Interview: Rodger Arneil on touring with Lions and Scotland

Rodger Arneil, now 73 and living in the Cotswolds, played in two Lions tours during the 1970s. Picture: SWNS
Rodger Arneil, now 73 and living in the Cotswolds, played in two Lions tours during the 1970s. Picture: SWNS
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Rodger Arneil, the redoubtable Scotland back-row and British Lion, lives in the Cotswolds village of Adlestrop, a pimple of a place celebrated in wistful verse by Edward Thomas before the poet got himself killed in the Great War – but the village lacks a high-grade gastro-pub, which the Chipping Norton Set who have country retreats nearby must find dashed awkward.

I ask Arneil if he’s ever bumped into the de facto leader of this mysterious politico-media cult, David Cameron, given that the former PM spends a lot of time at his bolthole, either squeezing out the memoirs in his £25,000 de-luxe garden shed or the preferred option – “chillaxing”. “No, but my wife Judy has,” laughs Arneil. “This was at the local hairdresser’s which isn’t in Adlestrop because we don’t even have a village shop. He came in with his daughter who wanted a pigtail.” It’s quite a picture: the ex-Premier supervising hair-curling while the country’s all tangled up in Brexit. “Well, maybe he got on with the book after that,” offers Arneil.

I don’t get the impression that our man chillaxes or even approves of it. He was a pretty up-and-at-’em character in his playing days and still is now at the age of 73. A fanatical cyclist, he’s heading for New Zealand to cheer on this incarnation of the Lions but the bike will be going, too. On a charity ride from Auckland to Wellington he’ll be hooking up with former All Blacks captain Ian Kirkpatrick and other old foes from his tour in 1971.

He’s done Land’s End to John O’Groats on two wheels, helping raise £325,000 for good causes. With other Lions he’s done Brussels to London and ‘the Clock to the Rock’, Big Ben to Gibraltar, and he’s been training for the latest trek at his other house in France, pedalling 50 miles a day. “Cycling gives you a bloody sore arse but it’s fantastic fun,” he says.

1971 was Arneil’s second expedition with the Lions. The first was to South Africa three years previously and this is him describing how he forced his way into the squad: “I turned up at Eastbourne for the final training session as a reserve and I burned it. Although I say it myself I was probably the fittest guy there. Bryan West of England was the first-choice flanker but I blew him off the park. He broke down physically, couldn’t do it, and I got his place.”

Arneil is simply not one of those ex-players who sits around, often with a sizable pot-belly, jawing about the old days. “Some of them have made rugby their life and they’re still talking about games they lost. I just think: ‘What does it matter? Move on.’ In some cases they’ve been seriously affected by disappointment. I know guys like that, friends of mine, and I’m worried about them.”

He’ll arrive in New Zealand in time for the second Test, just like in ’71.

Unlucky not to make the original party, he was called up as a replacement when Ireland’s Mike Hipwell got injured, and he sympathises with those joining late now. “You’re coming to a group who’ve been training and playing together for three weeks so you’re behind the game all the time. It’s tough.”

Arneil was baling hay on his father-in-law’s farm in Northamptonshire when he was summoned to the other side of the world. In good shape as always, and never one to lack self-belief, he was up for the challenge of barging his way into the Test XV and he very nearly did.

There was an eye-catching debut in a 27-6 win over Wairarapa-Bush, the next district game after the All Blacks had levelled the series. One New Zealand newspaper reported: “For a man not match-fit Arneil made an amazing contribution, whether moving forward or back.” And he would go on to do his bit to ensure no more games were lost on a tour burned into legend.

In a Scotland career yielding 22 caps Arneil played in famous victories in Paris (6-3 in 1969) and at Twickenham (16-15 two years later) and also in ’71 the epic defeat to Wales by 19-18, the greatest Five Nations game of them all. His name used to roll off Bill McLaren’s tongue.

But he became a Lion after just two appearances for his country. These were enough for selectors to be impressed by his rampaging desire to be first to the ball in the loose. A turn for the Barbarians – and a hat-trick of tries against a Cardiff side featuring Gareth Edwards and Barry John – probably didn’t do him any harm either. So to what did he attribute his superior fitness? “I lived in Gala. I ran over the hills, just ran and ran.”

Suddenly there he was on the high veld, in the same team as Edwards and John, testing himself against some of the best back-row forwards in the world. “The Springboks had Tommy Bedford, Piet Greyling and Jan Ellis. I wasn’t daunted; it was a great challenge to be competing with them. I loved everything about that tour. It was easy to play with the Lions because they had such good vision of the game. The hard grounds in South Africa suited my style. And because I didn’t have any money from not being able to hold down a job, rugby always getting in the way, I was delighted with my daily allowance of 15 rand. I came back richer than when I went out.”

Arneil played in every Test and although the Lions lost three games and drew the other one it was difficult to persuade him the tour had not been a fantastic experience – especially when he reflected on his unpromising beginnings in rugby.

