Scots teams have traveled from Sydney to Saint-Etienne, Pretoria to Paris, Kobe to Invercargill during the course of nine World Cups.
There has been one semi-final in 1991, a potential semi-final in 2015 that never happened, several quarter-finals, and several embarrassing exits in the early rounds.
This is not a retrospective of all of Scotland’s World Cup appearances; rather, it is a look back at their debut game, 36 years ago in Christchurch versus the Grand Slam French, via the eyes of nine players.
Rugby World Cup schedule, groupings, and broadcast schedules
Complete coverage of the 1987 Scottish rugby season: The what-ifs of Matt Duncan
The French were heavily favored to win, but Scotland played exceptionally well. They battled the French thugs head-on and came out on top, 16-6, early in the second half. Then something went awry.
A tackle from Matt Duncan left him shaky on his feet. Back then, people didn’t take concussion seriously. Serge Blanco tapped and tried for a goal as Scotland’s teammates ran to check on him. France is now up 20-16.
“We were dreaming,” Scotland’s coach Derek Grant said. Captain Colin Deans declared, “I accept full responsibility.”
Scotland earned a 20-20 tie thanks to a great team try that was converted by Duncan; nevertheless, if they hadn’t been distracted at the crucial moment, they would have faced Fiji in the quarterfinals and likely lost.
So near, yet so far away.
Gavin Hastings’s kick, 1991
It’s terrible to sum up the great man’s World Cup career with a single kick in the semi-final match against England at Murrayfield in 1991.
It was a terrible game. Scotland had hoped to exact revenge on England for the previous year’s Grand Slam matchup, in which they were soundly defeated. It was a slugfest in the semi-final.
Hastings missed a penalty right in front of the England goalposts to start the fourth quarter. A late drop-goal by Rob Andrew sealed the win for England, who dominated the rest of the game.
It was not a pretty scene. Definitely a painful experience for Scotland. They’ve never been this close to the World Cup final before.
Doddie Weir’s phantom double, 1995
Scotland’s quarterfinal match against one of the best All Blacks teams at the 1995 World Cup ended in heartbreak for the Scots. That they were able to create anything resembling a classic game from it speaks volumes about their skills.
One Scotsman stood out in the team’s 48-30 loss more than any other. Doddie Weir’s size alone wouldn’t have made him stand out, but the fact that he scored two tries against the All Blacks put him in an elite category.
Maybe once or twice in the years that followed, the large guy would bring it up. True enough. During that match in Pretoria, he scored more points than Jonah Lomu. You won’t find many lock forwards who can make that claim. Almost no one in the team, at any position, could have made that claim.
Midas touch for Martin Leslie in 1999
It was a World Cup to forget in 1999. The buildup to Scotland’s quarterfinal play-off against Samoa was fraught with anxiety on the home team’s part.
Despite being Five Nations winners, Samoa looked like a formidable team after defeating Wales in the group stage. Worry was widespread.
That wasn’t necessary. Martin Leslie, Scotland’s top back rower, scored another try as Scotland defeated Samoa 35-20. Six tries in five consecutive Tests for one of Scotland’s kilted Kiwis.
Scotland’s remarkable run came to an end in the quarterfinals against the All Blacks (of course), which Scotland defeated 30-18. It’s likely that Leslie wasn’t given enough credit as a forward in his new country.
Tom Smith’s “Redemption Song” from 2003.
It was a tough day at the Aussie Stadium in Sydney, Australia, as Scotland needed a win over Fiji to maintain their streak of never failing to reach the quarterfinals.
Fiji had a 20-15 lead with six minutes to go thanks in large part to two tries scored by the unstoppable Rupeni Caucaunibuca. Fear of doom was mounting.
Then, salvation came when Tom Smith scored a try off the end of a driving line-out to tie the game, and then Chris Paterson added the winning conversion. Smith has also passed away, much like Doddie. Both losses are tragic. Superb rugby players.
Chris Paterson won the golden shoe in 2007.
2007 saw the return of the World Cup’s dark side and another tournament.
By the time Scotland’s final match against Italy in Saint-Etienne came around, they were already down 40-0 at home to the All Blacks in the pool stage. A victory would seal their fate. When they lost, they were eliminated. The former is correct, barely.
Chris Paterson deserves a statue for his contributions to Scottish rugby. Scotland depended on Paterson’s boot when they were having trouble scoring tries. With his perfect performance, Scotland defeated Ireland 18-16. Then, in the quarterfinals, Argentina eliminated them.
Allan Jacobsen’s fuming brain in 2011
Scotland’s failure to advance to the semifinals at the 2011 tournament in New Zealand was a long time coming. Shaky victories against Romania and Georgia were followed by crushing losses to Argentina and England.
Legendary prop Allan ‘Chunk’ Jacobsen’s postgame comments following the Pumas’ defeat will be long remembered. Strong feelings; anger; extreme intensity. It was things you’ll never forget.
After Scotland’s elimination was guaranteed by England’s victory, we saw him again, and he was an even more troubled Chunk. The large man was in distress. There were others like him. The state of Scottish rugby was dreadful back then. At its lowest point.
2015: A portrait of Greig Laidlaw
In 2015, Scotland’s quarterfinal match versus Australia at Twickenham was a tour de force of unpredictable and thrill-seeking rugby.
Referee Craig Joubert made a crucial error in the dying minutes, allowing the Wallabies a chance to kick for victory and send the brilliant Scotland to the semi-finals against all odds.
Greig Laidlaw realized he’d made a mistake, but Joubert wouldn’t hear of it. Even after leaving the field at full time, he was the target of savage criticism.
Laidlaw was quietly outraged in his own way. Millions of other Scots are just like him.
Tears for Stuart Hogg in 2019
Scotland had a terrible showing at what was otherwise one of the best World Cups in terms of host cities and spectacular organization.
After a poor performance in their opening match against Ireland, they needed a convincing victory over a strong Japan squad to advance. Not even close.
Stuart Hogg entered the neutral territory in an emotional turmoil. Anger, defiance, and blazing eyes; he looked like he could have worried if he’d ever get another chance to make amends.
Unfortunately, he never got off another shot. The responsibility for making amends with Japan now rests with the class of 2023.