Interview: Iain Milne, former Scotland rugby internationalist
Tackling the immovable force of Scottish rugby on his jousts with France and his love of fishing
Shortly before I’m due to meet The Bear, the rolling news channel is quizzing the attractive heptathlete about what it’s like to be the face of the London Olympics – actually scrub that, the roly-poly anchorman is far more interested in promoting her as the six-pack of the Games – and I’m thinking, my, how sport and, in particular, what we used to call amateur sport has changed since Iain Milne’s pomp.
How would professional rugby’s hucksters market, glamorise and exploit the heaving, grunting front-row colossus of Scotland’s 1984 Grand Slammers? Well, the Milne name, the brand, would be extended broadways instead of skywards, as with Richie Gray, to capitalise on his legendary bulk. And you guess that bulk would be used to sell bulldozers and various kind of stormproofing, and that he’d have his pick of the endorsements for high-carb foodstuffs.
“Garage sandwiches and jumbo bags of sweeties – that’s what been doing for me recently,” he sighs over a cup of tea. “I’m in a car all day – Belfast yesterday, Sunderland after we’re done, Kilmarnock tomorrow. It’s a pretty sedentary existence but – and this is the slightly disturbing bit – I’m quite comfortable in my current weight.”
And what did he say that was again? “Ah, you should never ask a lady her age, and you should certainly never ask a retired tight-head prop from the amateur era what he weighs. I’m trying to cut out the crappy foods and take more exercise – the other day I did a seven-mile Pentlands walk. I know my weight has to come down, you know, before it’s too late.”
Milne, now 55, is a salesman for an ink company, part of the biggest globally in fact, and with The Scotsman among their clients, he’s in every sense the man delivering these words and memories to your breakfast table. An interesting fellow, for sure. He loved playing the game but is not one to dine out on the glory days. And nor is he likely to add extra layers of fur to the myth of The Bear.
“I’m probably a better player now, in the general recollection, than I was at the time,” he laughs. “Hey, it’s nice to be remembered, I’m not complaining about that, but the longer a guy like me is out of the game, the more the story gets embellished.”
Reluctant to accept this, I tell him I’ve just thought of an ad slogan for him, were he to be playing rugby now. If John Lewis are “never knowingly undersold” then maybe he’d would be “never knowingly pushed around”. I show him a yellowing newspaper cutting – possibly it’s his ink again – where John Beattie remarks: “Few can recall having seen The Bear retreat in a scrum.” He chuckles again. “That’s what I’m talking about. I mean, I must have been made to go backwards, mustn’t I? I don’t think it ever happened at club level, but surely once or twice with Scotland.” A pause. “But do you know, I just can’t remember it happening. And poor John – he ran into me at training once and broke his kneecap.”
The immovable object that was Iain Gordon Milne was capped 44 times, most memorably in the 21-12 win over France which secured Scotland a first Slam for 59 years. YouTube the game you get a mere ten minutes: all of Peter Dods’ fluttery kicks, French flouncing resulting in the award of easier penalties, Jim Calder’s try and just the one sighting of Scotland’s No 3: curly-haired, shirt outside his shorts, punching the air in triumph at the end. But he contributed more, much more, than that, prompting coach Jim Telfer to break with tradition and single out a player for special praise.
He must miss rugby, I say. “No, I don’t, not really. Jim Telfer eats, sleeps and breathes rugby, or he did then, but for me it was something I was good at, I got a high amount of excitement and pleasure from it, but I wouldn’t say I was ever truly passionate about it. My big passion, you see, is fishing. And I have to say about Jim, that was a lovely thing for him to do, but there’s a theory that he thought I’d scored the try and when he found out it had been Calder it was too late for him to retract!”
Time, I think, for some bear facts. Who gave him the nickname? “A few people have laid claim to this over the years but I rather think it was Jeff Regazzoni with whom I played my first year of FPs rugby for Heriot’s.” Has he ever encountered those football Bears, John Hughes and Roy Aitken, both of Celtic? “Not John, but I’m sure Roy and I must have crossed sporting dinners.” And because I can never remember – what’s the recommended avoiding action when confronted by a bear, run uphill or climb a tree? “Aren’t you supposed to rub shite in its face?” He’s a braver man than I, but then I’ve always known that.
Milne is two years older than rugger brother David and Kenny is another two behind him. How did the family home and its furnishings in Edinburgh’s Blackhall survive their early sporting development?
“I think the Calder household [Jim and Finlay] was a bit mad but I don’t remember us mucking around with a rugby ball. Cricket, though, we did play. Our father was a doctor and his surgery was attached to the house. One day, David bowled a lovely outswinger and I nicked it straight through the surgery window. There was a patient lying on the couch at the time and the ball fizzed past his ear. Dad went absolutely ballistic.”
At Heriot’s the sports options were rugby or cross-country running. “For me that was no choice at all so I chose rugby, although I did run the mile for the school. At first I was played at scrum-half but no one else could get the ball so I was put up to prop and that was me for the rest of my career.”
Although he could keep the ball for the entire PE session, Milne at this point wasn’t big. “I had a large frame but it hadn’t filled out. The Head of PE wouldn’t put me forward for the Scottish Schools because he thought I was too small. But in my late teens I worked for a year at Leith Docks lugging oil barrels about and that bulked me up.”
