Interview: Jim Renwick on local rivalry and the secret of the sidestep

Jim Renwick at the top of Moat Hill with his beloved Hawick and the Borders hills in the background. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Jim Renwick at the top of Moat Hill with his beloved Hawick and the Borders hills in the background. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Iam lucky to be talking to Jim Renwick today and you, dear reader, are lucky to be hearing his wonderful stories. Last weekend his son Neil suffered a horrible injury in the sport at which the old man excelled and the 52-cap Scot is only just back in Hawick after bringing the lad home from hospital.

“Neil played for my first team, the Quins, just for fun and to help out but that’s him hanging up his boots now because the cruciate in his knee has been completely severed,” Renwick explains. “The game was at Livingston and they didn’t have a stretcher so he had to be taken off the park on a table from the kitchen. There was gas and air but no doctor to administer them. He was in a fair bit of pain and the ambulance took a while to arrive because there had been a fatality someplace else.”

Listening to this, rather pathetically, I’m rubbing my knee. This is probably a typical reaction of someone who was privileged to have seen James Menzies Renwick dance across mud and ice with a thistle on his breast, and glad he was the one taking the blows. His world-class wiggle – a sidestep from the midfield which would have all of Murrayfield leaning and craning necks in one direction like a hilltop field of barley bending in a breeze, only for him to swerve the other way to leave his marker embarrassed – ensured some of the hits could be avoided, but not all of them.

For instance, there was the international against Australia at Murrayfield just six days before Christmas in 1981: “Their full-back, Roger Gould, jumped to catch a high punt and stuck out his foot to ward off invaders which caught me on the cheek.” Renwick shows me the scar and I start rubbing the side of my face as he describes the emergency repair procedure of the era: “There was nae anaesthetic and I think our doctor, Donald MacLeod, must have used bloody rope to sew me back up! I don’t know if you’ve ever had stitches – I’ve had loads – and they’re worse on the heid where there’s nae flesh. I met Roger recently. ‘I’m going to sue you,’ I said, having a laugh, ‘and I should launch an action against the doc as well.’”

Here’s something to inspire the current generation of Dark Blues against the Wallabies this afternoon: dazzling at centre our man never lost to Australia, scoring a try in the 10-3 win at Murrayfield in 1975 and repeating the feat six years later despite that gash. Right after the last stitch, Renwick returned to the scene of a crazy game in which Australia had scored three first-half tries but fluffed their kicks, enabling Scotland to stay in touch via Andy Irvine’s boot. “I was still groggy. If the game had been today I wouldn’t have been allowed back out. Rud [John Rutherford] launched a big yin and Davie Johnston chased it. I would have done, too, but was still feeling woozy. The ball bounced backwards, fooling David and Roger, right into my arms.” That was the clincher, Scotland winning 24-15. “At the dinner Davie said to me: ‘You were a lucky b*****d, 
Renwick.’ I said: ‘You’ve got to be able to read the bounce. Can you no’ dae that, Davie?’”

We meet for coffee in an old Hawick mill converted into a cinema close to the flat Renwick shares with his second wife. Discussing Neil’s injury he feels the need, in his bluff Borders way, to explain his personal circumstances: “I had four kids with Shelagh and then another three with Jane. It’s all worked oot fine. Shelagh’s remarried and the pair of us get on well although she aye says she’ll never hae me back. My two girls from different marriages are good pals and next week they’re off to Prague for a holiday together.”

It’s difficult to keep track as Renwick rattles through the names but I think all the boys played rugby, just as he followed his two older brothers into the game. Renwick was still sidestepping at 40, old enough to have faced his son Andy in a game. “I kept showing him inside: ‘Come on man!’ Eventually he went and I short-armed him. The ref gave a penalty for Andy’s team but he got up and banjo-ed me so the decision was reversed and I kicked the goal to win the match.”

