‘Lucky’ Jim Pollock on his brief but bright career

Former Scottish rugby internationalist Jim Pollock, now teaching at Newcastle Royal Grammar School
Former Scottish rugby internationalist Jim Pollock, now teaching at Newcastle Royal Grammar School
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ON A bright, blustery day on the outskirts of Leeds, we’re all set for the under-11s seven-a-side football competition for independent schools. Well, almost, because the flaxen-haired boy in the red and blue hoops has a pressing matter requiring the attention of his games master. “Sir,” he says squinting up at the craggy man, shielding his eyes from the sun with a shinguard, “I can’t find my boots.”

You wonder if the lad knows. Knows that the teacher, who’s driven him and his mates here from Newcastle, who’s kept them amused with a quiz, who’s made the packed lunches and who will solve the footwear issue, is in fact a semi-mythical sporting hero who arrived on the scene with a comic-book vapour-trail, played only the historic matches, all for Scotland despite a Geordie accent as thick as stottie cake, and then vanished with another cartoon whoosh, to universal cries of: “Who was that man?”

Pollock during the Grand Slam completing win over France in 1984. Picture: TSPL

Pollock during the Grand Slam completing win over France in 1984. Picture: TSPL

Ah, but maybe the youngster wouldn’t believe the story of the brief, sensational career of Jim Pollock, a dark-blue winger in rugby rather than football. Especially the stuff about being hurled from a Parisian police-wagon, robbed of women’s tights and condoms in Romania and emerging from a coffin as Freddie Mercury in Bermuda.

He’d think this wasn’t how serious athletes behaved and that Sir must be pulling his leg. And as for team-mates – 18-and-a-half stone tighthead props, no less – turning up in bars stark naked to chat to committee-men’s wives, maybe the boy should be spared such info until he’s a good bit older.

But your correspondent is all ears and the 56-year-old Pollock begins with a boots dilemma of his own. “I was teaching on fields like this when the school secretary rushed half a mile in her high heels to tell me I’d to phone the SRU right away,” he recalls. This was 1982, Scotland were playing in Wales where they’d not won for 20 years, and Pollock was the surprise new cap. “There’s no easy way to get to Cardiff. The train took forever, so there was lots of time to keep checking my bag. Had I packed my boots? Then a squaddie, drinking his way through a pyramid of beer cans, accidentally emptied one of them on me. When I eventually got to the team hotel I was stinking of booze. The rest of the guys, who I’d never met before, were watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

As we know, Scotland sliced that hoodoo into tiny pieces. Then in ’83, having not picked our man for the first three games of the next Five Nations, all lost, they wondered: “We haven’t won at Twickenham in a while – should we send for Pollock again?” This they did and, as the XV selected for today’s daunting fixture will know only too well, that was our last Twickers triumph.

Inevitably, Pollock came to be known as Lucky Jim, Scotland’s secret weapon with what must have seemed deep-buried roots. Yes, he was called Jim with a surname which sounded like a fish you could catch in Scottish waters or an uncompromising Glasgow housing estate and he might have had red hair. But there was that “Why-aye, man” accent. The sceptical – and this was long before kilted Kiwis – could well have posed the question: “Is the bonnie lad really one of us?”

“Some probably did,” he laughs as Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School concede an early goal in their first match, “but my father was definitely Scottish – couldn’t have been anything else. He was dour, a man of few words, not given to displays of emotion. That’s us, isn’t it? Or it was.” Pollock was capped just eight times but managed to pack in a hundred songs, a thousand laughs, fierce friendships to last for ever – oh, and a Grand Slam. Pointing across the pitch, he adds: “These mums and dads weren’t even alive when I did that. What would a player get for winning a Slam now – a million quid? I’ll tell you what I got: a Betamax video and a tie. So did the rest of the team, unless they opted for VHS. My video-player packed up soon after, quickly followed by the entire Betamax operation. Lucky Jim, eh? Now, come on, boys… ”

Pollock’s good fortune began when Keith Robertson got injured before Cardiff. “And then Bruce Hay, bless him, who might have deputised, suggested Scotland would be better bringing in somebody new. I’d done okay for the Anglo-Scots against the South the week before but never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get called up.”

