IT IS one of the greatest prizes in Scottish rugby – but thanks to an infamous night on Princes Street a quarter of a century ago, it now sits almost permanently encased behind glass.
This afternoon’s Six Nations tie between Scotland and England at Twickenham marks the 25-year anniversary since the post-match fallout that left the treasured Calcutta Cup battered and bent, and Scotland flanker John Jeffrey suspended for five months.
Three retired rugby players yesterday shared their memories of the 1988 saga in which the trophy was left badly damaged by the drunken antics of Jeffrey and England number eight Dean Richards in Edinburgh.
Code switcher Alan Tait, pictured,who earned 27 caps for Scotland, recalls the preceding match at Murrayfield on that day being one of the worst international games in which he was ever involved.
England won the dismal tie 9-6 in an outing marred by the visitors’ tactic of going to ground and forcing constant stoppages. Gavin Hastings kicked two penalties for Scotland, but opponent Rob Andrew had the last laugh by sealing victory with a dropped goal.
Tait said: “I came off the field thinking ‘I can’t even remember touching the ball or doing anything’. It was just such a slow game.”
The drama lacking on the pitch would instead unfold at the after-match dinner at the Calton Hotel.
Scotland’s players had got there first, draining all the free bottles of whisky provided before the English team had even arrived.
Tait said: “Them were the days when players just went totally mad after the games and everything was drunk, anything you could get your hands on.”
Jeffrey and Richards, a policeman at the time, took up the Indian-made cup, which dated back to 1878 and had been forged from melted rupees taken from the disbanded Calcutta Football Club.
They then filled the cup with Champagne, dumping the contents into the face of former English hooker Brian Moore before leaving the hotel. The pair proceeded to use the precious trophy as a football as they stumbled down Princes Street, kicking it between them.
Tait said: “It wasn’t funny because I saw the cup in the morning. It was probably dropped a couple of times, but it’s a lesson learnt.”
Scotland prop Norrie Rowan was in Buster Browns nightclub on Market Street and recalled later witnessing the venue’s doorman trying to bend the dented cup back into shape.
He said: “I just got a glimpse of it. The doorman had it under his foot and he had a brush through one of the lugs of it to try and straighten it up using the broom handle. But it’s not as if they damaged it deliberately. They were just passing the thing between them and kept dropping it.”
The eventual repairs cost an estimated £1500. Jeffrey’s lengthy suspension was dealt out by the Scottish Rugby Union – an outcome that riled teammates when Richards was conversely let off with a one-match sentence.
Rowan admitted: “All the players were pretty angry with the SRU committee. It was their responsibility and they dodged the flak and what made it even worse was that they came down really hard on John Jeffrey, almost I think to deflect the blame away from themselves.”
But physical education teacher Andrew Kerr, who earned one of his few international caps in that infamous 1988 tie, said the harsh punishment handed to Jeffrey could be justified.
He said: “You probably think it was harsh, but they had to do something about it. Here’s a very old cup that’s been battered and bruised. He [Jeffrey] took his punishment like he should and look at where he is now.”
Bill Lothian: ‘should we lock up this cup – or lock up john jeffrey?’
They’re fond of commemorating milestones in rugby, often with a dinner or by striking a special tie. Somehow the 25th anniversaryof the desecration of the Calcutta Cup is likely to slip under Murrayfield’s radar.
Pity. Although damage to a venerable trophy can’t be condoned, the circumstances were that players from both sides took the silverware round pubs to be shared with fans and there is much to be said for an era when stars of sport were so approachable. No Twitter needed in those days – you just spoke face to face in the bar afterwards.
If the players got out of hand that March night through too liberal access to free alcohol at the official dinner that was nothing to the over-the-top penalty – a five month suspension – imposed on the chief home culprit, John Jeffrey, by the Scottish Rugby Union.
Having been present in the hotel where the “action” took place I know the real damage was done by trying to bend the cup back into shape after it had been accidentally dropped.
Alas, every twist of the metal – a doorman at Buster Brown’s nightclub in Market Street actually pushed a broom handle through the ‘lugs’ to try to straighten the Cup – caused further distortion and soon we were joking that Scotland and England would in future play annually for the “Calcutta Plate”.
As for John Jeffrey, the Borders farmer who bred prize-winning cattle, he became known as a sacrificial lamb and I recall being there when his club, Kelso, lifted their first Scottish Championship one week later before the ban kicked in.
“Should we lock up this cup – or lock up John Jeffrey?” shouted a voice in the crowd.