Such was the Hawick code, a bit different from the Gala code, and he’s hilarious on the rivalry between the towns:

“My oldest boy Scott lives in Gala, next door to Jim Telfer. He wonders why I dinna visit him very much! Mind you, I lived in Gala for seven years. Working as an electrician got me a cheap house there, otherwise I couldn’t have afforded one. I call that time in my life missionary work, bringing a wee bitty civilisation to Gala!

“They did try to get me to become an elder of the local church but living there was above and beyond the call of duty.” The only real advantage, he says, was not being in Hawick the Monday morning after a defeat. “The local worthies would aye greet you in the street, just so they could say: ‘Oh you do have hands! Why didn’t you use them on 
Saturday?’”

Renwick is 65 but he still has his moustache and of course his equally famous baldy heid. “I had a Bobby Charlton wrapover for a while, then I admitted defeat.” And he’s still some way short of 6ft 8ins, the height he reckoned he had to reach to become a top swimmer. In 1966 he was Scottish under-14s champ for the 100 yards freestyle but that was as far as a “ wee, fat, stocky guy” was ever going to go in the pool.

He’s being too hard on himself, I say, producing an old photo. “Christ, I look like an unmade bed,” he laughs. “Next to Rud and Andy [Irvine] and Roger [Baird], who were aye suave with their shirt collars turned up, I was a tramp’s ballup.” The snap accompanies a newspaper Q&A profile containing many simple truths: “Miscellaneous likes – Hawick Common Riding, crummy jokes. Miscellaneous dislikes: Flying, tripe and onions.”

Most memorable match? That was the first time he pulled on the green jersey of Hawick in the club’s sevens tournament of 1970. Just before then, Renwick had ventured out of the Borders for the first time – on a Quins’ expedition to Wales to cheer on Scotland at Cardiff Arms Park. “Half an hour outside Hawick we stopped in Langholm for a few beers,” he says. “The bus got stuck in snow at one point and we all had to get out and push. We were staying in Bargoed where I got chucked out of the local Tory Club after emptying the one-armed bandit, although maybe it was me singing The Red Flag that they didna like. It was six-to-a-room in our digs, sharing a bed with some hairy bloke who wisna wearing pyjamas. In the game Ian Robertson put Scotland into the lead but Wales came back to win. Then suddenly I was playing against Ian in the sevens, bagging a couple of tries and thinking: ‘If this is the best in the country, maybe I could hae a go’.”

Renwick climbed high ladders as a spark for the South of Scotland Electricity Board – he was a lineman for the county as the old song goes, when it was “one mistake and you’d fry” – and also reached the summit in rugby
by becoming a Lion in South Africa.
“I loved playing in the 1970s; that was when the game really took off,” he says. “There were maybe 50,000 at my Scotland debut. Three years later 118,000 were inside Murrayfield to see the great Welsh team. The four-point try was a boon, as was colour TV. And then of course there was Bill McLaren.” The voice of rugby had been Renwick’s PE teacher. “Bill was inspirational. He told us to enjoy the game, just hae fun. The w-word – winning – was never mentioned.” Renwick reckons you’d have to delve deep into the broadcasting archives to find McLaren rhapsodising about his protege’s trademark swerve. “He didna bum up his ain folk. But I know from visiting him near the end of his life that he loved the 70s the best. He called players from that time ‘the swashbucklers’.”

So was Renwick’s sidestep the result of nature or nurture? “Nature I think. When I was coaching I listened to the guy in charge of a clinic say sidesteps could be taught. At the end I said: ‘I’ve got one question: how many folk have you learned how to dae them?’ Surely if they could be taught every player would be doing them. And by the way I wisna the best sidestepper – that was Gerald Davies.”

Back to the Q&A where Renwick revealed his favourite TV show was “Flash Gordon (when on)”. Want to revise that choice now, Jim? “No, Flashy was great but I also liked The High Chaparral.” The Wild West series had only just reached South Africa when he was touring with the Lions so it was a treat for him to meet, on their promotional visit, the cast of Big John, Buck, Blue and Manolito.

