GALA'S history is full of intriguing numbers and as the club toasts the 125th anniversary of its first sevens tournament, and reflects on its 'Magnificent Seven', a potential meeting with Melrose in today's final would provide a fitting end to the occasion.
Melrose is renowned the world over as the birthplace of sevens rugby, having launched the first tournament in 1883 by beating Gala – a result reversed in the next year's final. But it's of lesser renown that the famous Greenyards club was actually formed out of "Galashiels Football Club" six years earlier, an apparent fall-out resulting in a clutch of players taking the strips, minute book and posts from the club one night and creating a new pitch in a field in Melrose known as the Green Yard Feus.
The rift seemed to have been swiftly healed as both clubs became regular opponents, but the story has ensured a long-held rivalry between the towns along the River Tweed. Surprisingly, while they have contested the Melrose trophy many times, Gala and Melrose have met only twice in the final of the Gala tournament, almost a century apart – Gala winning in 1888 and Melrose triumphant in 1987.
Neither club has been a regular presence in finals since those heady days of the late 1960s and early 1970s for those of a 'Maroons' persuasion, when Netherdale rocked to a golden era around a small band of rugby players that came to be known as the Magnificent Seven. There is some debate as to exactly who made up that seven, as a good number of players would be part of tournaments as replacements, but there was no disputing their dominance in the abbreviated game. At a time when Scotland internationalists filled most sevens sides, and crowds of over 10,000 flocked to tournaments each week, Gala managed to reach 27 out of 32 finals between September, 1968 and the spring of 1972, and won 21 of them.
The Magnificent Seven was coined in 1969 after Gala demolished Loughborough Colleges 88-25 in their own final – the Colleges having won virtually every tournament they were invited to before then. But it was the team of Ken Oliver, Peter Brown, Johnny Brown, Dunc Paterson, Arthur Brown, John Frame and Drew Gill that took it on to a new level by winning 16 tournaments between 1970 and 1972, including three Melrose titles and three more successes at Gala.
Oliver died only last week, with more than 400 mourners paying their respects at his funeral on Thursday, but many of the team were at last night's 125th anniversary dinner, including arguably the quickest sevens player of them all, the winger Gill, who contributed countless tries among the near-300 scored in those 16 finals alone.
He retired last year after 33 years with The Scotsman Publications and he reflected on a rugby career that brought five Scotland caps, two tries against a World XV and a cart-load of sevens medals that few could match. "I was just 17 when I first played sevens," he said, "and it was such an honour because it was my own tournament, at Gala, and we reached the final. We lost in the end, to Hawick, but that was the start of my love affair with sevens rugby. They were exciting times to be playing rugby for Gala and the club still looks back on it as our golden era. That magnificent seven, like the Hawick seven in the early 60s, won everything basically. We all just seemed to gel together very well; we got on well together and had a lot of ambition to do well, and we had individual skills that complemented each other very well.
"We were that confident in ourselves that we could even take a wee rest during ties knowing others would up their work-rate to get us through. But when you think of the ties you played, the great finals against great internationalists from across the UK sometimes and further afield, and the great crowds we had, it was a real privilege to be part of that era." Melrose have always held its unique historic attraction, but they were rivalled in the 1950s, 60s and 70s for crowds, and not least due to the success of Hawick and Gala sevens. "The sevens gave a lot of Border clubs a big lift then," added Gill, "and as a player it not only helped you improve your game, but helped you get recognised by the Scotland selectors. They could see more of what you could do, although you still had to prove you could do it with half the space and time in XVs of course.
"Borders rugby was very much town-based as opposed to club-based and so you felt you were playing for the whole of Galashiels every time you ran out with the maroon jersey on."
The run came to an end at Earlston at the start of the 1972-73 season. The team was beginning to change and injuries intervened, yet when the SRU chose to celebrate its centenary with an international sevens tournament at Murrayfield in 1973, the three Browns, all unrelated, Frame and Gill joined a former Galalean in Stan Davidson and Colin Telfer in pulling on the blue jerseys for the occasion; Nairn MacEwan, another Gala player, was on the bench for the President's VII.
There is little doubt that that sevens success transferred into the international arena as five Gala players – PC Brown, the captain, Arthur Brown, Frame, Paterson and Jock Turner – had also played in the back-to-back internationals held with England in 1971; the only time Scotland have beaten England twice in a week.
Oliver had played the year before and Gill's chance came in another one-off capped international, in 1973. He certainly took it, scoring two tries up against the legendary All Black Grant Batty as Scotland faced a World XV made up largely of the pick of southern hemisphere players, and won 27-16. "That was one of the best periods of my rugby career," he said. "Playing for Scotland is what every player wants to do, and to play with a great Scotland team and against class players from all over the world, score two tries and win, you couldn't have dreamt a better debut."
While accepting the proud Borders club may never field a similarly stunning sevens team of internationalists in the new professional era, one senses the club's tournament may be emerging from a period in conflict with professionalism and fixture congestion. And, of course, at the heart of that will always be the rivalry with a certain neighbour that still sports those original black-and-yellow jerseys of 130 years ago.