Derek Stark on west coast rugby

THE HOOTER sounds and a sold-out Scotstoun goes wild as Glasgow Warriors beat Munster by a single point to win through to tonight’s RaboDirect Pro12 final.
Derek Stark scoring a try for Scotland at Murrayfield. Picture: Ian RutherfordDerek Stark scoring a try for Scotland at Murrayfield. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Derek Stark scoring a try for Scotland at Murrayfield. Picture: Ian Rutherford

And the reaction of a 12-year-old boy most fascinated Derek Stark and made him think that a great football city might be easing up on its grand obsession ever so slightly.

“This lad was crying tears of joy,” says the former Scotland winger. “The Warriors guys are his sporting idols; it’s their photos he has on his bedroom wall. I’m not saying that Glasgow could one day switch codes – even though this isn’t a vintage era for the Old Firm, that’ll never happen – but I think we’re definitely getting somewhere when we start to see a generation emerge which makes its own choices and decides to follow rugby.”

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Where will this boy be today? With his dad on a plane chartered by our man and bound for Dublin and the showdown with Leinster. He’s a bit of a huckster is Starky. When he drums up a crowd these days it’s only for sport and nearly always rugby, but there was a time when he had Bill Clinton on speed-dial – Al Gore, Kofi Annan and Bill Gates, too. Well, their agents at any rate.

The events company he ran with former athlete and fellow son of Ayrshire Brian Whittle – the one-shoe gold medallist from the 1986 European Championships – diversified into international statesmen and business gurus. “Clinton in Glasgow worked well but trying to get him back to Aberdeen was our downfall and we lost a lot of money to a guy in Denmark,” says Stark. “That was extremely unfortunate but Brian and I are still good pals. The other week I was at his 50th birthday party. And I was best man at his last two weddings!”

Stark meets me off the train in Troon and on a sparkling day we find a coffee shop. Now 48, he is a bit beefier than when he ran the wing for Scotland in the 1990s and was officially the fastest man in rugby. Understandable, really, given all that hosting and toasting. He reckons the politico and the prop are not so different when they are on their feet in front of a well-fed audience. “They’ve each got their tried and tested anecdotes. I went to hear Clinton speak when he came to Edinburgh later. He told a story about sitting between Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu at a dinner and how they kissed and made up after being at loggerheads for so long. I suppose that was a bit like Gregor Townsend and Sean Lineen with me stuck in the middle!”

Stark is a good guy for a chat about rugby in Glasgow, having played his part in earlier triumphs for city teams, but also because of what he calls his “incestuous” relationship with the Warriors’ current coach and the one who went before him. “Gregor was my best man at my wedding. Shade [Munro, Townsend’s No 2] and Sean were my ushers. I’m godfather to Sean’s youngest. When Gregor was given the job, replacing Sean, it surprised both of them. Things were frosty for a while but they’ve sorted it out.

“Listen, I’ve got huge respect for the pair of them. When I played for Boroughmuir I stayed with Sean so often his wife decided their spare room should be called ‘Starky’s room’. When all those antipodeans came over to Edinburgh to play rugby he organised Christmas dinner for them. There wasn’t much money kicking about in the game at that time but he put 400 quid on the table. He did a lot of good things that people never got to hear about.

“If you ask anyone, and Gregor would agree, Sean built Glasgow up. He signed a lot of the players – the Lamonts and the Evanses – and they all speak highly of him. But Gregor has taken the team to another level. Everyone is pushing in the right direction and there’s a great club mentality now. Some of his selections have been unbelievable. I mean: eight changes? You think: ‘Jeezo, that’s a lot’. But he hasn’t been wrong yet.” Isn’t that what he was like as a player, always with an eye for the outrageous? “Well, I do find it hilarious watching him now. In his playing days he was last to turn up anywhere. Now he’s the biggest stickler for timekeeping. I think he’ll definitely be Scotland’s coach one day. This is his apprenticeship and I’m sure that’s ultimately what he’d love to do.”

Stark grew up in Kilmarnock in a mainly football environment. Pockets of rugby resistance were operated by fierce devotees and one such was Campbell Bone, head of PE at Kilmarnock Academy. “He was a bit of a Jim Telfer character: ‘What are you doing playing football?’ He put the fear of death into you but if you fancied rugby he was inspirational.”

Stark’s younger brother Alan preferred football, trained with Rangers when John Greig was manager and joined Kilmarnock on an S-form. The Stark boys worked in their parents’ hotel and were very close but in 2001 Alan, by then working for a drinks firm, was killed in a road accident. “He’d crashed his car and got out only to be struck by a lorry. It was terrible. I was at the pictures when I got the call. My phone kept ringing and ringing and I thought: ‘This is probably not going to be good but I’d better answer it’. The funeral purvey was near to where I picked you up and he’s buried nearby. He was at most of my internationals and saw my last-ever try. His old girlfriend, Shirley Gray, who played rugby for Scotland herself, got married a couple of years ago and all my family went to the wedding. That was a lovely, poignant day.”

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Stark’s first success under a Glasgow banner came at the end of 1989 in the Scottish Inter-District Championship. Both the Edinburgh and Anglo-Scots teams boasted five of the Scotland XV which a few months later would win the Grand Slam while the South had four. “Like myself, most of our team were uncapped. But before the Inter-District we beat Fiji. I laugh about that match because they scored a typical Fijian try after five minutes and then came a typical Glasgow downpour. In the championship we were serious underdogs, totally unfancied. But we had a great spirit about us and the final match against the Anglos, the glamour boys from England with Big Gav [Gavin Hastings] at full-back, was a special one.” It clinched Glasgow’s first outright triumph for 26 years.