“Biggest thrill – Scoring a try in my first international.” This was against France in 1972. To join up with the squad from his beloved home town, Renwick hitched to Edinburgh in a van delivering cookers (returning home by bus. Some of the customs of international rugby unnerved him. “The SRU used to feed us pigeon pie. I didna much care for that. And then there was the trip to the pantomime at the King’s Theatre. Which committee man ever thought that would be a guid idea? The first time I looked along the row at the interval and most of the boys had sneaked off to the pub. But Andy Irvine loved the panto. He was aye shouting: ‘He’s behind you!’”

Dark-blue downtime, though, was relaxed rather than regimented. Old hands were always around for reassuring words for the nervous newbie and Renwick wonders, with the threat to livelihoods posed by younger men, whether this still happens to the same extent. On the eve of matchday, players were free to wander down to Princes Street – and no one would be wearing big designer headphones. “Sometimes on Friday nights I’d even have a couple of pints.”

Renwick starred in epic wins in 
Cardiff in 1982 and Twickenham the following year – key staging-posts on the road to the Grand Slam although he was to miss out on ’84’s glory. “Ach, that’s life. Euan Kennedy who played in my position was a guid boy. My big comeback came after the Slam – we lost to Romania!”

He’s an aficionado of the goggle-box. Discussing celebrity players, with it having been his severe disinclination to ever become one, he says: “Not everyone wants to be on Stars on Sunday, ye ken.” The pair of us struggle to recall the name of the organ-pounding host until he shouts: “Jess Yates! A right creepy yin.” Romanian TV he rates the worst he’s seen, at least during the years before the revolution. “There were only two channels. Channel 1 showed nothing but Ceausescu’s speeches. Channel 2 had the message: ‘Turn to Channel 1’.”

For Renwick, all roads lead back to Hawick. In that newspaper profile he listed his favourite singers as Neil Diamond and Cecil Fround, the latter being a stalwart chanter of the Common Riding. He loved playing for Scotland and the Lions, but loved turning out for the town team more. Maybe he sounds like an innocent abroad when relating how he was teased by his fellow Lions for calling his squad number as “Twinty-twae”, having been relieved of school trips because none of the children could understand his accent. But he also brought fun to his travels – Bill McLaren’s f-word – in addition to the glorious sidestep.

Touring New Zealand with Scotland he was inveigled into yet more small-talk, the eighth or ninth bout of an especially dreary cocktail party. “‘And how do like our beautiful country?’ this bloke asked. ‘Oh, it’s fine,’ I replied, hoping that might shut him up so I could get fired into the prawns. He said: ‘My name’s Robert Muldoon and I’m the Prime Minister of New Zealand.’ I said: ‘Aye and I’m and 
Provost o’ Gala.’ But he really was! When he got up to speak I was right worried he was going to introduce me as the Provost to say a few words in reply so I skedaddled.”

Renwick’s final yarn and maybe the best takes us back to South Africa. “I was with John Carleton in the hotel lift at the end of the night. We’d had a few drinks and so had this other fellow who looked awfie like Matt Monro. I sang: ‘Born free… ’ Sure enough, he went: ‘… As free as the wind blows.’ Matt was performing at the nightclub down the street but when he walked out of the lift he fell and jiggered his shoulder. I took him to the Lions doctor, Jack Matthews. This was some boy – he’d been three rounds with Rocky Marciano when he was in the army – and he was able to pop the shoulder back so Matt could sing the next night wearing a sling. He gave me some tickets for the show and me and Bill Beaumont, Ollie Campbell and Gareth Davies really enjoyed it, although obviously Matt wisna in the same league as Cecil Fround.

“That’s really how the story ended although there’s an alternative version kicking about. I’m supposed to have asked Matt to approach our table and be dead pally with me to impress the others and that this would maybe help me get into the Test team. So Matt goes: ‘Jim! So nice to see you again!’ And I say: ‘Shove off, Matt – can’t you see I’m with my friends?’

“But honestly, that didna happen!”