What a great feeling it is being back on the rugby sidelines

Last Saturday, for the first time in almost two years, I was able to go down to Philiphaugh to watch rugby: Selkirk v Musselburgh. It was a very good, entertaining match, with some fine rugby from both teams, and a handful of sparkling tries.
Spectators are now back at rugby grounds across Scotland.Spectators are now back at rugby grounds across Scotland.
Spectators are now back at rugby grounds across Scotland.

Victory for Selkirk 32-21 was of course pleasing; equally so were the sense of adventure with which they played and the quality of the tries scored, testimony to the work done by their coach, Scott Wight, former Melrose fly-half and member of the Scotland Sevens team.

In this, the first match watched from the touch-line for so long, I was also impressed by the speed of players into the tackle and the crunching nature of so many of these tackles. One never fully appreciates the physical intensity of the game when watched on television or even from high up in the stand. Hearing, as well as seeing, a tackle is different.

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I was already a member of Selkirk RFC when we moved from Edinburgh to the Borders 39 years ago. In Edinburgh I had mostly gone to Goldenacre, Heriot’s then having the most exciting team in the city with Andy Irvine at full-back, Bill Gammell on the wing, Alan Lawson at scrum-half and, for a couple of years, John Beattie at No 8, opportunities for dashing play being provided by a scrum anchored by the Mighty Bear, Iain Milne.

Selkirk rugby was equally entertaining, with the peerless John Rutherford running things at fly-half, while his half-back partner Gordon Hunter would have had more than four Scotland caps if he hadn’t coincided with Jedforest’s Roy Laidlaw. Iain Paxton had joined Selkirk from Glenrothes and would, like Rutherford be a Lion in New Zealand in 1983, both also starring in Scotland’s Grand Slam a year later. There were other doughty forwards at Philiphaugh then – props Paul Tomlinson and Tam Ramage and lock David Bell. It was a pretty good pack even if it couldn’t quite match Hawick’s “Green Machine” or Jim Aitken’s Gala pack with the great David Leslie in the back row alongside Derek White.

The Seventies and Eighties were indeed the glory years of amateur club rugby in Scotland and nowhere more so than in the Borders, Border League clubs providing 11 of the XV who in 1984 won Scotland’s first Grand Slam since 1925, three from Gala, three from Hawick, two from Selkirk, one each from Melrose, Kelso and Jedforest.

The introduction of National Leagues in the mid-Seventies when the SRU at last overcame and set aside the aversion to competitive rugby that for so long had it eying the Border League with deep suspicion, raised standards everywhere. In Glasgow, West of Scotland were still strong and the drive for higher standards led to the creation of Glasgow Hawks, an amalgamation of the Academicals and the High School clubs. In Edinburgh Heriot’s, Watsonians and Boroughmuir all flourished.

The Districts championship was fiercely contested and produced much good rugby even if played often in vile December and January weather, which sometimes led to double-header afternoons at Murrayfield, frost-free on account of the famous electric blanket.

The 20 years before the game was opened up to professionalism in the mid-90s may also be claimed as the high water-mark of the Borders Sevens circuit. Interest in this has been maintained by the creation of the Kings of the Sevens league table, but, except for Melrose, Sevens tournaments became less well-attended when shorn of the international stars who used to feature, giving children and adolescents the opportunity not only to watch their heroes, but often actually to speak to them in the course of the afternoon. There was in these halcyon years of the amateur club game a far stronger and more general sense of being part of a great rugby family than there can possibly be now.

It’s of course by no means all loss in the club amateur game, even if we who remember how it was may often sigh for the old days. Yet, even if the Scotland stars are at one or two removes distant from the club game, there are compensations, and some of these were very evident at Philiphaugh last Saturday. Even your average club player is fitter and more skilful than used to be the case. There were fewer forwards blowing hard or barely trotting from scrum to scrum that of yore, and the overall standard of handling was much higher than it used to be. One remembers how, even when commentating on an international, Bill McLaren would often chortle with scarcely suppressed laughter when a bulky prop found himself in possession of the ball with a clear space in front of him. Now props will have the ball in their hands more often than the glamour boys on the wing, and they mostly know what to do with it.

Times change and not all is for the worst. There was splendid rugby to hold one attention and stir one’s feeling at Philiphaugh on Saturday, and what better can one look for on a fine early Autumn afternoon?

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