Interview: Roy Laidlaw on his Scotland career and rugby family

Ifeel terrible, a total killjoy, for I have it in my power to explode a wonderful myth. Not the one about Santa Claus – he really does exist – I mean the legend of Roy Laidlaw and what he was doing right after Scotland had won the 1984 Grand Slam.

Ifeel terrible, a total killjoy, for I have it in my power to explode a wonderful myth. Not the one about Santa Claus – he really does exist – I mean the legend of Roy Laidlaw and what he was doing right after Scotland had won the 1984 Grand Slam.

Among the bundle of cuttings I’ve brought down to Jedburgh there’s lovely, romantic talk of the great scrum-half getting straight back to work as an electrician and being required to rewire the public toilets in his home town. Listen, I want to believe this yarn like you do. It would stand as supreme testimony to magnificently modest sportsmen. But I remember joiner-to-trade Peter Dods telling me that on the Monday following the triumph he was in a park in Galashiels hanseling new municipal cludgies. Surely even Hollywood at its most fairlytale fanciful, were it to make a movie about an amateur-days triumph, would stop short of positioning two of the heroes in the most unprepossessing of surroundings, 13 miles apart, flushed with success though they may have been.

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“Ach, I think Rud got a wee bitty carried away,” says Laidlaw. He means John Rutherford, his half-back partner, who is indeed quoted in the accounts. “I was aye right back to work after internationals but toilet duty had been the season before after we’d beaten France in Paris. What do you think, though? Should we let the facts get in the way of a good story? I dinna mind you keeping the thing going.”

Agreed. I won’t tell, dear reader,
if you won’t. And anyway I cannot be disappointed this afternoon because I’m getting to spend two hours in Laidlaw’s company and he’s full of fun and fond reminisce about his era of rugby. “Do you remember that game against England at Twickenham, the yin with the streaker?” he says. “It was half-time and we were all stood round listening to Jim [Aitken, the captain] when the lassie ran past. One of the guys said ‘Nice pair’ and Jim growled: ‘That’s enough. Nae mair lookin’ round’.”

Those were the days when the teams stayed on the pitch at the interval, the days, too, when internationals were played in godforsakenly gloomy January. “Another time Jim Renwick was burstin’ on a pee but he couldn’t leave the pitch. We got into a tight huddle and he knelt doon and did it.” Laidlaw, capped 47 times and now 64, ponders the liquid consumption of the 1980s rugby man. “So a slice of orange at half-time then a can of beer at the end of the match. On to the bus, where we got given miniatures of whisky. Into the hotel and straight out again to meet the supporters in the pubs. Back to the hotel for dinner, more beer and wine. That was our complete refuelling programme!”

Our chat begins with pop music. “I’ve known Roy for almost 50 years,” Rutherford had told me on the phone beforehand, “and I thought he couldn’t surprise me anymore. But I had no idea he was such a big Beatles fan.” Laidlaw is just back from a pilgrimage to the Fab Four’s Liverpool with his wife Joy. They visited the Cavern both nights and now this giant of rugby, all 5ft 6ins of him, is on his feet illustrating the low-slung vibe of the historic hop.

He says: “I’ve always loved the Beatles although can’t pretend I watched them on Ready Steady Go as a nipper. We didn’t have a TV and there was no record player in the house but anyway I was always outside climbing trees and playing rugby. Just recently since retiring, though, I’ve been playing their music all the time. It gets me quite emotional and Hey Jude on the car stereo will have great big bloody tears streaming down my face.” Joy was able to make the Liverpool trip after an illness. Earlier this month Laidlaw attended a charity dinner for Doddie Weir who’s battling motor neurone disease. He’s currently praying for other friends, too.

Then he tells a story about “Jeddart” which he thinks illustrates the town’s love of rugby but – though he wouldn’t say this – is really about its adoration for the little guy at the base of the dark blue scrum who instigated those firecracker breaks: “When I was on Scotland duty and missing my work it was tough for Joy and the kids. There was no money coming into the house but friends would invite them round for supper, which was a fantastic thing. And my club Jed-Forest were brilliant too. Every so often they’d send up an envelope containing a wee bitty cash.