When he made his international debut against Ireland in 1979 he tipped the scales at just over 16 stone. “That went up to 18 and a half, what I’d probably call my fighting weight. But it was a tradition of the Murrayfield match programme back then that your original weight wasn’t changed, which was high amusing for my team-mates later.” In a funny way, then, Scotland’s heaviest were a bit like those actresses whose age is forever listed as 29. “How fit or unfit I was is another of those Bear myths. People who knew me would tell you I trained very hard. I had a decent amount of stamina but, as my game developed, scrummaging became key. I had innate strength; no need for any weight-training. And me being quite good at scrummaging allowed us to play lighter guys in the middle row who were really No 8s [Derek White, Iain Paxton] and be more fluid. Rugby is a balance. There would be little point having seven Iain Milnes – crikey, imagine that!”
What players ate wasn’t an issue in the pre-pro 1980s and he can reel off the menu for his first international squad gathering at the capital’s Braid Hills Hotel as if it was yesterday – “Prawn cocktail, sole goujons, fillet steak, selection of desserts.” What they drank wasn’t an issue either. “My philosophy was: train hard through the week, play the game, socialise. I probably went over the score a few times but, hey, I was a young man and I was enjoying myself.” On one such occasion he plonked himself on a table, reducing it to matchwood. And the cry went up: “New table over here, please.”
So would he like to be playing, and being paid for it, now? “Well, part of me is intrigued as to how good I could have been as a professional but I don’t think I would have had as much fun. The social side isn’t as vibrant – it just can’t be.”
Seven Iain Milnes would probably have been excessive, not least for furniture repairers, but one of them was absolutely crucial to Scotland, enabling the pack’s breakaway unit to be sprung or slick ball to be despatched to Roy Laidlaw, John Rutherford and beyond. And there was some nice recognition of this as recently as last autumn when he was honoured at a Paris reception for inductees to France’s Hall of Fame.
“It’s tradition for each intake to invite their most formidable opposite numbers to share in their awards. My citation went something like: ‘We tried to shift him and if all else failed we used to try punching him. That never worked either.’” Milne loved his jousts with the French, and none more so than in ’84, despite that being the most notorious encounter for “le sly dunt”.
“We’d got a good stuffing from them in the first half and, to be brutally honest, the Welsh referee did us a lot of favours and we were fortunate to still be in touch with them. Some saw [scrum-half Jerome] Gallion going off injured as a turning point but we were already doing well in the scrummage. I remember one scrum on the halfway line where we marched them right back. We started to dominate and normally when I got on top I was quite relentless. I would not give up.”
And that’s when the punches started? “Ach, they weren’t that bad, to be honest. Like a few things, they’ve been rather exaggerated. It was just the French way. You could punch through from the second-row in those days.” Is it true he never retaliated, not once throwing a punch of his own? “I must have been tempted once or twice but if the opposition were lashing it meant a) you’d got them worried b) they weren’t thinking about their game.” Best to count to ten – or think about fishing. Milne went on four tours of New Zealand, relishing each one for the ultimate rugby challenge of having to “play well to survive”. He must have done all right. On one famous, farcical occasion while playing against the West Coast for the 1983 Lions, he was penalised for pushing too hard. And at that Parisian gala night All Black Steve McDowall – “The greatest I ever played against” – returned the compliment when he admitted to Milne that New Zealand viewed Scotland as their biggest threat at the 1987 World Cup and the best scrummagers on the planet.
Unsurprisingly, he had to contend with a few injuries in his career and didn’t quite manage to participate in a second World Cup or a second Slam. But his biggest disappointment was not getting the chance to play in the same Scotland team as his brothers. “That would have topped everything,” he says. By way of compensation, the trio did form a Barbarians front-row – “a great occasion against East Midlands with our father being flown down to see it and me having to lie about the state of a broken foot because there was no way I wasn’t playing”. The Milne boys are close, with David in banking and Kenny in printing – buying his ink from big brother of course – and the three meet regularly “for a couple of beers and to see how the world is”.
Finally, The Bear is looking forward to another tussle with the French tomorrow and hoping for a Scotland win. “We’re not far away from being a very good team. Allan Jacobsen could become a wee bit of a legend, David Denton looks like a star in the making, there’s Richie Gray of course and Ruaridh jackson is another guy with personality. It’s just that the luck which saw that ball bounce right for [Tony] Stanger in 1990 is sending it into touch at the moment.” But before the match he’ll be fishing in the Lammermuirs with ex-French hooker Raphael Ibanez and he’s really looking forward to that.
“Why do I like fishing? It’s the outdoors, it’s nature, it’s trying to catch another 8½lbs wild trout like I once did up in Sutherland even though I know I probably never will. I like to fish with Kenny but I also like the solitude of the river. I’m very partial to my own company.
“Of course, fishing combined with rugby can be pretty special. I’ll never forget the day, during a Scotland tour of Canada, that we swung down to Seattle where our hotel was right next to a river. Alan Tomes and I hired some rods and, in our sunglasses and with some tins of lager by our side, were able to cast them straight out the bedroom window.” And of course, with fish, there’s absolutely no threat of a punch.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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