Obituary: Gary Callander, formidable rugby player who captained national side and Kelso

Gary Callander, rugby player. Born: 5 July, 1959 in Edinburgh. Died: 5 December, 2021 in Melrose aged 62

Gary Callander, flanked by Gavin Hastings (left) and Roy Laidlaw (right), before the Wales v Scotland match in February 1988

Gary Callander was a Scottish rugby internatonalist who won six caps at hooker in the 1980s while playing for Kelso and captained the team five times, which spoke volumes not only for his leadership qualities but also his standing in the game. It was his misfortune to play at the same time as the exceptional Colin Deans, resulting in a relatively modest total of caps at a time when tactical substitutions were not permitted.

He also captained Scotland on a tour of Spain and France in 1986 while a year later represented the Barbarians and was part of the Scotland squad at the inaugural World Cup in New Zealand.

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Domestically Kelso, whom Gary also captained, was central to his career and he was pivotal to the Poynder Park outfit’s raft of success in the late-1970s and 1980s. His roll of honour included two Border League titles, two Scottish First Division League championships and five Melrose 7-a-side wins. A formidable player, he brought a hard-edged mindset to the front row together with a wealth of technical knowledge of all aspects of the game.

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Gary Callander was born in Edinburgh to parents Alexander and Mary, née Taylor. With older sister Linda he was brought up in Kelso where his father was a farm worker and mother a bookkeeper. His sporting genes may have derived from his mother who was Scottish 100 yards champion in 1952. He attended Kelso High School where he began playing rugby, leaving at 16 to begin an electrical apprenticeship and initially playing for Kelso Harlequins. Soon he was playing for Kelso 1st XV and continued till the late 1980s when back problems developed.

In 1981 he represented South of Scotland against Romania and five months later made an international debut in Bourgoin Jaillieu, Lyon for Scotland ‘B’ against their very strong French counterparts who won comfortably.

Another ‘B’ cap followed against Ireland before Gary made his full international debut against Romania in Bucharest in 1984, praised in one report for ‘a notable debut in the loose’ and being favourably compared to Deans in various facets of his play. But the Hawick man was to prove difficult to dislodge, with Gary’s next cap not coming till 1988 by when it was reckoned he had sat on the bench for Scotland more than 20 times.

On the domestic front he was the principal catalyst for Kelso’s success, the team winning its first Border League title in 50 years in 1985/6 under his captaincy, and repeating that a year later, clinching the title with a first win at Hawick in 60 years. They almost made it three in a row in 1987/8, losing to Jedforest in a play-off by one point.

Borders success was topped off by national success with Kelso winning the Scottish First Division Championship consecutively in 1988 and 1989, Gary’s input being crucial to those triumphs, a hugely significant achievement for a town of 5,500 people and one that gave him particular pleasure and pride.

Prior to these league victories, Kelso with Gary at the helm had enjoyed success at 7s, clinching notable wins at the ‘blue riband’ Melrose tournament.

They won it for the first time ever in 1978, the first of five Melrose winners’ medals for then 18-year-old Gary. Others followed in 1980 and three consecutively from 1984 onwards, not to mention three losing finals before then.

Further afield at the Hong Kong 7s in 1982, he led the Scottish Border Club to the final and narrow defeat by Australia, after beating the All Blacks in the semi. He was an astute exponent of 7s, with his excellent positional play, good hands and set piece contribution.

Such expertise at the abbreviated game was recognised in his appointment as captain of Scotland’s 7s squad to play in Australia’s Bicentennial tournament in Sydney in 1988.

In ‘15s’ he was recalled to Scotland colours for a non-cap game against a French XV in Galashiels in 1987 before playing all Scotland’s Five Nations’ games in 1988 as captain, including a memorable win over France. His final cap came later that year captaining the team against Australia, by which time he was having problems with his back, causing him to wind down playing.

Coaching was the next logical step for someone who had always been a deep thinker about the game. Demanding and always setting high standards, Gary coached Haddington, Gala, Watsonians, Kelso, Scottish Students and, briefly, Boroughmuir. With Watsonians he won the Scottish 2nd Division title in 2002 before leading them to the Scottish Cup Final in 2003.

In 1980 he married Diana Wight with whom he had two children – Torrie and Becky – but the marriage ended in divorce. After establishing his own electrical business he later worked in building supplies with former Kelso teammate Bob Hogarth.

His interest in and enthusiasm for rugby continued but increasingly severe back problems made life difficult for him over the last ten years or so. Golf, which he had played to a single figure handicap at the Hirsel, Coldstream, was no longer manageable.

Over that period he received immeasurable support from rugby friends especially Kevin Liddle of Jedforest, Finlay Calder and Roger Baird, with Roy Laidlaw also helping.

Roger recalled how Gary had “Unparalleled knowledge of rugby and was integral to all the Kelso success. He was great fun to be with and a very effective ‘mickey taker’, leading you along with a story only for you to realise too late you were the butt of the joke! Gary also rated himself as a ‘crooner’ and would launch into Sweet Caroline’ and Johnny Cash numbers at parties.”

He is survived by his mother, children and three grandchildren.

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