Alastair McHarg on the Old Firm, Paris & cancer
“The cricket was off so my pal said: ‘Come on, let’s go up to Ibrox.’ It was a full house, we were in the Rangers end and, when Celtic scored, the bottles and cans went flying and this poor sod standing along from us had his head cut open. We looked back up the terracing and one bloke had been isolated by the crowd who were all pointing at him. The polis waded in, dragged the culprit down to where we were and let the victim’s friends dispense justice.
“Meanwhile, at the Celtic end, down on the track, a stretcher was required for another casualty, but as he was being carted away the sheet blew off revealing his Rangers scarf, so he got the bottle treatment. The Rangers fans, bottle-throwers among them, shouted: “Animals!”
Alastair Ferguson McHarg isn’t known for football, or cricket. Back in the day some would contend he wasn’t known for rugby either, at least not as fusty traditionalists understood the game and the part locks played in it. Unorthodox, they called him. The loosest of loose forwards. But, boy, was he effective. Just ask Chris Ralston.
The England man was probably McHarg’s fiercest opponent during the casual thuggery of 1970s rugger and Ralston would say the same about the Scot. “We had a funny kind of mutual appreciation society. Chris was all elbows and I know he found me just as awkward. One match report summed up our jousts: ‘McHarg and Ralston didn’t win one lineout between them. The ball would always fly over their heads to the No 8s at the back. Meanwhile these two would fight each other, with the referee happy to let them get on with it.’”
A son of Ayrshire, like a fair number of the era’s notables, McHarg is a big, jovial fellow with perfect recall of the key moments of a 44-cap career despite all those bumps and bruises – not least a famous win in Paris where Scotland begin another Six Nations today. He’s 70 now but cycles one mile for every year, every weekend. He still works, having switched from water-pumps to tractor parts some years ago and, although he can’t conceive of ever stopping, will let his son John, youngest of his five children, make the trips to India now, seeking out crankshaft business.
For four decades, he and his wife Christine have lived in the Hampshire village of Medstead. He must like it, I say. “Well,” he smiles, “our three daughters were all born in Scotland. I made Christine fly back up north to make absolutely certain they would not be available to represent England at any sport. When she was pregnant with our middle girl her waters broke before getting on the plane, but we still went ahead with the trip and didn’t tell the airline. Joanne, by the way, went on to swim for Scotland at the 1990 Commonwealth Games. But then Christine got tired of the travelling and our boys were born down here. Stuart considers himself 100 per cent Scottish but as for this lowlife scumbag…” He mock-glares across the study at John who’s laughing. “He think he’s English and I hate him!”
But back to Chris Ralston. McHarg smiles as he finds the link between the locks locking horns and that Old Firm conflagration: “In both cases, officialdom stood back and let mayhem ensue.” He was desperately disappointed when his rival was selected ahead of him for the ’74 British Lions. But, six years ago, not having seen the man since their elbowing days, he was surprised and deeply touched to get a phonecall out of the blue.
“Chris said: ‘I hear you’re not grand.’ The cancer had started in my colon and spread to my liver. I’d been given a three per cent chance of survival. ‘Why don’t we meet in Winchester and have some lunch?’ he said. Andy Ripley, who’d just been diagnosed with prostate cancer, came too. I was very moved and we had a fine day – me with my cancer, Andy with his and Chris who just looked like he had cancer!”
McHarg was told his was inoperable. “There were too many tumors. And then there was a cock-up when I got poisoned after my colon leaked. There wasn’t much left of my liver and I said to the doctors: ‘If you can’t operate on it then don’t bother with the colon.’ There didn’t seem much point and I thought I was a goner. But then I got sent to another hospital in Southampton to see this amazing Scottish doctor in charge of liver resections. He cut out all but a tiny bit of my liver. He cut out three-quarters of my colon. Now I’m fine. From where I was in 2009 it’s unbelievable.”
McHarg considers himself fortunate to be here and still able to boss his youngest around and fortunate to have had a rugby career at all. Born in Irvine, his parents John and Lily were devout Baptists who frowned on sport, or at least the social side of rugby with the amount of alcohol swishing about in post-match booze-ups, a legitimate concern back then when you think about it.
“They were very, very strict. I remember my sister bringing home a cricket bat for my brother and I and the folks being unhappy about it. They didn’t believe in enjoying sport and certainly not on a Sunday. I couldn’t swim on a Sunday. The best I could hope for was a walk out past the Glasgow Gailes golf course with my father. The routine was church in the morning, Sunday School in the afternoon and in the evening more church.
“I wasn’t quite Eric Liddell but, when I got into the Scotland team, I was still living at home and leaving the house on a Sunday to drive through to Edinburgh for international week made me uncomfortable and I know they didn’t like that I was doing it. But their issue was with the demon drink rather than rugby itself. When myself and pals from school formed Irvine Rugby Club, Mum washed the strips and Dad couldn’t have been more proud when I won my first cap. Out of respect for them, when another of my teams, Ardrossan Accies, stopped off for a few pints after games in Glasgow, I’d stay in the car. When my parents visited us down south I made sure the bottles of wine were tucked away in the attic. I mean, I like the odd glass but I was never one of the major drinkers.”
