Interview: Gary Armstrong, scrum-half supreme

Gary Armstrong, the 'Jeddart lad', remains rooted in a life of hard graft. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Gary Armstrong, the 'Jeddart lad', remains rooted in a life of hard graft. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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THIS No 51 bus is stopping at every tree and has yet to cross Soutra Hill, a favourite of the closed-road despatches.

But the summit is only mildly godforsaken today and, once down the other side and into the Borders, I’m fired out at Carfraemill where I’m meeting Scotland’s 1990 Grand Slam scrum-half. He always seemed like an uncomplicated man – summed up by that no-nonsense, brushed-forward, unchanging hairstyle – so I’m anticipating a straightforward interview.

He is and the hair still hasn’t changed. We’re talking about a player from what you might call the pre-Kelly Brook era of pro-rugby, before the modelling contracts and regular use of the term “hunk” – and of course we’re talking about a Borderer, one of Jedburgh’s Jeddart lads. But not that uncomplicated because there are in fact three Gary Armstrongs. There’s Armstrong the lorry-driver he had to be. There’s Armstrong the farmer he dearly wanted to be, ever since being small enough to hide inside the rim of a tractor wheel – a dream that eventually happened only to turn into a nightmare (more of that later). And – how could we forget? – Armstrong it was who began the move which led to Tony Stanger’s history-making try, 23 long years ago.

“With a no’ very good pass,” he laughs over coffee and shortbread. Jim Telfer said he couldn’t pass. “And he was right. I never learned to do it off my left until I went professional with Newcastle.” But Armstrong, now 46, could do lots of other things, usually brilliantly. Compelling to watch, he must have been a complete and utter pest to play against: spoiling, snapping, scuttling, sparking.

A fierce and fearless terrier, the imp imperial, he was Telfer’s favourite and the hard-to-please coach rated him the bravest, adding: “I have never seen another player who so epitomises the very best character of a Scotsman.” By ’93 he was the best scrum-half in the world and you’ll find other testimonies from the time which nominate him the best player, full stop. “Aye, well ... ” he blushes, concentrating hard on his biscuit.

But the other two Armstrongs were never very far away, not then or now. Over the course of an hour and a half I learn what makes a good scrum-half – “Dunting the ball out of your opposite number’s hands at a scrum to get one against the head was a crafty trick” – but also what makes a good tattie-bulker. And he reveals his all-time favourite lorry-run: “Girvan in the summer-time with a load of wheat then coming back with lime or sand.”

In his colourful descriptions of Armstrong in commentary – “Like a baggie up a Border burn” – Bill McLaren rarely failed to mention the haulage. On the eve of Dewi Morris’ Calcutta Cup debut, the England scrum-half was interviewed for TV alongside Armstrong – “He was flown up to Scotland in a private jet and we met in a ploo-ed field outside Jed, me in my muddy overalls!” His working-classness marked our man down as different; did he feel that way? “Well, the likes of Soley [David Sole] had been to private schools and we had boys coming up from the south who were dentists. It maybe felt a bitty strange to find yourself among them if you were a baker like Kenny Milne or you worked the lorries, but not for long. We were all there for one thing and the same thing. Out on the pitch everyone was equal. We were a team and I think we played quite well th’gither.”

Just a bit. Armstrong won 51 caps, and as well as the Slam was a Lion in Australia, captained a flamboyant Scotland to the last-ever Five Nations in 1999 – and in eight encounters never lost to Ireland, tomorrow’s opponents at Murrayfield. He recalls a great fixture, keenly-contested. “The games were aye close, weren’t they?” (Apart from the 30-13 win by ’99’s tries-for-fun team; even in the defeat at Twickers three were scored). “We were similar sides. Ireland had some real characters in theirs, guys who’re still friends, and we had a great crack with them, especially in Dublin. Nick Popplewell I played with at Newcastle – tight as a moose’s lug but a good guy. Donal Lenihan – Donal’s Donuts we called him – was our midweek captain with the Lions and on that same tour Steve Smith the hooker was our Guinness man and in every new town would scout ahead for it, chatting up the barmaids: ‘If I bring the Lions in here will you give us free pints?’”

A typically tight match was Scotland’s 13-10 victory in the Slam year. Tighter still was the 6-6 draw in ’94, one of Armstrong’s best-ever games in the dark blue. In ’91 the Scots beat their old foes twice, the scrum-half nicking a try in the World Cup clash. Injuries interrupted Armstrong’s Irish jousts for a bit before he returned for a 17-16 win in ’98. Sometimes, though, he’d get hurt and kept on playing. “In the old days you got an injury and carried on. You were so desperate to get that Scotland jersey over your head that you didn’t want to have to take it off early.” By old days he means the amateur era. “The knocks I’m talking about would bring a guy off now.

“There was one year when I played game after game with my elbow strapped up. In that 6-6 draw I did my thumb. ‘Just pit some bloody tape on it,’ I told the doc.” Ruptured tendons were only discovered after Armstrong had completed the full 80 minutes. Jim Telfer remarked: “When it comes to encountering pain, Gary just isn’t a normal human being.” But even he had to admit defeat to the more serious injures, especially one to his cruciate ligament, which caused him to miss the World Cup in South Africa and the Lions tour there. Armstrong is his typically modest self here. Yes, it was said of him that he’d have run through a brick wall for Scotland, but he insists that so would each and every one of his team-mates. Maybe in Armstrong’s case, however, the qualification could be added: he might have built the wall as well.

