It had been
11 seasons since Glasgow had last shared the title in the old Inter-District
Championship. It had been a further 22 seasons since the last time Glasgow
District had won the title outright, when a J.T. Docherty-led side took the
title in 1955.

Yet none of
that mattered to a youthful Glasgow squad, who proceeded to write their own
piece of history. An opening 19-19 draw with Edinburgh at New Anniesland was
followed by impressive wins over North Midlands and the South, setting up a
winner-takes-all clash with a formidable Anglo-Scots side in the final round of

Inter-District was a great trial,” said McKenzie.

“For me, I
was one of four hookers battling for Scotland selection, and the championship
let you play against them in front of all the selectors. Each game was a
mini-trial, because you knew you’d be up against your rivals for a national
team spot.

“You always
knew that if you beat the South you were doing well – both they and the
Anglo-Scots were packed with internationals.”

Indeed, a
look at the squads for the deciding fixture at Burnbrae underlines McKenzie’s
point to a tee.

Anglo-Scots had guys like Gavin Hastings, Damian Cronin and Paul Burnell in the
squad at the time,” said Stark.

“These were
guys who would go on to be part of the 1990 Grand Slam team, so we were huge
underdogs going into the match.”

Above: The teams from the deciding match of the 1989/90 Inter-District Championship (courtesy of Derek Busby)

From the
first whistle, both teams refused to take a backward step; with the title on
the line, no quarter was asked for or given by either side.

Anglo-Scots game was extremely tense,” said Busby.

“You never
feel that tension on the pitch, but there were a few opportunities that we
could have taken that day.

“I had one
from the front of a lineout, and Gavin [Hastings] came across and tackled me
just before I could get the ball down – I’ve never forgiven him!”

“One of the
most vivid memories I have of that season is from that match,” added Wallace.

Graham, Kevin [McKenzie] and Brian Robertson were the front-row for us, and
they were right up for it!”

It wasn’t
just McKenzie and his fellow Stirling County front-rowers who were in the face
of their opposite numbers though.

“I remember
big Stuart Hamilton was up against Damian Cronin, and at the first lineout
Hammy laid Damian out!” laughed McKenzie.

“That sort of
set the stall for the match, and Davie Barrett was different class for us that

It was an
intervention from Barrett that was ultimately to prove decisive for Glasgow,
with the game locked at 15-15.

“We were
given a penalty, and of course I’m thinking I’ll need to make a decision as
captain,” explains Wallace.

“Next thing
I know Davie is setting the ball down for the kick at goal and has taken the
decision out of my hands!

“It squeaked
over the crossbar, and that was what won us both the game and the

Cue the
celebrations from players and fans alike.

“It was a
big night out that night, let’s just say that!” laughed Stark.

Below: Davie Barrett in action for Glasgow District (courtesy of Rugby Memories Scotland)

Glasgow grit meets Fijian flair

It wasn’t
just the victorious Inter-District campaign that marked out the 1989/90 season
as special in the history of Glasgow rugby, though. Nowadays, the link between
Glasgow Warriors and Fiji is well-established thanks to the impact and
influence of stars such as Niko Matawalu and Leone Nakarawa.

foundations of that link, however? You can trace them back to October 27 1989,
when Glasgow District welcomed the touring Fijians to Hughenden on the Pacific
Islanders’ first-ever trip to Scotland’s largest city.

“It was a
hugely unique occasion,” enthused Busby.

“We were all
so excited about that match, but unfortunately we decided to try and play Fiji
at their own game for the first 10 minutes!

“We were
nowhere near as good as them at that game – we were 8-0 down before you
realised it and thinking ‘how did that happen?’. They were all huge, too!”

still remembers the moment when the scale of the challenge in front of his side
became clear.

“One of the
Fiji second-rowers got the ball in his own 22 about five minutes in and just
took off,” he explained.

“Starky was
the Rolls-Royce of Scottish rugby at the time, and he couldn’t get near him! We
had no idea what hit us.”

It wasn’t
just the big men that were causing Glasgow problems; a diminutive fly-half who
would go on to be arguably the greatest 7s player of all-time was pulling the
strings for the touring side early on.

Serevi ran the show for them that day,” said Busby.