Then playing his club rugby for Kilmarnock, Stark was dreaming of a Scotland call-up. “I was picked for the trial, the blue team, but I had a poor game against Iwan Tukalo and Tony Stanger got in for the Five Nations. I lost a bit of confidence and decided to take a year out. That was obviously the Slam season so it was a big one to miss. That still niggles me, if I’m honest.”

He may have have suffered a wobble but what Stark did next was pretty bold. “I decided to try athletics. Allan Wells was always my hero. I trained with Brian [Whittle] and got my PB for 100m down to 10.6. But then I came up against these Caribbean guys who could all do 10.4, 10.3. Still, nothing ventured. It was fascinating coming from rugby and seeing how selfish athletes are. I don’t mean that in a bad way; it’s how they’ve got to where they are.”

Returning to rugby he moved to Boroughmuir and three months later – this was 1993 – got his Scotland debut against Ireland, scoring a try with his very first touch. He ponders again the consequences of having a bad game at the wrong time. “We all have them. Take Simon Geoghegan. The season after that match he’d beat England all by himself. But ten minutes of not concentrating against me cost him a place with the Lions.” Stark gained a few more caps, was dropped, moved to Melrose, returned to the Scotland team. This became the pattern, included a stint with Glasgow Hawks to continue his connection with the city, and over four moves which eventually returned him to Boroughmuir, he earned four Scottish Cup winners’ medals.

They called you a mercenary, I say. “That was Gregor’s line. He’d ask me: ‘Who are you playing for now?’ But look at his cv: ten clubs! At his 40th birthday party we had a quiz and no-one could remember the tenth but I knew it was Melrose, for whom he played half a game. I said that made him their most-capped player of all time. You can imagine Craig Chalmers absolutely loved that.”

But Stark only won nine Scotland caps, not as many as he should. There was a perception he was a try-nabbing glory-boy and therefore a weak tackler, which wasn’t helped when word got out he was two years at the Tante Marie Culinary Academy in Woking. “Ah yes,” he smiles, “80-odd girls and just three boys. It was pure hell. If only I knew then what I know now.” He claims he wasn’t much of a cook in his parents’ Foxbar Hotel in Kilmarnock. “The rest of the staff would joke: ‘Look he’s got his whites on today – he must be getting a photo taken for the rugby.’” The photo was invariably daft: wonky hat, rogue hand appearing from a giant pan. None of this helped on those occasions an opposition player did break the grip of the man inevitably dubbed the fastest pastry chef in the world, equally predictably leading to jibes of “Ya big jessie”.

“Honestly, I can’t remember that many fluffed tackles, except I did once miss Will Carling and it ended up in the Grandstand credits and so was re-shown every Saturday. Matt Duncan told me how he wasn’t allowed to forget one dropped high ball. People like to sum you up in a single quick sentence.”

Stark, it should be said, is taking all of this in very good humour, although he is careful to remind me of his impressive try record, as he should. Top scorer on every Scottish tour in which he participated; right up there on the Barbarians’ all-time list. Every rugby player, particularly those of the pre-professional era, likes to talk about how the sport made them friends for life and Stark is no different. “Take Tony Stanger and Kenny Logan. They were nemeses of mine when I played – as they were vying for test places like me, I wouldn’t have been unhappy if they’d both broken a leg – but now we’re good pals. The connections seem to get stronger as we grow older. And, of course, all the years that pass make us into ever better players – at least in our own heads.”

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Stark – who with wife Tracey has two daughters, Olivia and Georgia – straddled the changeover to a pro-game and is well-placed to talk about the impact of money, greater profile and razzmatazz. With Townsend and Rowen Shepherd, he owned a sports bar, The Three-Quarters in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, something they couldn’t have contemplated in the amateur age. “It was a place of extremes. On big rugby Saturdays, when the Scotland team would appear after the game, the takings would be £45,000. On the Monday they’d be back down to £250. When Chris Cusiter and Rory Lawson were still at uni we gave them jobs behind the bar.” But there were battles with the local licensing board over noise, in which Stark says the trio’s reputations as rugby stars counted against them.

Suddenly rugger boys were news. “I remember a few of us got invited to an Old Firm game. Afterwards, Kenny got into a bit of bother when a tabloid claimed he’d been singing Rangers songs in the street. I think before professionalism we could have been having affairs and everything and no-one would have noticed. Not after that.”

Suddenly we’re talking about naked flesh. How Logan would be required to get bare-chested for the small, funny papers – how Stark declined an on-the-pitch shirt-swap after a 68-10 tanking by South Africa in what proved to be his last game for Scotland. “James Small, who’d scored a couple of their tries, was already stripped in front of the crowd and looking like a god. I wasn’t in optimum condition – a bit like today – so I said to him: ‘It’s okay, I’ll get you in the tunnel’!”

On the field of play, Stark has seen Scotland struggle to get to grips with professionalism, indeed fumble the ball a few times. “We didn’t have enough modern thinkers involved at the start, and we didn’t learn enough from other sports.” Following the latest disappointing season for the national team, he is trying to stay hopeful for the immediate future under new coach Vern Cotter. The one bright spot recently, though, has been the achievement of the Warriors. “When I played against Leinster and Munster in my Hawks days, the Irish clubs were getting 3000 at their games. Now they’ve built up their brands to the extent they’ll be pulling in five times that. I was with Andy Nicol at Scotstoun and we both said: ‘There’s something happening here’. There’s a momentum and I’d love to see Edinburgh grab a piece of it and for our pro-teams to really start going places.”

Now Derek Stark must be going. He has to fly a 12-year-old lad to Dublin and hope, in the best possible way, that he might have cause to cry again.