Countdown to World Cup quarter-finals: The shy superstar
Chris Paterson's exceptional accuracy as a goal-kicker is matched by his extraordinary modesty. Simon Turnbull meets the man who has put Scotland in sight of semi-finals
Published 03/10/2007 | 08:07
On the day Scotland's World Cup squad was announced, in the Queen Anne Room high up in Edinburgh Castle, there was a video playing in the background showing what Frank Hadden's men had been doing behind closed doors all summer: pumping some seriously heavy iron. Even the slender Chris Paterson looked like a powerlifter, shifting what appeared to be twice his 12st 8lb frame.
Someone suggested he might have been hoisting polystyrene. "Like a strongman in a leotard, with a 'five ton' sign on either weight?" Paterson asked, greatly amused by the image. "Nah, we have worked hard," he said, putting on a straight face. "We've worked pretty much to our maximum every day for the past three months."
That work has shown as Hadden's heavyweights have made it through to the last eight of the tournament and a quarter-final date with Argentina at the Stade de France on Sunday night. They might not be the most fancied contenders left in the competition but they are the sole fliers of the Celtic flag and given the quality of the opposition facing England (Australia) and France (New Zealand), they could be said to be the European nation with the best chance of reaching the semi-finals.
The Pumas will certainly be wary of the chief weapon in the Caledonian armoury. Paterson's right boot has become as fearsome as Mons Meg, the six-ton siege gun that stands on the ramparts at Edinburgh Castle. The size 81/2 Adidas Predator has yet to miss the target thus far in the tournament – as L'Equipe, the French daily sports paper, reminds the world each morning with a headshot of the Scotland left wing and the legend "100%" at the top of its Buteurs column.
The six penalties Paterson kicked to earn Scotland an 18-16 victory against Italy in their decisive Pool C encounter with Italy in Saint-Etienne last Saturday took his tally for the World Cup to 15 out of 15. "Chris and his goal-kicking was sensational," Hadden said, without exaggeration. He was not the first Scotland coach to express such sentiments. Back in 2003, when Paterson landed six place kicks out of six against Wales in a Six Nations Championship fixture at Murrayfield, Ian McGeechan said: "I know now how Clive Woodward feels." At the time there might have been a raising of the eyebrows at the suggestion that Scotland possessed a goal-kicker in the Jonny Wilkinson class. Not any longer.
Paterson has been the leading boot boy in the last two Six Nations, with 17 out of 19 in 2006 (89 per cent) and 22 out of 25 in 2007 (88 per cent). Together with his running World Cup tally, that makes a total of 54 out of 59 in competition play in the past two years. In all Test matches since the start of 2006, the 30-year-old Gloucester recruit boasts a record of 70 out of 79.
Unlike Wilkinson and New Zealand's Dan Carter, Paterson has had no problems mastering the supposedly elongated Gilbert World Cup ball. Unlike those celebrated No 10s, he has declined to even enter the debate about it. A typical born-and-bred Borderer, the Galashiels native prefers to go about his business with the minimum of fuss. It is no false modesty that makes Paterson wince whenever the precious worth of his kicking is put to him.
"I do get quite embarrassed about it," he says. "I think too much is made of it. I just see it as a duty. You're asked to do it and you get on and do it. There's a lot more to the game than taking kicks. For one thing, it's the team that puts us in the positions where the opposition concede the penalties and we can kick them."
None the less, the unassuming teetotaller and all-round first-class role model still has to convert the kicks into points. That he does so with unerring precision he attributes to the guidance of Mick Byrne – "Mick the kick", the former Aussie Rules star who was employed as Scotland's kicking coach between 2002 and 2005 and who now works with Carter and New Zealand.
"I spoke to Mick when he was in Edinburgh for our match against the All Blacks," Paterson says. "I keep in touch with him. I'll probably speak to him this week as well. He's been a huge, huge help to me."
And Paterson – or "Mossy" as he is known in the Scottish game (after his alleged likeness to one of the characters in the children's television programme Mosschops) – has been a huge, huge help to his country in whichever role he has been cast. An outside-half in his youth and in his early senior days with Gala, he made his Scotland debut as a full-back, against Spain in the 1999 World Cup. He then became established as a wing but was switched to stand-off by McGeechan midway through Scotland's 2003 World Cup campaign, and he was deployed in the No 10 position by Hadden in the warm-up matches for this year's tournament – before finding himself pushed out to the left wing once again.
"I just want to go out there and play," the Jock-of-all trades says. "It genuinely doesn't matter to me which position I play. I'm just happy to play for Scotland."
Paterson has played for Scotland 80 times now, seven caps short of Scott Murray's national record haul. He is also just two tries shy of the Scotland try-scoring record of 24, held jointly by Ian Smith and Tony Stanger and on the points-scoring front, he has 609. Gavin Hastings' Scottish record stands at 667.
It ought to be 670, but the big, rampaging full-back drew a notable blank with the penalty he missed in front of the Murrayfield posts in the 1991 World Cup semi-final loss against England. Like the rest of the Caledonian nation, Paterson still blanches at the memory it.
"I was actually there that day," he recalls. "I was sitting behind the posts. I was at school – in the first year, I think – and the school [Galashiels Academy] used to run a bus up to the game. I remember it pretty well.
"Sure it was disappointing, but, ach, I don't think people understand how hard kicking is. Just the concentration thing. Gav would have kicked that – 10 times out of 10 probably. But you only get one chance and he missed it. But I think Gav came back and kicked a hell of a lot more points after that. And he was the guy up there taking it, so you've got to respect him for that. But it's what... 16 years ago now? Let's hope it doesn't happen again."
May we hope, though, that Scotland can get through to another World Cup semi-final? Paterson does not dismiss the prospect. "There's nothing wrong with having high aspirations," he says. "We're through to the quarter-finals and Scotland are good at one-off games.
"Let's be honest, we were hanging on at the end against Italy. There was a huge sense of relief at the final whistle. We're going into the quarter-finals without having really fired a shot in attack and that can only be a good thing. We've still got at lot up our sleeve."
Scotland have quite a lot, too, inside one particular right boot.
I'll not drink to that: Borderer keeps low profile when it comes to raising a glass
Chris Paterson is a true rarity of a rugby player: not just a 100 per cent merchant when it comes to taking place-kicks, but an absolute nought per cent man when it comes to the question of alcohol in the bar afterwards. Win, lose or draw, the former Scotland captain never touches the stuff.
"I've never had any alcohol in my life," he says. "There's no real reason for it – no religious reason or anything. I've just never tasted it. Never really felt like it. I've not got the slightest problem with anybody who drinks. Hell, if you see some of my mates, you'll know what I mean.
"If I'm out on a Saturday night, I'll just have a couple of cokes. Real boring, eh? It means I can take the car home. Saves a taxi fare."
So the teetotal Borderer is unlikely to be found celebrating the Scotland try-scoring record (if he gets the three tries he needs to claim it outright) with quite the exuberance that Ian Smith, who established the mark with a haul of 24 in the 1920s, showed after one post-match banquet. The Australian-born wing was caught driving a car down an Edinburgh city centre pavement with the headlights glaring and the horn blaring away.