Interview: Andy Irvine on how rugby gave him a path in life

Scotland's legendary full-back Andy Irvine later had spells as chairman of the SRU and Pro12. Picture: Craig Watson/SNS/SRU
Scotland's legendary full-back Andy Irvine later had spells as chairman of the SRU and Pro12. Picture: Craig Watson/SNS/SRU
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Andy Irvine, rugby 
legend, is en route to the cinema when I catch up with him and, the next day, he’s keen to give me his critique of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Although billed as a western, he thought it more of a 
horror flick hiding under ten-gallon hats. “There were bullets flying into brains in slow motion a lot of the time and it was way too violent for me,” he says. “I dunno, maybe some big, ugly middle-rows would enjoy that.”

Irvine is old enough to recall when westerns dominated picture-houses and flea-pits. I wonder if he ever saw Shalako, a Sean Connery oater back in the news following the discovery of some amusing location snaps of Tam the Milkman with co-star Brigitte 
Bardot. In what now seems a carefree attitude to parenting, your correspondent’s mother didn’t think that one too violent for a 12th birthday treat. “Oh yes,” he enthuses. “Remember when the Apaches killed the aristocratic woman by making her swallow her jewels?”

Andrew Robertson Irvine will be 65 later this year and you know you’re getting old when that’s about to occur. Never big, never ugly and never a middle-row, he skipped, shimmied and wiggled right through the 1970s from the full-back berth. He invariably tops polls to identify the greatest Scottish player of all time, which makes him our Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, our Fawlty Towers. But banish any image you may have of Basil Fawlty on a rugby field; Irvine was a truly beautiful mover. He likes delineating the distinction between forwards and backs. “They were the donkeys and we were the fairies,” he laughs, but “donkeys” is a term of endearment – he’d never label his pack The Hateful Eight. “We couldn’t have done what we did without them.”

We’ve met in his office. It’s in the middle
of Edinburgh’s West End financial 
honeypot, at a firm of real estate experts where Irvine seems in with the bricks although, as non-executive chairman, he’s cut his days to two per week to look after a few long-standing clients and, when required, “mentor the troops”. In this he has merely swapped the dark blue livery of the rugby team for the dark blue livery of the capital’s property scene – in not-bad fettle if the five o’clock thrum in next door’s All Bar One is any guide – and his motivational speaking must be instructive.

For, although he’s the boy from 
Goldenacre who helped usher in 
Scottish rugby’s golden era, these representatives of Edinburgh’s golden rectangle will surely discover that not everything he touched turned a 
lustrous yellow. Irvine didn’t win a Grand Slam or a Triple Crown. And there was a period when he and his team couldn’t buy a victory in the Five Nations, much like their successors right now.

While Vern Cotter’s men were whitewashed last season and remain winless in this, Scotland collected the wooden spoon in 1978 and again the following year. They would also lose the first game of 1980, making it 13 without success, and against France another dismal afternoon seemed on the cards with just 12 minutes remaining. “That sequence was tough and we were all pretty upset at having had so many losses,” the 51-times-capped Irvine recalls. “Nairn McEwan had arrived as coach from Highland where he’d galvanised a bunch of local lads with phenomenal work ethic and team spirit. That didn’t quite work at national level where he had quality players. He’d come straight from playing into coaching – I’d played alongside him myself – and I think he was probably still too close to some of the guys.

“But, in fairness to Nairn, he had to do without the services of a lot of great heavyweights like [Ian] McLauchlan, [Sandy] Carmichael, [Gordon] Brown and [Alastair] McHarg, who all retired at same time. And there weren’t really any thrashings in those defeats, just a few points in it most of the time, so we didn’t get the luck and that’s kind of the story of the team right now.

“Consider this: Craig Joubert gives us the decision against Australia, we meet Argentina in the semi-final and because the Pumas are tired, we make it to the World Cup final. Then, first game of this Six Nations against England, Finn Russell sees Stuart Hogg out of the corner of his eye and passes. Second game down in Wales, the referee spots that Gareth Davies is offside. All of that could have happened, it doesn’t amount to a huge leap, and look at where we’d be today.

“The team are playing good rugby. They’re a great bunch who’ve had a bit too much criticism because they’re desperate to get a win. I’d be more anxious about this game in Italy if we were getting trounced but we’re not. The one performance that did upset me was the last game of last season, 
giving Ireland 40 points at Murrayfield – that was a low moment. But Saturday is hugely important for us. If Scotland win they’ll almost be forgiven those narrow defeats. Lose it, though, and I think all bets are off.”

We’ll return shortly to the Irvine XV’s seemingly hopeless position against the French but, first, the player’s poignant back-story, how he got to be on the park representing his country with such oval-ball flair. At one stage that seemed a hopeless thought.

Irvine starred for Scotland without his immediate family witnessing at first hand how he wrote himself into sporting immortality. His father Jimmy was killed in a road accident in Nigeria in 1967 when his youngest son was 15. His mother Elizabeth 
visited Murrayfield only once, when the swashbuckling Irvine arrowed a stunning last-minute kick for the 1974 Calcutta Cup, only to inquire afterwards: “Which team won?”

“She thought it was a pleasant-enough afternoon but told me she would have enjoyed it much more if there hadn’t been quite so many people in the ground! After that she watched the games on TV. ‘I like that nice Bill McLaren,’ she’d always say.” Meanwhile, his two much older brothers had been exiled on the far side of the world and indeed Andy only met the elder, Bill, for the first time when he toured New Zealand with Scotland in 1975.