“Someone I’ve been thinking about recently is my old employer, Bert Dawson. In international week I was aye itching to finish up at 4pm on the Wednesday. But that would leave him manning the fort and I felt right guilty about that. It was worse during the tours. When I went away with the Lions [the 1983 expedition to New Zealand] he didn’t see me for three months. Bert is in his eighties now and I make a point of visiting him and his wife every month. He’s just had a knee replaced so I’m doing odd jobs for him like clearing the leaves out of his rhones. It’s the very least I can do.”

Rugby, Laidlaw declares, was his passion. “I dinna want to boast but I was honest, I was hard-working and I was pretty tough. And coming from Jeddart I had to be. Our club was small compared with Hawick and Gala. They had upwards of 20,000 folk in their towns; we had 4,000. It was a struggle every time we went on to the park.”

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Roy and Joy have three sons, all of whom played rugby with two making the sport their careers. The youngest, Chris still turns out for Boroughmuir and is a school development officer in Dunbar, while the oldest, Clark, is in charge of the All Black Sevens, which is some honour for a Scot. “Our other boy Scott is the most like me, happy-go-lucky, a joiner. ‘I must be among the top ten joiners in the world,’ he’ll say.” Then, perpetuating the dynasty considerably, there’s Laidlaw’s nephew Greig. Uncle Roy is full of admiration for the Scotland scrum-half. “Maybe Greig doesn’t have all the running skills Rud and I had but he’s no slouch. There are so many other fine things about his game. For instance he’s brilliant at reading play. He’s gutted he’s injured right now but hopefully he’ll be back for the Six Nations.”

The front room is crammed with family photos and “Get well soon” cards for Joy with the flowers in the fireplace a gift from Rutherford. One of the greatest double-acts in Scottish sport, Selkirk’s Rud and the one Bill McLaren remarked was “like a baggy up a Border burn” are if anything tighter than they were in their pomp. They established a world record appearing at Nos 9 and 10 together and now they phone or text each other every week. Don’t know about you but I’m cheered by this, as much as I ever was by their brilliance in dark blue. It’s touching, corinthian, genuine – and far removed from the roaring banter of the pundits’ studio.

I have to work hard, though, to uncover the “secret” of their success. Not getting very far with Rutherford last year, I’m finding Laidlaw an even tougher nut. The subject of much purple prose and lyrical rhapsody from the press benches concerning their flair and telepathy, Laidlaw’s quiet smile mirrors that of his friend when I mention the theory they really could find each other in the dark. “I don’t know why we clicked but we did,” Laidlaw says. “We first played together for the South Under-21s and got on well right away. But with Scotland we never went to a quiet corner of the training park to work on moves, calls and the like. I guess the thing we both had was we loved to run and we loved to break defences. But you know, I had a wee weakness on my passing. Sometimes Rud would get the ball along the ground. Once I missed him out completely. Thankfully Jim Renwick picked up and dropped a goal!”

Maybe Rutherford and Laidlaw were destined to dovetail so brilliantly. Consider the evidence: “My birthday is 3 October, Rud’s is the 4th,” says Laidlaw. “We’re both the middle of three boys, having had one parent who left the west of Scotland to live in the Borders. When we both had two boys of our own I phoned Rud to say Joy was pregnant and two days later he found out his wife Alison was expecting. We both had a third son and now all our grandchildren are girls. Oh, and I 
nearly forgot: we both scored seven tries for Scotland.”

Here’s some more Jeddart romance for you: Laidlaw’s very first rugby ball was found in the street by his grandmother, outside the mill where she worked. Could that story possibly be any more Borders-esque? Surely there was an egg in every gutter in this town, I say. “Not really, no one could afford the leather ones. The sheepskin factory was across the road from my primary school and I used to nip over at lunchtimes for a biscuit. She kept them in the office safe, for some reason. Anyway the ball was never claimed and I got it.”

