Interview: Alan Tomes on Scotland’s first trip to Japan to play their ‘wee guys’

High on a hill above Gateshead, Sir Anthony Gormley’s statue of the Angel of the North stands proud, imposing and understandably a bit expressionless. Down in the town Alan Tomes, just a smidgin less proud at 6ft 5ins, is laughing as he remembers Scotland’s first-ever rugby
sojourn to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Jubilant scenes at Murrayfield in 1984, with lock Alan Tomes in the foreground, as Scotland are confirmed Grand Slam winners in 1984 following victory over France. Picture: SNS
Jubilant scenes at Murrayfield in 1984, with lock Alan Tomes in the foreground, as Scotland are confirmed Grand Slam winners in 1984 following victory over France. Picture: SNS

The giant lock loomed over Japan in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium 42 years ago, the hosts being diminutive in size and, back then, game development. It was a non-cap international but don’t be thinking this was some sort of go-as-you-please, jumpers-for-uprights, jockstraps-for-22s affair. Scotland kept things official and Tomes had a sombre duty to 
discharge – he was the judge.

Well, semi-official and semi-sombre. Touring teams far from home will establish kangaroo courts to mete out joke justice for comedy crimes. At least they used to do this, horsehair wigs optional. Players self-policed, out of sight of anyone in an SRU blazer, to alleviate boredom. You might suppose the malarkey was good for what these days is called “bonding”, although that was never an issue for men of the amateur era. On this particular occasion, the morning after a swish function, M’learned friend from Hawick was presiding in the case against West of Scotland prop Gerry McGuinness.

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“A few of us were a bit disconcerted
when the starter arrived at this do and it was pineapple with a lotus leaf on top,” says Tomes. “And Gerry was even more disconcerted after he’d eaten it. He scoffed the lot, leaf as well, which was only supposed to be decoration. His throat swelled up and he started to panic. We tried to spoon ice cream into him but he ended up having to go to hospital. It was quite 
serious for a while.

“But when he recovered he obviously had to go before the court. He was charged with gluttony and found guilty. We’d got this big cake and the plan was to shove Gerry’s face in it but he ended up eating that too.”

Scotland won the game by a whopping 74-9, Edinburgh Wanderer Bill Gammell on the wing bagging four tries. “I was 
disappointed I didn’t get one myself,” adds Tomes, pondering the difference between the Japan he faced and the side standing in the way of Scotland’s World Cup progress, should the game beat the typhoon and go ahead. “In 1977 they were a decent team but they were wee guys; we were bigger and stronger. They were all pure Japanese whereas now they’ve pulled in a lot of players from other countries. Everyone does that now of course, including us.”

We’ll return to that tour but let’s remind ourselves of the player nicknamed Toomba who won 48 caps for Scotland, was a 1984 Grand Slammer, toured South Africa with the Lions. He talks in a thick Geordie accent having lived in England’s north-east most of his 67 years but he’s a Hawick lad, son of a mill worker.

“I was born there and moved south aged eight when Lyle & Scott opened a factory in Gateshead and appointed Dad to run it. It made Y-fronts, so there you go.” Soon a bit of a legend started going round Hawick, the excited whispers growing ever louder, after Grandfather Jim telling workmates at his mill about this strapping youngster, ripping up county rugby over the border.

“Dad got a phonecall from [club stalwart] Robin Charters: ‘How big’s this boy of yours, Charlie?’ I was 6ft 5ins so I got asked up to Mansfield Park for a trial. Robin told me to go into the changing-room and introduce myself. Fourteen other guys wondered: ‘Who’s this big bugger?’ I was a bit forward, calling myself a replacement for Jim Scott. Plus, Jim Renwick was in full flow with a funny story and I interrupted him. Not an auspicious first day!”

It took Tomes time to adjust to the demands and expectations of the Green Machine but he eventually got up to speed. “Hawick played to win. Anything less was seen as total failure. At my old club, Gateshead Fell, there was no coaching. Anything I knew I learned myself. I used to get booted a lot because I was big and a target. So I became a fighter, which Hawick didn’t need, and in the early days I gave away a lot of stupid penalties.”

Tomes and Renwick became firm friends and it was the latter who christened him Toomba. “We’re different in that he’s right outgoing and I never have been but we share the same sense of humour. When a coach before a game would say, ‘This is the most important game you’ll ever play, boys’, we’d both have to study the floor to avoid making eye contact with each other
and laughing. I mean, that sort of statement was trotted out quite a lot. I remember Nairn MacEwan hammering into me how [Wales’] Geoff Wheel was going to punch me, kick me and trample all over me – so what was I going to do about that? I said: ‘Let him have the ball if he wants it so bad.’

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“Mind you,” Tomes adds, “Jim’s stories are a right laugh but are they all true?” I quote a couple from Renwick’s memoirs, including one from that 1977 Scotland tour of the Far East when some wag is supposed to have grabbed the chief steward intercom and announced: “We will shortly be arriving in Bangkok. This has been a fully automated
flight, but don’t worry, ladies and gentlemen, nothing can go wrong… wrong… wrong.” Toomba says: “Was that not another
flight, a different tour? I mean, they were all great fun. Scotland travelled well 
when I played and that wasn’t the case with every country.”

