Interview: 1962 Lions prop David Rollo

Former Scotland and British Lions prop forward David Rollo at his home near St Andrews. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Former Scotland and British Lions prop forward David Rollo at his home near St Andrews. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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WHEN he was young, growing up on a farm in north east Fife, a cattleman turned David Rollo off smoking tobacco for life when he allowed him to try his pipe. Young Rollo was promptly sick.

He stuck thereafter to a more herbal, Glastonbury festival weekend-appropriate vice.

“There were those white plants that grow at the roadside with the hollow stems,” he recalls. “We would make pipes out of them, and used dock seeds as tobacco.

“I was an early druggie,” he smiles.

No mind-altering substance could have possibly given him a bigger thrill than a trip of a lifetime with the British Lions to South Africa, just over half a century ago. Rollo rode an ostrich and was lowered what seemed like miles into the ground on a visit to a gold mine. These are not activities that you can imagine the current Lions being encouraged to try, in this ultra-strict era of professionalism.

You wonder whether riding an ostrich was even permitted back in 1962. On my arrival at his home on the outskirts of the village of Dairsie, Rollo has already laid-out an assortment of souvenirs from the tour on a table in the conservatory. Among them is a well-preserved pamphlet, headed “agreements”. It is a list of dos and donts from the tour. And no, there is nothing prohibiting the riding of an ostrich.

Soon to turn 79, the former prop – he played both loosehead and tighthead positions, and even finished his career at No 8 – remains a fearless operator. Indeed, he still bears the scars of a tussle earlier in the day with a lively Jacob ewe, one of several he keeps on a nine-acre holding. “It had an aversion to being given a trim,” Rollo explains. Angry red bruises scar muscle-bound arms that Popeye would be proud to flex.

The bruises look like they should hurt. However, the pain bears no comparison to the discomfort caused by a ‘floating rib’ injury, sustained over half a century ago in Pretoria in a game against Northern Transvaal. Slated to start against the Springboks a week later, it meant Rollo didn’t play in any of the four Test matches that summer. “I had established myself as the 1st XV tighthead prop and the Saturday before the first Test match, I went and nicked something in my back rib cage,” says Rollo. “We had no medical people with us. We had to rely on the South African liaisons officer. He would get somebody to come and see you.

“It was not until I came home and it was X-rayed that I discovered I had a chip in my rib – it was a floating rib. If they had just put a strap round about it I would have been off for maybe a couple of weeks. What they were doing was massaging it every second day, and it was the worse thing they could so. So I missed out on my Test place. It was quite frustrating.”

Kingsley Jones, the Welsh tighthead prop, took his place for the first game, in a front row also comprising Syd Millar of Ireland and hooker Bryn Meredith, another Welshman. One of six Scottish call-ups on the most representative British Lions tour to date, Rollo had longed to see ‘Howe of Fife’ next to his name on a British Lions team-sheet in one of the four matches against the Springboks.

While injury meant he was robbed of this opportunity, Rollo was still an active member of the party, playing on nine occasions in a long, arduous programme, one at which even today’s heavily- nutritioned, manscaped members of the squad might baulk. The current Lions’ ten game-trot around Hong Kong and Australia is a mere mini-break by comparison. “There was nothing dirty about the games,” says Rollo. “They were just physically very hard. You had to look after yourselves. We were unlucky to lose the series.” The Lions drew the first game 3-3, and then were narrowly beaten in the next two games, 3-0 and 8-3. By the time they reached Bloemfontein for the fourth Test, recalls Rollo, “most of the Lions playing just wanted to go home”. They lost 24-14.

When the letter informing him of his selection arrived, addressed to D M D Rollo, Wester Forret Farm, there was a decision to be made. The tour, the letter stated, “assembles at Eastbourne on the 13th May and is concluded on return to London on August 30th”. It was a long time in anyone’s language. For a farmer, it was possible to portray the time span in particularly vivid terms. “I managed to get some of the sowing done, but there was no turnips, no hay making for me,” recalls Rollo, who reveals each member of the touring party got 70 shillings each to spend per week.

By the time he got home, even the grain harvest was finished. “They had started lifting the potatoes,” he recalls.