Irvine finds some of this difficult to talk about and his eyes will moisten a few times this afternoon. This could be explained by the fact he’s Scottish, part of a stoic generation who didn’t complain. Today’s omnipresent question: “How did it feel when… ?” - wasn’t asked back then. Now, of course, every karaoke TV squawker has the entire clan stationed backstage for the group hug. Telly also acknowledges the fascination for genealogy, encouraging even more of it. “I know, I know,” says Irvine.

He was at school, George Heriot’s in the capital, when he found out his father had been killed. “I got a call from morning class to go and see the headmaster. ‘I’ve got some tragic news for you,’ he said, ‘you’ve got to go home.’ My father was an engineer, building bridges in Nigeria. It was a tough job. Shifts would last a whole year and he only ever got home for four weeks.

“It was a terrible thing but, if there was a best place for me to be when it happened, and a best sport for me to playing at the time, then that was Heriot’s and that was rugby. I really do believe that. The founder established the school for fatherless bairns. My mother worked hard all her life – she was a waitress – and did her absolute best for me but after my father was killed there was no way she could have afforded the school fees. Thankfully, I became a foundationer and was able to stay on.

“I suppose I was envious of other lads whose dads came down to Goldenacre to cheer on their sons. But three or four of these guys were very kind and 
supported me as well. I suppose they felt sorry for this young kid always on his own but I was very grateful to them, as I was to my teachers, who because I had no father at home, did their best to mentor me.

“I certainly needed mentoring in the ways of rugby! I only arrived at Heriot’s at secondary level, having played nothing but football until that point. My very first game was the sixths against the fifths way out on the back pitch. When a lad in my team scored a try I jumped all over him, like you did in football. The games master, Donald Hastie, said, ‘I’m sorry, son, we don’t do that here,’ and sent me off. I had to write a letter of apology.

“But rugby was definitely the making of me. I wasn’t an angel at school and got into a bit of trouble. At 15, with the testosterone flowing and temptations of drink and whatever, there was a danger I could have gone right off the rails. Graeme Souness says the same thing. At a football dinner at Spartans, that wonderful community club, he paid tribute to the old coaches who’d set him on the right course. Funnily enough, Graeme and I both had football trials for the Edinburgh schools select on the same day. He was a nyaff but brilliant even then.”

Irvine would never have picked up a rugby ball if he hadn’t gone to Heriot’s.

“Rugby gave me a goal in life and acted as my guide,” he continues. “It also gave me great friends who’re still my best pals today. I’m going to Rome with a lad from school who I first met in 1962 and who also lost his dad. And of course the camaraderie of the sport continued for me when I came to play for Scotland.”

He wasn’t quite a rugby waif during those stirring Murrayfield afternoons, for his wife Audrey liked the sport and would attend games. They’re no 
longer together and Irvine has a new partner but they remain good friends. He was keen for his four children to get a Heriot’s education – one now teaches at the school – and they in turn sent their offspring there. “All my five grandchildren live nearby, I’m very 
fortunate that way.”

Irvine wasn’t so lucky but made the best of things. “It would have been 
lovely to have had my immediate family watching me play but I never felt lonely with a 70,000 crowd cheering on Scotland. My father didn’t see me hold a rugby ball – not even in school games – but the bigger tragedy for him was never meeting his grandkids. I had a fantastic mother to whom I was very close and at least she knew I played rugby for Scotland and how proud I was of that. It was her and me all the way through and I never really knew any different. You’re dealt cards in life and you just have to accept them.”

Elizabeth wrote letters every week to her other sons in the antipodes, keeping them up to date with their kid brother’s progress. Bill joined the 
Merchant Navy soon after Andy was born and, when he later settled in New Zealand, middle brother Jim, who’d been working in the building trade in London, was lured out there.

“I vaguely remember when I was younger Jim coming back to Edinburgh for Christmas before he emigrated but I didn’t know Bill at all. There was no Skype back then, obviously, and nobody phoned the far side of the world because it was too expensive. All I had to remind me of them were a few photographs. Meeting them both at the airport in Auckland was a huge thrill and very emotional – we hugged for a long time. And then my brothers watched me play for Scotland against the All Blacks in the ‘water-polo Test’. The pitch was more like a lake and some of the guys might have drowned. The three of us stayed in good contact after that and I was lucky enough to visit them again on later tours. Jim died six years ago but Bill, who’s in Melbourne now, is still with us at 84 and I’m looking forward to seeing him when the Lions visit New Zealand next year.”

In reuniting him with his brothers, rugby again came to Irvine’s aid. He has a lot to thank the sport for, but rugby owes a debt to him too, for contributing so much dash and dazzle. In the era of disco he was its greatest dancer. Before his Scotland debut, walking in Braidburn Valley Park with Jim Renwick to try and calm his nerves, the pair joined in a football kickabout with some boys who didn’t know who they were. That couldn’t happen now. “We were amateur and I loved that time, even though it cost me £44 a season to represent my country. Whenever you swapped shirts you had to buy a replacement. When I was still a student my grant was only £45.”

A pound up on the deal, with the memories all priceless. France in 1980 is generally reckoned to have been Irvine’s Superman game or, since we were talking westerns just there, the one where he rides into town at sundown, does what a man’s gotta do and emerges triumphant. He scored two tries in that incredible finale but, like the modest hero he is – hoping that one day soon someone else will lay claim to the crown of “greatest-ever” – he points out that up until then he’d been having a poor match.

“At half-time I reached into the bucket for an orange. ‘Enjoy it,’ said my supportive friend Jim Renwick, ‘because it’s probably going to be 
your last!’”