Age no barrier as veterans enjoy Golden Oldies festival

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THERE has been quite a party going on in Edinburgh this week with over 3,000 people from around the world working up old muscles and hamstrings in the name of Golden Oldies rugby.

The Air New Zealand Golden Oldies World Rugby Festival is in its 17th year and growing across the globe. In this week's festival, staged around Murrayfield and coming to a conclusion with a star-studded British and Irish Legends v South Africa Legends XV match this afternoon, 121 teams from 18 different countries have fielded players aged from the minimum 35 to 85.

The spirit and self-effacing humour is clear in the multi-coloured strips and team names. From Canada's Antediluvians to England's Old Vulgarians, the 'Old Parts' from the US to the Swiss Gnomes, the Unquenchables and the Knackered Bulls from Australia to Scotland's own Forth Valley Fossils and Puffin Gannets, there is a distinct lack of taking oneself too seriously.

The Hastings brothers, Gavin and Scott, have played key roles in helping EventScotland bring the festival to Scotland for the first time, and both have been playing, while Mark Ella, the famous Wallaby who retired after beating Scotland at Murrayfield in 1984 was showing some neat touches for the Eastwood Charcoals, whose jerseys bore the slogan "burnt-out wood", at the age of 49.

Ella takes over from Gavin Hastings as the ambassador for the next event, in Sydney, insisted golden oldies rugby was a huge growth industry. He said: "It's very big in Australia, which is why we've got 35 teams across here, and they've had a great time.

"I play as many games as my body allows me. My last game for the Wallabies was here in 1984, so it's been a long time since I played, and I'm not fit. I haven't looked after myself. There's no speed anymore; there's the catch-and-pass but it's slower, so you have to be a little guarded that you don't try and relive past glories. If I made a gap I'd have to run and I can't accelerate now! So I don't try to be the Mark Ella of 1984; I just try to be one of the boys and play a game that works for everybody. But that's the point.

"This is played in a great spirit and though everyone wants to play well, it's enjoying the experience with your team-mates, and touring with them and your family to different places around the world that makes this great.

"And, when you think of how many ex-rugby players over 35 there are in the world, you can see the potential of it. It is big in the Southern Hemisphere, but we hope this will help inspire more teams from Scotland, Wales and Ireland to come to Sydney in two years' time."

The hour-long games have no pressure scrummaging and define levels of contact by age, signified by colour of shorts. The young bucks (under-59s) wear club or red shorts, red signifying they don't wish to be tackled to the ground, with red for 60 to 64-year-olds, gold for over-65s, which mean these players cannot be tackled at all and can only run so far before passing, purple for over-70s, meaning they can't be touched, and tartan shorts for over-80s, who cannot be "breathed on too heavily" either.

That is the theory, but Easton Roy was having none of it. The oldest player in the festival at 85, the WWII veteran insisted on wearing red shorts and burrowing into rucks. His wife, Sarah, watched from the touchline, the former nurse shaking her head at times and ignoring the game altogether at others.

"If he wants to do it it's up to him, but I tell him he's a silly old fool," she sighed. "I do worry about him getting hurt, but he does keep himself fit – he has a mini-gym with bicycles and weights at home – and he definitely enjoys himself, so fair enough."

After being substituted by 'The Baggy Pipers', Easton said: "I haven't played rugby all my life because I never got rugby at school in Stirling. It was only when I met some Welsh boys with the Army in the Bahamas who asked if I'd give it a go – I knocked a guy out cold with my first tackle and I was in.

"I always liked sports and seemed to take to rugby. I played until I was 50 and was told I was a liability, and then got games here and there, and the problem now is that I can't get enough games, but this has been great – the social side is fantastic and I hope it gets more older people in Scotland playing."