“I was in partnership on the farm with my brother Ian, so we had to come to some agreement,” he adds. Being a curler, Ian’s sporting appointments were usually midweek, while his rugby-playing sibling was otherwise engaged on a Saturday afternoon. “It usually worked quite well,” recalls Rollo. However, this was something else entirely.

With Rollo having been on the stand-by list for the tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1959, they both knew that he had to take this opportunity. They were also conscious of what an honour it was for the Howe of Fife, who were fiercely proud of having a Scottish internationalist on their books. Now the club, formed by a group of farmers in 1921, desperately wanted a Lion. There was only one decision to be made in the end.

Rollo swapped the rich, loamy land of Fife, for the bone-hard, dusty sports arenas in places like Potchefstroom, Windhoek and Pretoria, and where the prospect of skin-burns were added to the list of injury hazards. Rollo shouldn’t be cast as an innocent abroad, however. He had toured South Africa with Scotland two years previously, so knew something of the beautiful country, and had his eyes opened to the afflictions as well. When Rollo returned the race issues and divisions had become yet starker.

“The black South Africans supported the visitors, that was very noticeable,” he says. “If you asked the staff who did they want to win today, they would say: ‘you know who we want to win’. They wanted to see the white South Africans knocked down a bit. Segregation was very noticeable. At the Test match in Durban, there was an end of the ground sectioned off for the black South Africans, from the middle of the posts to the corner flag.”

In Rome, on the first stop-off during a 27-hour journey, he remembers tasting the then curious foodstuff known as spaghetti for the first time. The dashing Rollo is still recognisable from photographs of the epic, 25-match tour. The itinerary would have given even Bruce Springsteen pause for thought, beginning in the country then known as Rhodesia, and finishing, three months later, with a resounding 50-0 victory over East Africa in Nairobi. It was here where he was reunited with something else that he missed – rain. “We had no rain all the time we were there, which was a long time,” he says. “That was strange having come from a country where you got your face damp most days. In Kenya the heavens just opened up.”

Although five other Scots were selected along with him, including skipper Arthur Smith, Rollo was the only one to bring his kilt – which he wore en route to South Africa, and at any other opportunity he could while he was on tour. He recalls a photograph of him in a kilt cradling a sheep in each hand, taken on a trip to a farm near Bloemfontein. In The Scotsman archives, there is another shot of him in kilt, though it isn’t a Marino sheep that he is holding in each arm. His cobalt blue eyes sparkle.

“There was always the odd girl who would phone up – ‘there’s a party on tonight, would you like to come and bring one or two of the boys along with you’,” he recalls. “We discovered they were divorcees who had been married fairly young, and they were looking for a partner. They would phone up a bedroom, any bedroom – they were rugby groupies, or camp followers, we called them.”

Rollo was already married, and if love was in the air at all, it was only because Richard Sharp, the recently-engaged England fly-half, was receiving a love letter every day from his fiancée. These battle-hardened men had feelings like the rest of us, and it was difficult to be away for so long. Jean, Rollo’s wife, had just given birth to his daughter Pat, who inherited the sporting genes. Once Scotland’s finest female hurdler, she holds the Scottish record for the 100m hurdles to this day, and now teaches PE at Bell Baxter High in Cupar, Rollo’s alma mater.

With his daughter only a few months old in 1962, Rollo sought to alleviate the homesickness by making new pals among his team-mates. He has maintained a friendship with the Irish lock forward Bill Mulcahy to this day. “We had the same aftershave lotion, which is Old Spice,” he says. “That is how I got to know him!”

“Every time we changed hotel we had a new room-mate, so you got to know everyone well,” adds Rollo. “It was so to avoid any cliques forming.”

“Towards the end of the tour, the Welshmen, who are a wee bit like the Borderers, got a bit homesick and began to cling together – they were not all that keen on sharing with others if they could share with a mate.”

By the time he returned home, it was early September. If there was a handsome reception when he returned, he can’t recall. Bruised ribs or not, he was straight back to work. “The tatties didn’t pick themselves,” he smiles.

