Scottish rugby may be far from enjoying a golden age right now, but it has not always been the case. They were a formidable outfit for periods of the 1980s and 90s, and over the decades they have produced some fantastic players.
The Scotsman has proved a valuable source of information in putting this greatest XV together, while selection has been based on players who achieved both for their country and in the red of the Lions.
Together, they make for quite some team.
1. Tom Smith
Smith formed the cornerstone of the 1997 Lions scrum that beat the odds—and the far bigger Springboks—and was still filling the Lions No. 1 shirt four years later in Australia.
As prop forwards in the 90s and early 2000s got bigger by the season, Smith’s sub-six foot frame could still mix it with the behemoths of the modern day front rowers, with his strength and superior technique allowing him to get the better of many a larger opponent.
He allied these dark arts to a sublime running and handling game few other props could equal.
2. Colin Deans
Deans was the unlucky hooker to lose out on Lions Test caps thanks to the selection of Ciaran Fitzgerald as captain in 1983.
For Scotland, he was heroic, making his debut at the age of 22 and later playing in the Grand Slam side of 1984. Deans had the tools to fit in to the modern era.
He was one of the fastest hookers of his day. He won 52 caps for Scotland and also turned to coaching after his playing days, helping to steer Northampton to their 2000 Heineken Cup win.
3. Ian McLauchlan
Known as Mighty Mouse, McLauchlan was part of the winning Lions side in New Zealand in 1971 and the all-conquering Lions side of 1974 in South Africa.
He never took a backward step in the loose but his scrummaging was his greatest asset, with a particular ability to get underneath his opposite man.
4. Gordon Brown
Brown was Willie-John McBride’s partner in the second row on the 1971 and 1974 Lions tours and played 30 Tests for Scotland. When he died of cancer in 2001 aged just 53, the rugby world mourned one of its great characters.
"Broon from Troon" was a fearless competitor in the second row, a strong lineout forward and powerful scrummager. His post-playing days were spent as one of the finest speakers on the after-dinner circuit.
5. Richie Gray
The only player of the current side to get a sniff of this line-up.
Gray has the potential to be spoken of as one of the game’s best second rows of the modern era. He is a tyro in the loose, a wonderful runner and handler.
His lineout work and defence are up their in terms of intensity with the best we have seen from the likes of Paul O’Connell.
Gray needs to find the one missing ingredient to his game to go down as a legend—consistency. When he has performed at his very best, he has been virtually unplayable. A big future awaits.
6. John Jeffrey
The man known as the white shark for his shocking blond hair was a deadly predator on the field.
He was ferocious at the breakdown and a destructive tackler, but his nose for the try line was keener than most back row forwards of his generation.
Jeffrey’s finest year was 1990 when Scotland famously beat England to the Grand Slam at Murrayfield.
7. David Leslie
Reports of Leslie’s playing style seldom fail to include the words "fearless" or "reckless." In a piece on the flanker in 2013, Aidan Smith of The Scotsman described him thus: “Brave and selfless, he was often injured, but he played every game of the 1984 Slam and his trouncings of Wales’ Richard Moriarty and Jerome Gallion of France have passed into mythology.”
Leslie suffered a fresh batch of non-rugby related injuries in 2006 when he fell from the roof of his house on which he had been working.
Despite a number of broken bones and bruises and serious doubts about whether he would walk again, Leslie proved a flanker’s toughness dies hard, and was back on his feet in surprisingly quick time, as explained in The Telegraph by Alasdair Reid.
8. Jim Telfer
Telfer won over 20 caps for Scotland and toured twice with the Lions in the 1960s, winning six Test caps.
His playing style is most commonly characterised as hard, intelligent and, while not lightning quick, full of strong running. Injuries limited his caps tally, but his rugby brain and leadership skills were put to great use as a coach.
Having lost all six of those Lions Tests as a player, he was the forwards coach of the winning Lions side in South Africa in 1997.
9. Gary Armstrong
Armstrong must have been one of the most infuriating players to come up against.
He just never let up. His pass was unspectacular but it was his incessant sniping, harrying and digging for the ball that made him such an influential player for any side he featured in.
He captained Scotland to the 1999 Five Nations title and won the Premiership with Newcastle Falcons. Check out Aidan Smith’s colourful profile with the lorry driver-turned world class No.9 in The Scotsman.
10. John Rutherford
By the majority of well-informed observers who watched him in his prime, Rutherford was the world’s best No. 10 at the time. In a piece in 2008 in The Telegraph, Alasdair Reid recounts:
"In the middle years of his career, Rutherford still petrified defences with his speed off the mark, but he had developed a pinpoint kicking game as well and there was an all-round assurance and poise about everything he did. Like the best in his position, he didn't just grace games, he owned them."
Rutherford won 42 caps for Scotland and one for the Lions. Check out his try in this 33-6 defeat of Scotland, via YouTube.
12. Gregor Townsend
Townsend was one of Scotland’s silkiest, most skilful players of the 1990s, even if he couldn’t quite produce his best every time. He played 26 of his 82 Scotland caps at centre.
He came in to the side as they began to decline from their position as regular Five Nations challengers but still stood out as a player of genuine quality, whether at No. 10 or in the centres.
Townsend was the man chosen for the No. 10 shirt on the 1997 Lions Tour and piloted the Lions with a cool head and exemplary decision making to their 2-1 series win.
His ability was underlined by the fact he was one of few Scotsmen to play in the far faster Super Rugby competition with the Natal Sharks. He now coaches Glasgow in the PRO12.
13. Jim Renwick
Renwick was the maverick type of player Scotland so rarely produce today, an individual who could turn a game on his own with a commitment to running the ball.
He won 52 Scotland caps and one for the Lions in his career. His ability to change direction and create openings in the defences he faced was legendary, and he can perhaps count himself unlucky to have been around at a time when Lions sides were dominated by the great Welsh backs of the '70s.
He was, at least, part of the Scottish side that beat Wales in Cardiff for the first time in 20 years in 1982.
11. Ian Smith
Smith’s playing days for Scotland were back in the 1920s, which makes the fact he is still Scotland’s joint leading try scorer even more impressive. He shares top spot on 24 with Tony Stanger.
Born in Australia, the fast, elusive Smith learned his craft at the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford and made his name at London Scottish.
He scored eight tries in Scotland’s Grand Slam of 1925 and his 24 tries came in just 32 caps.
14. Andy Irvine
Irvine is often described as Scotland’s finest ever attacking full-back, but he finds himself on the wing in this side to accommodate Gavin Hastings.
Indeed, this is where Irvine found himself in the Lions Test side of 1974 in South Africa, unable to unseat J.P.R. Williams from the No. 15 slot.
Whatever the concerns over Irvine’s defence, his ability as a runner and goal-kicker were world class, and he set points records for both the Lions and Scotland.
15. Gavin Hastings
Hastings was a born leader. His huge boot was a vital weapon in an era when the tries were beginning to dry up for Scotland’s once free-running backs.
He played 61 times for Scotland and in six Tests for the Lions across the victorious 1989 tour of Australia and the 1993 losing series in New Zealand, for which he was captain.
Hastings had a long range when it came to goal-kicking, but it was his accuracy from close range that famously let him down in 1990 when he missed a shot at goal that would have put Scotland into the World Cup final at England’s expense.