More tears for souvenirs

LIKE the send-off for another famous Scottish soldier, not a drum or a farewell shot will greet George Graham when he runs out for the last time as a rugby player at Netherdale on May 2. Nor, like Sir John Moore, is it likely that a stone will be raised in his honour.

What we can be sure of is that the 25-times capped Scotland forward will be sorely missed, that there may be the odd written eulogy, and that on that particular Friday night we can guarantee tears, bucketsful of them, mainly from the man himself in what he is happy to describe as one of his "emotional moments".

Prop forwards, particularly 37-year-old prop forwards, are not normally the neighbours of gratuitous sentiment, but Graham, whose life has plainly been moulded by some old-fashioned virtues, is an exception. This is a man who wept when he won his first cap for Scotland, wept a lot more - this time in the company of Stirling County team-mate Kevin McKenzie - when he left Bridgehaugh to go to rugby league, and even more on the occasion of Gary Armstrong’s last cap, at the World Cup of 1999. When he left Newcastle Falcons, to join the Borders at the start of this season, the tears flowed again. Those fans planning to watch Graham’s valediction, which doubles as the Borders’ final Inter-Pro game of the season, may be well-advised to arrive with a box or two of paper tissues.

The image of Graham and that archetypal wee hard man, McKenzie, crying into their beer in a Stirling public house is, on the face of it, an unlikely one, but it tells us more about Graham, his background, the brotherhood of rugby, and the nature of front-row fealties than any biography could. He tells that story, and the other weepie episodes, without abashment, with pride almost, but then being who he is he can get away with it. No-one is going to call him an old softie. Not to his face anyway.

Graham, who announced his retirement last week, was born and raised on the Raploch estate, the Stirling housing scheme that generally comes adorned with the prefix "infamous", or occasionally "notorious". Once the stomping ground of the equally infamous ‘Mags’ Heaney and the birthplace of the unarguably famous Billy Bremner, it was an upbringing that asked, and gave, no quarter. But one that, with his 11 years in the service of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and 22 years on the rugby field, was to define Graham’s life. His wife Jeannette - "the boss except when she’s not around" - also comes from the Raploch.

"Where I came from taught me determination," he says. "I wouldn’t say it was tough; you don’t see it as that when you grow up in it. But when you have been around and look back, it is as rough as any other place. But I am very, very proud to come from the Raploch. I have been away from there 20 years, but I still consider myself a Raploch man. I am the only guy to come out of Raploch to play for Scotland, and for a wee boy coming from a background like that, a great background like that, it was something special. It makes you more determined when you come from a place where you are not expected to do anything. It makes you rise out of it.

"The army taught me discipline and self-belief, and rugby taught me that the harder you work, the more benefits you get, and not just financial ones. There are trophies to be won and fame to be had, if that is what you are after. Personally, I just love it. I’d play for nothing."

Graham’s first Scotland cap, against Australia in November 1997 when he was two months off his 32nd birthday, took a long time coming, you might say, and arrived by a circuitous route. He joined the army at 16, going for an interview at the careers office simply to get away from his most-hated school subject, geography.

"I never started rugby until I was 15," he recalls. "I was into body-building at the time, but some Stirling County players used to come into the gym, and they persuaded me to have a go, and that’s how I started, with the under-18s at Stirling.

"I had 11 years in the army, and played for the army and combined services. They were very keen to keep me in and asked what it would take, and I said a post in Stirling. Two weeks later I was there, actually in the castle, right next to the Raploch. Fantastic. As soon as I got there, I phoned County."

Stirling County, featuring a rumbustious cast of characters that included Graham, McKenzie, Stewart Hamilton, Brian Ireland and Brian Robertson, were the phenomenon of club rugby in the late 1980s and early 1990s, going through a Division 2 promotion season unbeaten under coach Richie Dixon. Their memorable Division 1 title in 1994/5 was a triumph of bloody-minded parochialism allied to a redoubtable team ethic, but with professional rugby still an embryo and with a young family to consider, Graham had already departed.

"I had always thought my game and body type suited rugby league and I had already been approached a few years earlier by one of the Hull clubs. I’d been capped by Scotland B, but was getting a bit disillusioned because there were some guys getting in I thought I was better than. So I phoned up a friend at Carlisle, and he got us down for a hush-hush trial."

Dixon, a man Graham insists that he has "the greatest respect for", did his best to dissuade him, but to no avail. Graham was to spend five years with the Border Raiders as an aggressive, ball-handling prop, and in the company of such luminaries as the New Zealand half-back Clayton Friend and former Wales and British Lions centre Rob Ackerman. For the father of four, however, Carlisle was far from a land of milk and honey.

"I had a good time, but I had no trust for the directors, and often we didn’t get paid. You knew you weren’t going to get paid when the directors never turned up on Thursday. That should not happen in a semi-professional outfit, and I was very unhappy with that. I did play for Scotland at rugby league, but when union went professional I sent my CV to Newcastle and Dean Ryan - I’d been in the army with him - drove down, and I signed up for what turned out to be the best times of my rugby career."

That career, after one season with the fledgling Borders, is now close to an end. He insists that he will move into coaching, and prosper. "I have four games left at the end of the season, and that’s pretty much me. It’s time. Because I love rugby so much I could never see a time when I would never play. But I want to go out with folk thinking: ‘he was a good player,’ rather than people thinking: ‘he’s hanging on for the money.’

"Life after rugby? I don’t want to think about it. I’ll check that out when my heart stops ticking. I want to coach, and I think I’m good enough. As a PE instructor I was comfortable standing in front of people, commanding people’s attention and earning people’s respect. I have a few irons in the fire, but at the moment I am listening to people talking to me."

Gary Armstrong, for one, believes that his former Scotland, Newcastle and now Borders team-mate is a future Scotland coach. Until that day comes, we could do worse than try and bottle whatever fabulous essence runs through George Graham’s veins.