“He was a
wonderful 7s player, but a lot of people forget just how good a 15s player he
was too. I used to play off the tail of a lineout and was marking Serevi in our
defensive system. I think I touched his shorts twice…

Above: Waisale Serevi in action for Fiji at the Hong Kong 7s in 2007

for the home side, there was an assist coming their way from the most
Glaswegian of sources.

“We didn’t
have the ball for the first 10 minutes!” said McKenzie.

“I’m not
kidding, they were so good at keeping the ball away from us. Big Shade [Munro]
was in the second-row that day, and he turned to me after they scored early on
and said ‘if we keep this under 50 we’ll be doing well’!

“The next
thing, the heavens opened and the rain came pouring down.”

The change
in weather played right into Glasgow’s hands, with the hosts grinding out a
22-11 victory in front of a rapturous home crowd.

“We managed
to control the game after the first 10 minutes or so and settle it down, which
is just as well otherwise Serevi and co would probably have run away with it!”
laughed Stark.

“I was
fortunate enough to play for Glasgow against a few touring sides, including
South Africa, but that match is up there with my favourite rugby memories. As a
young player, it was some experience.”

For Wallace,
it was the start of a very personal connection to Fijian rugby.

“I actually
worked for the Warriors after hanging up my boots, and I was asked to take Niko
[Matawalu] in for the first couple of weeks after he first arrived just to get
him on his feet in Scotland,” he explained.

“Nine months
later he moved out! He was part of the family.

“The Fijian
style of rugby is something I’ve always admired, and to have played in that
match – the one and only time a Glasgow District team has played Fiji – is a
real honour.”

“Big Shade [Munro] was in the second-row that day, and he turned to me after they scored early on and said ‘if we keep this under 50 we’ll be doing well’!”

30 years on

That season
was the beginning of illustrious careers for several of the Glasgow squad.
Domestic cup victories, professional contracts with Glasgow Warriors, Scotland
A caps, senior Scotland caps and more came the way of those who claimed that
crucial victory over the Anglo-Scots.

So three decades
on, where does that season rank amongst the career highlights?

“It’s right
up there,” said Wallace.

“I can run
into any one of the guys from that squad today and there’s no danger of us not
having anything to talk about. It’s like a family.”

It’s a similar
story for Stark.

“It’s the
friendships for me,” said the winger.

“I still
keep in touch with a lot of the guys from that squad. Even when you don’t see
your team-mates for a long time, you can pick up exactly where you left off.”

McKenzie, his performances that season proved to be a launchpad for the rest of
his senior career.

“That season
is a big reason why I ended up paying for Scotland,” he explained.

“I always
thought that if I do better than my opposite number and people see it, I was in
with a chance. It wasn’t until after that season that I got thrown into the mix
for Scotland. I still look back on that season with great pride.”

And for

“I’m a
Glasgow boy born and bred, so it’s something I’m incredibly proud to have been
a part of,” said the back-rower.

“To play for
Glasgow at Hughenden – my home ground – and to win the Championship for
Glasgow? It’s a memory that’s right up there.”

Glasgow District 1989/90

Inter-District Championship

Glasgow 19 – 19 Edinburgh, New Anniesland
North Midlands 10 – 19 Glasgow, Hawkhill
South 10 – 22 Glasgow, Greenyards
Glasgow 18 – 15 Anglo-Scots, Burnbrae


Munster 18- 18 Glasgow, Young Munster RFC
Connacht 6 – 21 Glasgow, Galway Sportsground
Glasgow 22 – 11 Fiji, Hughenden

Glasgow Squad

Dave Barrett (West of Scotland), George Breckenridge (GHK), Derek Busby (GHK), Matt Duncan (West of Scotland), George Graham (Stirling County), Stewart Hamilton (Stirling County), David Jackson (Hillhead/Jordanhill), Ian Jardine (Stirling County), Phil Manning (Ayr), Stewart McAslan (Glasgow Accies), Ewan McCorkindale (GHK), Dave McKee (West of Scotland), Kevin McKenzie (Stirling County), David McVey (Ayr), Shade Munro (GHK), Brian Robertson (Stirling County), Derek Stark (Ayr), Fergus Wallace (GHK, captain), Alan Watt (GHK)

Coaches: Richie Dixon and David Johnston

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