“My father, Gladstone Arneil, who played stand-off for Gala, gave me wonderful encouragement but I also owe a lot to Norman Mair.” Before becoming The Scotsman’s esteemed rugby correspondent, Mair was a teacher, arriving at Arneil’s prep school, St Mary’s in Melrose, to see the lad posted out to the wing. “When the ball eventually reached me, as it so rarely did in matches for eight-year-olds, I set off for the try-line only for my pants to snap their elastic and fall down, causing me to trip over. Everyone laughed; I burst into tears. Norman picked me up and said: ‘If you’re going to play this game, a) you need a decent pair of pants and b) you’re going into the back row.’ After that I never looked back.”

Arneil played his club rugby for Edinburgh Accies then Leicester and toured every year, including excursions to Australia and Argentina, although the latter in 1969 doesn’t feature in official Scotland records as the SRU didn’t award caps. This has only added to the fascination for your correspondent and happily Arneil has some yarns of his own to embellish accounts of riots on the streets and not dissimilar behaviour on the pitch, with Sandy Carmichael quipping: “The game against Rosario 
was delayed for 48 hours because of snipers – surely a first.”

In what he terms “the good old, bad old days of rugby”, Arneil says that a player needed to pack a sense of humour for such expeditions. A key aspect of being a selector, meanwhile, was “knowing how to drink gin and tonic”. “Before flying out to Buenos Aires we had our final training session at Richmond. George Burrell, one of our selectors, was walking past with his fifth G&T when there was this almighty crack. ‘What was that?’ he said. It was my nose, and Mike Smith, a doctor who played on the wing, confirmed it was broken, but we couldn’t let on to George otherwise I wouldn’t have been allowed on the plane.

“During the flight we confessed. By then George, who was on his tenth G&T, said: ‘Oh never mind about that. You’ll be playing in the first game.’ I had to wear this metal guard over my nose which could have caused some damage to an opponent, but that was rugby back then.

“There was a reception post-match. In fact, there was a drinks party after everything and sometimes before as well. George ushered us to the door of our hotel and pointed across the square: ‘We’re headed over there, boys. Now you probably heard the gunfire earlier, so quick as you like.’

“At the reception Argentina’s 
manager announced there were five British girls who were keen to meet the team. One of them was Judith 
who was working at the embassy. Goodness knows what she saw in this fellow with a broken nose and two black eyes but we ended up getting married.”

Arneil’s best man was Ireland’s Barry Bresnihan with whom he’d become good friends on the Lions tour the year before, while he would perform the function for another from that trip, fellow Scot Jock Turner. Back with the Lions in ’71 his buddies were Chris Rea, Alistair Biggar and Gordon Brown. Like all rugger men of his 
generation he cherishes the bonds that came with the bumps and bruises and when he’s motoring down 
to south-west France he always calls on Peter Stagg, another Scottish 
Lion, who’s moved across the channel permanently.

But Arneil couldn’t quite get along with Jim Telfer. The pair were rivals for the same Scotland shirt and in his autobiography Telfer described how a knee which had recently undergone surgery seemed to contain broken glass, but he was determined to regain fitness and keep the coming man at bay. He devised a mantra to be silently intoned: “Rodger Arneil, Rodger Arneil, Rodger Arneil – you’re not going to get my position.”

I tell Arneil that, speaking to Telfer recently, the latter had described him as “that hard bastard”, adding that even though he was posh he was “a real soldier as well”. Did he accept these as compliments? “Well, I think back then Jim hated me whereas I didn’t really respect him. There was an Edinburgh vs The South game at Greenyards where as he stood over me in a loose ruck I thought he was going to do me some serious damage. I leapt up and gave him a pretty good thump. Regarding class, rugby is a great leveller. He could push my face into the ground and I could do the same to him. He was a strong personality and I happened to be one as well. We’re old men now, though, and all is forgiven!”

Arneil, who has three sons and a daughter and two grandchildren, bowed out for Scotland against the All Blacks in 1972. He could have played for longer but, having recently
married, needed to hold down a good job. A successful business career followed, first in sportswear then electronics.

The previous year in New Zealand he’d been disappointed not to feature in a Lions Test. “The team in ’71 was Welsh-dominated. Now, Wales had just won the Grand Slam, but a few of the Scots were like: ‘What about us?’ The same complaints are being heard now and yet while a lot of the current Welsh guys were picked for the original party and more have come in since, their team didn’t really have an outstanding Six Nations. I feel sorry for Jonny and Richie Gray and the other Scotland forwards who had fine seasons that they’re missing out.

“Of course I would like to have played in a Test but you couldn’t really argue with those who were picked in ’71, all of them wonderful players and fantastic guys. The rest of us had to maintain the great momentum of that tour, win the games, and that’s what we did. If this squad gets ahead in the series they’ll want that to happen, too. I didn’t hold any grudges, I went out and enjoyed my rugby. That was a very easy thing to do. It was an amazing experience to be a Lion in New Zealand. The intensity surrounding the sport is all-enveloping and there’s nowhere else like it in the world.”