Scotland Rugby League have righted a 22-year-old wrong, presenting Scotland caps to former internationalists who were not awarded a cap on their debuts in the 1990s. Seven of the forty-odd players in that category had their caps presented by head coach Steve McCormack in front of the current players hoping to be in his squad for the World Cup in October.
Three were the original pioneers, playing in the very first full Scotland RL team that took on Ireland in Dublin in 1995, and four played together in the Emerging Nations World Cup later that year.
Each Scotland internationalist has been awarded a heritage number so number one Mark Burns and number two Ali Blee were at the ceremony in Bury to receive their caps, as were numbers 11 – halfback Steve Tait, once of Leeds Rhinos – and 26, Glaswegian forward Alex Killen.
“It’s brilliant, I’m really pleased,” said Blee, now a pilot for EasyJet and had flown in especially from his base in Lisbon for the occasion, driving up from Gatwick to Lancashire. “I didn’t expect anything like this. It’s great to receive it with the guys from my era – meeting up again, that means a lot.”
Blee, from Elgin, married into a Wigan family intertwined with rugby league, with his father in law Thomas Smith being the now retired owner of the famous Smiths of Wigan bookshop. Blee had spells with Salford Reds and London Broncos after playing for Scotland in the Super League 9s in Fiji against a star-studded Australia.
Hooker Burns spent his career representing Scotland at amateur, student and full level while playing in the amateur leagues around his native Huddersfield. He made his senior Scotland appearances alongside the likes of Great Britain stars Alan Tait and Hugh Waddell. “I thought it was great because you were playing with professionals who you saw on TV,” admits Burns, now a financial advisor. “I never played a single game as a professional but that mix, and how we gelled together, was brilliant. It seems a similar feel now, with players from the NRL down to League One and students. That underdogs spirit, us against the world, was what got us through it.”
Seeing Scotland now ranked fourth in the world is remarkable to the Class of ’95, but they treasure the memories of playing under coach John Risman, many stepping up from the Scotland Students team to form the first senior side.
“It’s fantastic to see how far Scotland have come,” says Blee, now 43. “The contrast is like chalk and cheese. We would meet in car parks, buy our own kit – literally – and sleep on the floors of B&Bs in our sleeping bags. It needed a lot of commitment but students were happy to do that: it was a step up from life as a student!”
Scotland only began awarding caps in the late nineties and even then only to players on their second appearance, as per Edwardian sporting tradition. Therefore several players who only played once did not get one.
Also receiving their caps at The Village in Bury were dual code international Andy Craig, formerly of Wigan, Swinton and Halifax who played in 1999 before moving into union; Nick Mardon (1996 & 97), signed by London Broncos from Boroughmuir in his native Edinburgh; and Colin Wilson, who moved from Linlithgow Lions to Hull KR and was called up in 1998.
There will be further presentations throughout the year, starting in Glasgow at the end of August and culminating in Australia and New Zealand during the World Cup.
“It was important we did this,” said McCormack, “And paid tribute to those who started the Scotland Rugby League team on the road to where we are now.” The former players even raised money for the Scotland Wheelchair rugby league team, who are returning from the World Cup in France, in the process.
Any former Scotland RL player who has not been in contact with former players’ liaison Gavin Willacy recently can email him on firstname.lastname@example.org