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 alike.
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.”
Already established in the Glasgow setup was back-rower Derek Busby, who remembers the new-look squad gelling almost immediately.
“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.”
Chasing 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 fixtures.
“The 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.
“The 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.”
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.
“That 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.
“George 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 Barnett was different class for us that day.”
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 Championship.”
Cue the celebrations from players and fans alike.
“It was a big night out that night, let’s just say that!” laughed Stark.
Glasgow grit and 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.
The 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!”
Wallace 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.
“Waisale 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…”
Thankfully 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.”
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.”
For 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 Busby?
“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.”