This was long ago in rugby years. No text messages of congratulation but telegrams, including one from the rough, tough state school where Pollock worked at the time. “I imagined the kids watching the game, probably on nicked TVs.” Then, on matchday morning, a quick training session for the rookie’s benefit. “It was on a golf course, very posh, so I made sure I raked all the bunkers I ran through. I knew Jim Renwick only by huge reputation and the same with Roy [Laidlaw] and John [Rutherford]. They welcomed me as one of the family and, right away, I felt I didn’t want to let the family down. Mind you, I couldn’t make out the Borders accents. They couldn’t understand me either, which I was furious about because I’d been well brought-up.”

At the Arms Park, he remembers picking up what he thought was Vaseline and rubbing Fiery Jack all over his body, tingling the whole 80 minutes and being unable to shower afterwards. A Welsh fan dressed as a dragon sneaked into the Scots’ pre-match huddle before being forcibly ejected.

The game, victory by 34-18, passed in an instant, although Pollock’s try, one of five by us, happened in slo-mo. “I should have scored another but, speaking as a reflective practitioner, which is the kind of poncey phrase we use in education, I should have passed to Roger Baird.

“The final whistle was pure elation. Renwick, the driest of wits, pointed to me and said: ‘I’ve never won here for a thousand years. Then this t**t turns up and we do it.’ And the next year he said exactly the same thing at Twickenham.”

In the build-up to that one, TV’s Rugby Special lugged its gear to Pollock’s Gosforth, only for the game to be called off, so he and Steve Bainbridge for England had to talk Calcutta Cup for the whole show. “I fancied I’d earn a small fortune for that. I got ten quid to donate to the charity of my choice.” Scotland won 22-12 and Pollock, not that busy on the wing, was able to admire the buccaneering breaks of tryscorer Laidlaw and experience another victory tingle. “It had been huge for Jim Telfer. If you cut his arms off he’d bleed Scottish rugby. And for David Leslie, too. What a tragedy that he fell off his roof. Rugby meant a lot to others but it meant absolutely everything to David.”

Having missed out on Cardiff in Pollock’s mad scramble to get there, his wife was looking forward to the after-match banquet at London’s Hilton. “The womenfolk were shepherded into a separate room and, as Pamela likes to remind me, they got given Spam fritters and just the one bottle of wine. Our meal seemed to consist entirely of spinach and we had to make small-talk with corporate guests. On a secret signal, we took it turns to nip to the bar and charged the drinks to the RFU’s financial controller.”

Pollock was born in Wallsend, so named because it marks the end of Hadrian’s Wall. To pursue a career in pharmacy, his father Bill had moved the family there from Prestonpans in East Lothian, where the old man had been raised, and which young Jim would visit regularly, guaranteeing there was no dubiety over who he wanted to win in ’83. “The Pollocks, the Lees, the Ostlers – that was the clan – and nearly all of them lived in Gardiner Road in the ’Pans, a nice walk from the Black Dasher pub. I had a great-grandfather, an Ostler, who played football for Newcastle United – the first to transfer from Scotland to England, apparently. And when my great-grandmother turned 100 we couldn’t get her off the dancefloor.”

Although Pollock’s father had played for Preston Lodge FPs, they never discussed rugby – “or indeed the meaning of life”. Red-haired like his son and known as Red, he wasn’t given to praise, which Pollock says was perfectly reasonable given the lad’s poor school reports. “Dad wasn’t one of the great communicators. When he did speak, there were usually 45 letters on the end and I had to look up a dictionary to find out I’d done something stupid.”

Discussing the father-son relationship some more, I feel the need to crack a joke, saying I won’t charge him for the therapy. “It’s all right,” he says, “I’ve paid all my bills there.” I’m not sure he’s kidding, but he adds: “Dad worked nearly every day that God sent to look after me, my brother and especially our mother and I don’t think my relationship with him was any different from millions of kids in that era. Maybe it was the war, which he never discussed, that caused him to be so stoic. He was a navigator in the RAF and I’m pretty sure he flew over Dresden and Hamburg.”