His rugby – and here we’re still talking the last days of amateurism – had to be fitted round 12-hour shifts on the lorry though once again he’s not seeking our sympathy. He reckons all that hard graft provided him with a quality of fitness he’d never have found in a gym. “When I came back up the road from Newcastle to play for the Border Reivers our fitness coach handed me a diary. ‘Keep a note of your weights,’ she said. I never filled in one page. ‘When I stop doing it out on the field you can have a go at me,’ I said. That kind of training only produces gym monkeys, guys competing over how much they can lift. I had a lot of natural strength from working on a farm from the age of 15. There was no forklift so 30 ton of fertiliser would have to be handballed onto the lorry in 50kg bags. Wrestling sheep was good graft, too, and the same with working the cattle. Even so I was still a little smout. The first time Bill McLaren clapped eyes on me he said a was a ‘shilpit wee creature in need of a good dinner.’ My granny, responsible for dinners at that time, wisnae best pleased!”

Armstrong is glad to have played at the exact time he did. If we divide his career into two halfs, one amateur and the other pro, from the second he secured the funds to buy the farm he’d always wanted, while from the first he got friends for life, jolly japes, marvellous memories. I’d heard the one about Damian Cronin lifting up Jim Telfer and hanging him on a dressing-room hook, believing this to be the desired response to a bollocking. Cronin denied this when I interviewed him a couple of years ago but Armstrong is pinning it right back on him. I knew that Telfer always chose the same moment on the coach journey to Murrayfield to crank up Scotland the Brave but not the exact spot. Armstrong, with his agricultural perspective, pinpoints it to a turn-off near a livestock auction.

He’s glad too to have had a job and a life away from rugby, even if as a lorryman paying the bills was sometimes a struggle. “Back at work it kept you level-headed when you heard the shout: ‘Hey Armstrong, you were shite on Saturday!’ As an amateur I’d like to think I appreciated the value of money. I wonder if today’s players do because they’re earning small fortunes and a lot of them, picked up young or coming straight from uni, will obviously never have worked at anything else.”

Pro transition for him took a bit of time. “I didn’t like what the fitness coach at Newcastle called your ‘quality rest time’ so on summer nights after training I asked a farmer if I could drive his combine for him. I couldn’t sit around, doing nothing. That wasn’t the way I was brought up. I did suggest to [Falcons’ director of rugby] Rob Andrew that he get the team onto a building site for the close season but strangely he didnae take me up on that!’

Delve back into the cuttings on Armstrong and some comments from a player who was never rent-a-quote stand out. In 2001 he said: “I’ve always been a better farmer than a rugby player.” Two years later, nearing retirement from the game, he was helping out another farmer, Jedburgh-based, ferrying hay bales, out on the road, meeting people who didn’t know about the rugby and “looking forward to being anonymous again”. A farm of his own had been the dream “since I was a nipper”. But when it turned sour following the break-up of his marriage to wife Shona the lorry cabin became his sanctuary, a place to hide, and doubtless he was desperate to get away from it all on that Girvan run. “I’d been busy with the lorries, working my bollocks off, and she’d been cavorting with this guy. I caught them on the phone and she didn’t deny it. I tried to buy her out of the farm but she didn’t want that so I had to sell. Thirty-eight acres, 50-odd Suffolk sheep and a livery business. I’d aye wanted to be a Jeddart lad on his Jeddart farm and later it was horrible seeing someone else in the place you’d dreamt about and then lost.

“The whole thing was a bolt from the blue and the lowest I’d ever been in my life. I never went doon the street for a long time afterwards because I thought it had all been my fault. I couldn’t go out because I imagined folk would be talking about me the whole time. So I was glad of being able to jump in the lorry.”

The picture of someone who exemplified sporting courage, who helped dump Will Carling and Brian Moore on their backsides, being rendered so powerless is a difficult one to process. “Aye, well ... ” he says. But Armstrong has recovered from the heartbreak. For that, he thanks his father Lawrence – “A flanker, a centre, any position which would get him into a Jeddart jersey.” He thanks his brother Kevin. And he’s also grateful to his rugby pals, Doddie Weir and Finlay Calder among them, for their friendship and support.

Another rugby chum, ’84 Grand Slam captain Jim Aitken, found Armstrong a job in his grain business. He’s just taken ownership of a cottage with land for his daughter’s horses while his son lives with his ex. It’s closer to Selkirk which may be difficult for a Jeddart lad, but to compensate he’s got involved in the organising of his home town’s festival. And everything’s going well with his new woman after Kevin set them up on a blind date.

“Julie doesn’t know about rugby so she was surprised when I’d get stopped in the street – and she was absolutely bloody amazed when I took her to a function at Murrayfield and Princess Anne came beelin’ over to speak to me and some of the boys. But I like that she’s with me because of who I am, not what I was.”

As it should be. What he was, though, was a bit special.