Celebration of a true rugby great

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CELEBRATING world-class rugby talent is not something Scottish supporters can do much of at the present moment but on Saturday night the Borders town of Selkirk revelled in the opportunity to give proper recognition to a genuine great of yesteryear, John Rutherford.

A special "This Is Your Life" was hosted by Dougie Donnelly, the BBC presenter, and sprung on the former Scotland fly-half and over 200 diners who had enjoyed a fundraising dinner with guests speakers Gareth Edwards, the Welsh and British and Irish Lions star, Scotland hockey legend Janet Jack and Donnelly. The speakers were among the few who knew what was to come after midnight when the curtain was lifted to reveal a stage dressed like the familiar BBC This Is Your Life set.

Having agreed to help the organisers - Rutherford's former half-back partner Gordon Hunter, wife Alison Rutherford, Selkirk RFC president Dennis Henderson and secretary John Smail - Donnelly stunned Rutherford by emerging from the back of the hall with 'the big red book'. He invited him on to the stage and for the next hour proceeded to trawl through the Borderer's life story.

Donnelly's surprises included a primary school friend, now in Sussex; Rutherford's best man from the Isle of Mull; colleagues from when he taught at George Watson's College; and his brother Billy, who lives in Spain.

The loudest roar came when 12 of Scotland's Grand Slam squad appeared, before Rutherford almost collapsed at the sight of Ollie Campbell, Dave Irwin and Trevor Ringland, who had travelled from Ireland to recount stories as a team-mate of Rutherford's on the 1983 British and Irish Lions tour.

Rutherford could hardly speak at the finish. "It's just... overwhelming," he stuttered. "I don't know what to say. I'm honoured. When Dougie first came to our table I thought he must be talking about someone else, and I even looked around to see who it could be.

"It's quite unbelievable. To see so many of these great guys, friends from the past, from work, from rugby. I turned 50 nearly two weeks ago and you feel sometimes as if you blink and another year has gone. I feel I've been blessed all my life, with great parents, friends, family - especially my wife of 28 years, Alison - and team-mates who made rugby a joy to play. I am just staggered."

Rutherford's long-time friend and team-mate with Scotland and the Lions, Roy Laidlaw, said: "We have so few real stars in Scottish sport that I think, without going over the top, people like John should be recognised.

"He should have been when he retired, but in Scotland we tend to play down our feats and our stars sometimes and nobody likes to say too much, so achievements or big stars like John pass quickly and we are back moaning about the poor times again. It's as if we prefer that sometimes.

"But we held a night for Gary Armstrong in Jedburgh and it's great to have one at long last for John.

"The number of people who have travelled to Selkirk, from the 1984 squad to the Irish Lions, and Gareth Edwards, just shows how popular a person John is in the rugby world.

"As everyone will tell you, he was also such a nice guy, and that and his talent are what him something special."

That much was clear also in the tribute brochure produced by Smail. The array of international stars who contributed written tributes to Rutherford included Mark Ella, Stu Wilson, Rob Andrew and Gareth Davies, legendary Australian, All Black, English and Welsh fly-halves, as well as French lock Abdel Benazzi, Scot Jim Renwick, broadcaster Bill McLaren and French journalist Richard Escot, who was there on Saturday night.

Wallaby great Ella wrote: "As a player, I always admired [stand-offs] who ran the ball. John was unlike most northern hemisphere No 10s of his time because he liked to have a go."

In his biography, French lock Benazzi wrote: "We would even copy our heroes' names. Some guys would choose Superman or Indiana Jones. I don't know why but I would loved to have been called John Rutherford. I liked the way it sounded; John Rutherford. It sounded like rugby. Each game, all of us would practise saying it - John Rutherford - to see who pronounced it better, trying to smooth out our Moroccan accent."

Jim Telfer, the coach of the 1984 Grand Slam team, added: "In short, John was a coach's dream - a general in the pivotal position pulling the strings for others to perform, but always with the ability to turn a game on its head with his own brilliance."

Though she could not make the event, HRH The Princess Royal, wrote in the brochure: "Whether representing Selkirk, Scotland or the British and Irish Lions, John Rutherford's skills and his sportsmanship have won him universal acclaim, borne out by the distances former team-mates and opponents have travelled to pay their own tributes at tonight's celebrations. I am pleased to add my own name to that list of well-wishers."

Rutherford coached the Scotland backs when the nation last won anything of note, the 1999 Five Nations Championship, but refused to quit his directorship of JRG accountancy firm to become a professional coach.

He is still closely involved with Selkirk RFC, where his teenage son Michael plays stand-off, and admitted he was quite happy.

He said: "Rugby is a great game wherever you are involved, and I love it at Selkirk; I always have.

"I enjoyed coaching Scotland and I'd love to still be involved - of course you would - but after touring all over as a player I have enjoyed seeing more of my family in recent years and wouldn't swap that for the world."

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