Never mind the booze, there must have something in the Ayrshire water in the 70s for the county to produce so many sonsy rugby lads. “Mighty Mouse [Ian McLauchlan], Davie Shedden, Gordon Strachan and the Brown brothers [Gordon and Peter] – a fair old selection.” McHarg fell in love with the game when, turning up to watching brother John play, he was dragooned into making up the numbers. At Irvine Royal Academy - “A comprehensive despite its name,” he insists – he was a first XV-er while still in third year. Then in ’68 he went “from nowhere, just junior rugby” to a district game against the All Blacks and a Scotland debut in Dublin. “I remember looking along the line at Peter Stagg, Pringle Fisher and David Rollo, guys who’d been my heroes. Was I daunted? No, I couldn’t wait to play.”
The following year brought the victory in Paris which Scotland would then take 30 years to repeat, a 6-3 scoreline requiring desperate defending from the Scots. Says McHarg: “My abiding memory of that game is lying on the turf around halfway and peering through blades of grass as four Frenchmen bore down on our line with no Scots in sight. Oh no, I thought, they’re bound to score. But France were over-elaborate and wasteful. Chris Rea congratulated me on putting one of their guys into touch right at the death. I’d no memory of that so can only assume I was so dazed from the onslaught.”
The Scotsman’s rugby correspondent, Norman Mair, remarked of the sheer intensity of the last-ditch tackling: “Compared to it, Dunkirk in 1940 was a breeze.”
Jim Telfer scored the crucial try at the Stade Colombes. “Jim was a phenomenal motivator. With him in the team you could never back down. Mind you, he was parochial. If you were from a town of more than 3,000 of a population you were a city slicker. Living in London I was definitely one.” Mair got specific about McHarg’s contribution to the win, about how he “flew about the field as is his wont, to scandalise past generations of second-row forwards”. Other scribes of the time dubbed him “pleasingly eccentric” and concluded: “He was never where he should have been, but always exactly where he was needed.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment!” he chuckles. In the beginning he was a scrum-half, then a stand-off. “My early muscle memory was all related to back play and when I came into the back row, running wasn’t difficult for me. My options were: Do I jog across the park to a possible breakdown or do I really move and join up with the midfield?” He usually chose the latter, loved to roam and seemed to be making it up as he went along but, in fact, there was method in his marauding. “Before a game I tried to visualise every possible scenario.”
As McHarg is the first to admit, though, he could only be so loose because Gordon Brown was so tight. “My time in the Scotland team probably lasted longer because I had Broony next to me. We shared a room for seven years. He was a wonderful player and an absolutely smashing bloke with a great verve for life and what happened to him was tragic.
“I remember representing the SRU at a dinner at Lord’s cricket ground and being so pleased Broony was there as I hadn’t seen him in a while. ‘I’ve got this bloody groin I can’t get rid of,’ he said. It wasn’t a pulled muscle, though, it was cancer. That was emotional. The bonds between players of my generation are very strong. Because we’d shared moments of ecstasy and despair, the times when we get together are fantastic. I always loved meeting Broony, all the more because we were separated by the length of the country after living in each other’s pockets for so long. Suddenly those get-togethers weren’t going to happen anymore.”
Now McHarg is laughing because he’s recalling the on-tour Broon in riot-torn Argentina being given a diplomatic warning to avoid any mention of the incendiary topic of the Falkland Islands and wondering: “What have the Hebrides got to do with them anyway?” Same trip, McHarg was sat in a park enjoying the early evening sun when suddenly the cold steel of a soldier’s rifle was prodding into his neck. Things weren’t any friendlier out on the pitch. “The most violent games I ever played in.”
He was part of some epics, including the agonising 19-18 defeat by Wales in ’71, one of rugby’s most towering games, although he maintains: “The line judge cheated us out of a try.” The same year Scotland finally won at Twickenham to lay the ghost of Wilson Shaw. “On the bus through London to the after-match dinner I was looking at the England jersey I’d swapped and contemplating what we’d just achieved. Broony said: ‘Rip it up.’ So I did. Into 300 pieces. The England bus drew alongside and saw this. They weren’t happy. And do you know that when I bumped into their prop ‘Piggy’ Powell just recently, his first words were: ‘McHarg! You tore up our jersey!’”
France games were always notable. McHarg helped first-foot the Parc des Princes, helped in a ’74 win by plunging over for a try from Andy Irvine’s one-handed pass. Twice in a row in Paris, there were punch-ups straight from kick-off. McHarg once remarked that he played his whole career “enveloped in red mist”. He came out roaring to gain psychological advantage and against the likes of England’s Tony Bucknall it worked. “He was apprehensive of me, thought I was a loony.” But the French had fearsome characters like Armand Vaquerin, who would later lose his life playing Russian Roulette, and Gerard Cholley, an ex-army boxing champ anxious to show his right hook had lost none of its power. So plenty of battles in rugby, and in life, although McHarg has issues with the language surrounding cancer.
“I’m uneasy when victims are said to be ‘fighting’ the disease. It’s down to your genes and good fortune if you come through.” So he doesn’t think his physicality and bravery on the pitch stood him in good stead? “My belief is these have no bearing, that they give you kudos you don’t deserve. But my oncologist did tell me that if you’re the type who point-blank refuses to be beaten at anything your chances of survival can improve.”
His survival has been “life-changing”. Before, that red mist could descend at any time, like while driving, but not any more. “I stop and go: ‘Remember what happened six years ago – think how lucky you are.’ Well, apart from the time when this guy in front was being a complete idiot. I drove into the side of him!” Maybe, I suggest, those Baptist teachings proved valuable, abstemiousness helping his cause. “Perhaps. And I do believe that, in coming through it all, I had a lot of people praying for me.”
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