ROLLO decided to take early retirement from farming in the mid 1980s, at the age of 51, after accepting an offer for the lease of the tenanted farm that had been the Rollo family home since 1902. It is remarkable to think that at the age he ‘retired’ from farming, he was till nine years younger than his father, John, was when he was born.

Rollo Senior was 50 when he got married, 60 when Rollo arrived, and was in his late Seventies – “the age I am now,” his son notes – when he passed away. “A lot of farmers married late like that at the time,” points out Rollo. Sadly, it meant that he never got to see his son excel with the oval ball. In fact, his father barely got to see him play rugby at all, since Rollo did not take up the game until he was 19, a year after he had watched half an hour of a Howe of Fife game. He turned away unimpressed, and perplexed by the rules. When he did play his first game, for the Howe of Fife second XV against Perthshire, he recalls a team-mate shouting: “hey Dave, you are going the wrong way!”

Rollo played football as a boy, for the young farmers’ club and on a local farm, where teenagers would gather twice a week for a kick-around. “First to arrive would be captain of one side, and the second would be captain of the other side,” he recalls. “It could be 20-a-side.” When the team-with-no-name went to play ‘away’ games in places likes Leuchars and up at Strathkinnes, transport, in the agricultural heartland of Fife, was not an issue.

“No-one had a big enough car to take us in, so we travelled by tractor and trailer,” recalls Rollo. If he supported a team at all it was Dundee FC, rather than Howe of Fife, the club he is now synonymous with, and who he still follows to matches – both at home and away. He began supporting the Dens Park club in the time of Billy Steel’s arrival, and was treated for a particularly troublesome hamstring injury by Dundee’s long-time physiotherapist, Eric Ferguson.

Just over a fortnight before he left for South Africa, Dundee won their maiden Scottish championship, so while he might have been absent for the harvest, he was in the country for that significant moment. More poignantly, his call-up to the Scotland team came long after his father died, in 1954. He made the first of a remarkable tally of 40 appearances for Scotland five years later. His career is distinguished by unstinting sportsmanship. Known as ‘Dave’ to his friends, he was referred to as ‘The Prince’ by his team-mates and army of rugby admirers. In the 1965 Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham, after Andy Hancock had scored a dramatic late solo try to level the scores at 3-3 for England, Rollo was the first to shake his hand as the winger returned up-field. He also seemed indestructible. Rollo recalls being called-up at the last moment for a game against France in 1965, while midway through a third pint of beer at the Braids Hotel, and following a hearty meal.

“I saw John Law [the Scottish Rugby Union secretary] coming in out of the corner of my eye, and I got a shout: Dave, you are playing. I was full of beer and a big lunch, I didn’t know how I was going to cope. I shouldn’t say it, but I made mince meat of my opposite man that day. After that I always had a good lunch.”

You just hope he has been nourished by the sight of his own life laid out before him, in the form of dance cards, menus and old photographs from a memorable, if frustrating, trip to South Africa with the British Lions. He watched last weekend’s win over Australia at Bob Steven’s home, a former Howe of Fife team-mate. “In fact, he got a Scottish cap, he replaced me after I broke my toe curling on Lake of Menteith,” he says.

Rollo even produces one of the two British Lions shirts each player was given for the tour. Although flaking off slightly, his number 23 is still evident on the back.

While a humble man, it is certainly not as if he is pathologically averse to celebrating his achievements. It is quite commonplace to visit houses of former sporting greats and notice that there is no hint at all of what they once did. However, in a hall lined with photographs in Rollo’s home, where the couple still provide a bed and breakfast service, you could spend hours studying the team groups of fine Scotland teams, while the British Lions squad from 1962 takes pride of place as well.

Meanwhile, Jean has chronicled her husband’s career in scrapbooks that are kept hidden, and, you suspect, undisturbed on the top shelf of a bookcase. “I have never opened my heart like this before,” Rollo says.

“Och, just I hope you can make something of it,” he adds, as we part. In his courtyard, Rollo points out his 70th birthday present to himself, a British Lion-red coloured BMW X3 convertible. It is parked next to an old Fordson Super Major tractor, which he explains he kept after they left the farm – rescued, like these precious memories, from a storied past.