Granny Laidlaw, known as Peggy and the head of the dynasty, loved the game. She was in the crowd at Murrayfield in 1925 when Scotland marked the opening of the stadium with their first Grand Slam. And, having watched Roy rise through the Riverside ranks, she was there to see her grandson’s team repeat the feat in ’84. “Granny was a character, all right. Her husband died when my dad was only four. She never got in tow with anybody else and dedicated her life to my parents and us Laidlaw boys. She could be strict, though. Once me and my wee brother Davie, Greig’s dad, were causing a rumpus, wrestling about on the floor. She grabbed a wooden spoon and skelpted us on our bare legs.

“She lived to 97. I remember the party we had for her when she was 85. Jed-Forest were playing West of Scotland that day and I took a bang on the head. The cut was bad so I had to come off. I was sitting in the dressing-room when I heard this voice in the corridor: ‘Where are ye aboot then?’ It was our granny. She’d come to inspect the wound, to make sure I was fit for the big bash. Blood was loupin’ out of it but she said: ‘Ach, that’s nothing verra much. I’ll see you the night’.”

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Drive. The self-effacing Laidlaw will admit to possessing it, though he’s quick to stress that Greig has it too, as did Gary Armstrong, another product of Jedburgh’s famed scrum-half factory
who went on to captain Scotland. Drive was certainly in evidence during all those internationals where he sat on the bench, 13 in all, waiting for his chance, which eventually came at the age of 26. “If this doesn’t sound too big-headed, I never thought I wouldn’t get a game. I twice got invited to go to rugby league but turned it down because running out at Murrayfield had always been my dream.” When the honour finally arrived was he nervous? “No. I was aye more anxious at Riverside than I ever was playing for Scotland. There was such a load on me at Jed, hoping our forwards weren’t going to be shoved back. And if we lost we had to face the local worthies in the High Street: ‘Aye, you didna play verra weel on Saturday, Roy!’”

There were significant staging-posts on the road to Laidlaw’s Slam, including first wins in a long time at Cardiff Arms Park and Twickenham and a first-ever victory in the southern hemisphere, defeating Australia.
Lansdowne Road was a favourite venue. He’d scored three tries at Ireland’s home before the Triple Crown game when he grabbed two more, all of them at the same end, same spot, which became known as “Laidlaw’s Corner”. But then he took a blow to the head and, freakishly, his replacement Gordon Hunter broke his jaw colliding with a spectator at the final whistle. “Was it sore? Do you mean: is it still? The doctors called it footballer’s migraine.” Would our man recover in time for the showdown with France? Pound for pound the bravest – that’s what coach Jim Telfer said about him. Still, a nation held its breath. Laidlaw ran out at Murrayfield again, can’t remember much about the game, believes he did “nothing spectacular” during it, but the Slam was won.

There was something else deeply significant – the Lions tour of the previous year. Even though all four Tests were lost and not all eight Scots in the party made the big team. The tartan bloc returned emboldened, having shed the last vestiges of inferiority complex. Four months later New Zealand came to Murrayfield and the 25-all draw stands as our best-ever result against the All Blacks, tonight’s opponents for the current team. “We could have won the game, too. Peter [Dods] – what an underrated player – had a kick at the end which just slid past the post.”

Laidlaw grew up with the Lions. “Mentally and physically, the tour was the making of me. And while I don’t want to be critical of other guys there because we can all make mistakes but seeing the best of the other home nations up close there were Welsh boys who didn’t deserve to be playing ahead of The Bear [Iain Milne] and some of the English lot really weren’t that tough. These were useful things to know.”

He returned from the expedition feeling taller but when he stood next to the lofty Rutherford was exactly the same height as before. He laughs. “Rud was a dream to watch, wasn’t he? Poetry in motion. And Bill McLaren never got confused between us. Rud was ‘tall, elegant, brilliant sidestep, what a touch-finder… oh, they’ll be cheering down in Selkirk tonight’. Me, I was the wee Border terrier, aye ferreting away!”

Every great team needs one, though, and Scotland had the best.