What, then, of Renwick the tourist staging
his own version of Hawick’s Common 
Riding at various international locations if rugby was keeping him away from the momentous occasion? “I don’t remember that but I’ve got to admit it sounds like him.”

Tomes’ commitment to the town team, travelling up and down the A68, was huge. “It took me a year, working in a bank, to save up for my Morris Minor. I used to drive it without brakes because the road was so quiet. Coming back after training I sometimes wouldn’t meet another car until I’d passed Newcastle Airport.” He played almost 400 games for the club, a few after he was supposed to have hung up his boots. “Jim used to say that Hawick only had to shine the Bat-Signal once over Carter Bar and I’d jump out my slippers and into my car and be up the road in time for kick-off. That was a good joke and pretty much true.”

I ask Tomes for a favourite tour memory and he plumps for Canada with Scotland when he and room-mate Iain Milne got to enjoy some Seattle downtime. “Our hotel was right on this bay and fishing was allowed from the rooms. Reception gave out rods and even bait but they said no guests had caught anything for months. So there we were, the Bear and me, sitting on the balcony in our shades with our beers, and I hooked this big cod. He couldn’t believe it. I’ve never heard anyone laugh so much.”

Tomes’ first rugby expedition had been to New Zealand in 1975, just a year after his introduction to Hawick, and he got to wear the dark blue against Otago, although as so often happened at the Carisbrook venue
known as the House of Pain, the visitors lost.

His Scotland debut proper came in the following year’s Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield, a famous 22-12 triumph highlighted by a thrilling team try rounded off by Alan Lawson. Just like Jim Calder’s score against Wales in 1982 it featured three rampaging forwards; just like that one in Cardiff the final pass came from our man.

Rampaging forwards are of course a fine Scottish tradition. But when I suggest this might have been borne out of necessity, to counter packs like England’s being able to rely on sheer bulk and grunt, Tomes wonders if it’s more to do with national characteristic and preferred ideology. “I remember making a 50-yard break for the Barbarians and the attitude of my English colleagues was: ‘Middle-rows just don’t do that.’ England have never played a loose game whereas, bulk or no bulk, Scots have always wanted to have a go.” Tomes’ desire to do this was a gift for Bill McLaren who in commentary addressed him as “the mobile lighthouse from Hawick” and a player who “burrows like a giant mole”.

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Tomes’ rugby philosophy – although he wouldn’t term it such – is unassuming, unfussy, get the job done. Could he, after being introduced to the Queen beforehand, have scored in ’76 himself? “Folk say that but the pass was on.” He was never nervous before internationals: “I was always sure about what I was going to do. Seventy-thousand folk couldn’t influence that.” Weren’t there even a few butterflies before the Slam decider against France? “No. It boiled down to this: if I did my job, and everybody else did theirs, we might win.”

Jim Telfer, the coach’s toughness, didn’t unnerve Tomes. “He was a Borderer. He drove us on.” He doesn’t reflect on his career overmuch. “I don’t look back although of course I’m proud that we won the Slam. When did I think it might happen? After the first game in Wales, actually. But I only told [SRU president] Adam Robson, another Hawick man.” Having seen his son Sean grow up to play for Newcastle Falcons among others he prefers to watch boys’ rugby than make the journey up to Murrayfield – which, he points out, would probably require the use of the brake pedal now. And Tomes can’t stand TV pundits. “I always kill the sound. How do they know what’s going to happen? It’s just waffle.”

There’s no shortage of that around at the moment and of course Tomes’ World Cup in 1987 was a more modest and almost innocent affair. “None of us knew what was going to happen. We wondered if the tournament might be quite violent. It wasn’t.”

So, back to Japan, a country that seems to get more serious about rugby with each passing day. The year before Scotland’s 
visit they’d played at Murrayfield, losing 34-9 but impressing Tomes with their scrummage. Thailand, the first port of call in ’77, was a bit more relaxed when the 
visitors touched down there.

The Scots, in their tartan breeks, searched the airport to no avail for a liaison officer in formalwear until spotting a fellow in T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops bearing the greeting: “F*** work, go fishing.” That couldn’t be their man, could it? It was.

Tomes adds: “We had to wear our Number Ones all of the time, even to visit the temples in Bangkok where it was absolutely boiling.” The team summoned enough energy to whip a side made up of expats and then moved on to Hong Kong. “We won the game there, too, but that was another hot one. By that stage we were consuming 16 salt tablets a day. Ian Barnes and I lay on the shower floor after the match for an hour but we couldn’t cool down.”

For making the trip, for all their efforts and for flaunting the tartan, the Japanese presented the Scots with Seiko watches, early digital models, which because of amateur rules might have had to be left behind, but eventually the players were allowed to bring the gifts home. And before departure, according to Renwickian legend, there was an outing to Tokyo discotheque where John Lennon and Yoko Ono were in attendance.

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“If true!” laughs Tomes who missed the excursion. Ah, but he does have something
in common with the Beatle and his 
Japanese wife: bed-ins.

The final tale-from-the-tours concerns the 1980 Lions and once again the bold Jim was by Tomes’ side. “The pair of us had got fed up with fancy hotel food so we thought we’d stage a daft protest in our room. We told the rest of the guys we were going to eat nothing but beans on toast for as long as we could. They took it in turns to look in on us and give us moral support. It was a good laugh!”