Back to rugby and the epic games just kept on coming. Next in ’83 were the All Blacks and the 25-all draw which felt like another famous win. There was a BBC blackout that day and Pollock only caught up with New Zealand-produced highlights recently. “I’m looking good under a high ball, nice haircut and – bang! – Bernie Fraser scores in the corner.” The wingers had quite a ding-dong. “Bernie had already scored two tries when I thought I’d better stop him getting a hat-trick. We fell into touch together and he gave my nose the good news that he didn’t like being tackled. The punch broke it but we had a drink together later.” And Pollock’s try was quickly etched in the memory – literally – of one who was there. “Uncle Shuggie from the ’Pans, well over 70, was elated at having been frisked by the police for alcohol. Back home later, he attempted to re-stage my score in the front room. His nose got burned on the carpet.”

He recalls more team-mates, more high jinks: “Jim Aitken: Maybe not the best player but what a leader of men. He pays for most of our reunions, which is absolutely fantastic. Iain Milne: What a vivacious character with that fantastic laugh and what a size of a man – I don’t know how Colin Deans got an arm around him.” Was The Bear the one dans le scud in Paris? “I’ll never say! But that was an eventful evening. Me and some of the boys ended up in a nightclub where every woman seemed to arrive by Porsche in a mink coat and we were the centre of attention until Serge Blanco turned up in this fantastic white suit, leaving us dancing on our own. Outside I got separated from the others and ended up in a police van. The cops kicked me out at our hotel – really booted me – and I trudged up to my room to find that my so-called team-mates had emptied it of everything, including the bed. Turning up at the airport the next morning, I was still in my dinner-suit with a hole in the arse and I won’t forget the look on Jim Telfer’s face. I never played for Scotland again!”

That game in ’85 was lost, as was Pollock’s penultimate international in Bucharest. “Yes, that was Lucky Jim’s reward for winning the Grand Slam, a trip to Ceausescu’s Romania. What a godforsaken place. Everyone had a job, right enough, with four guys manning every lift and everyone had six kids – by state decree, I think – even though they couldn’t afford them. The advice was that condoms would be good for bartering and Pamela packed a gross for me, which is funny when I think about it, although we’re both teachers and used to doing what it says in official letters. But the rubber johnnies got nicked from my room along with my tights, although about a million leu was left behind. It was worthless.”

Mostly Pollock won and, joking apart, he knows he was lucky and not just in rugby. “I’ve been blessed in my marriage and my relationship with my son Duncan, who I know was so keen to win a cap at rugby like his old man and did it for Hong Kong against Russia.” Different eras, different familial relationships. “My own father didn’t ever come to watch me play for Scotland, not even when we beat France in ’84 to win the Slam. Ach, I could have dropped the ball and we’d have lost, so maybe it’s just as well.”

Cue wild celebrations, first in the old North British Hotel and nearby pubs. “I fell in at the last, played a small part in what was an exceptionally gifted team. Was Rutherford a teacher? Was Laidlaw a mechanic? Was Renwick, who’d made his huge contribution previously, a postie? I don’t mean to disparage modern players, but rugby is a job now. These guys were really playing for the badge, the thistle, their country.”

The party then moved on to the Royal Musselburgh Golf Club, where Pollock’s Scottish rellies had assembled, although he first walked through the wrong door where a wedding reception was in full swing. Feeling pretty indestructible by this point, he launched into a rendition of Wild Mountain Thyme before locating his dad. “He bought all of Gardiner Road a drink, which was the sort of thing he liked doing. Then we went back to the ’Pans, got a lock-in, drank til dawn, collected the rolls and I presented the rugby club with my shirt before my brother drove me home, sound asleep, in his yellow Fiesta.”

Who was that man? Not the Lone Ranger but Lucky Jim. He left behind a proud country and – he knows this to be true – a proud father.

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