Interview: Iain Paxton, former Scotland forward

WHEN Iain Paxton went to Ireland for a rugby reunion a few weeks ago he was nervous.

Iain Paxton has since shed the moustache, but cut a distinctive figure for Scotland in his playing days. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

This might sound strange considering how much he loves the sport and the camaraderie that comes with having played it in the age he did – pre-professional, lawyers sat next to lorrymen on changing-room benches, everyone with a story to tell and time for them all to be heard, avec refreshments. But this was a get-together for the tour to forget.

In 1983, the Scotland No 8 was a British Lion in New Zealand, an expedition of bad decisions, bad feeling and bad results – a 4-0 whitewash, no less. “There was a lot that was grim,” he recalls. “The Bear [Iain Milne] should have played the Tests and, of course, Deano [Colin Deans] should have played – he was the best hooker. The All Blacks couldn’t believe these two weren’t picked.”

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Ciaran Fitzgerald of Ireland was the under-performing hooker who, as captain, couldn’t be dropped. “At training Deano would have every line-out spot-on but you’d be out for an hour with Ciaran just to get three throws.”

There was division in the camp and the grimmest of images from ’83 has never left Paxton. “Before the final Test some English guys were auctioning off their Lions blazers. With less than an hour to kick-off they were seeing how much they could get for them. Some of the folk on that tour I had no respect for. They brought nothing to the party. So when the Bear, Rud [John Rutherford] and myself set off for the reunion there was a fair bit of trepidation.”

Then he laughs. “We had a great time, you know. What I’d call the nucleus were there. Even [coach] Jim Telfer came along despite him saying: ‘I dinnae do reunions.’ Some of us went up to Giant’s Causeway while the rest were at Portrush getting a golf lesson from Darren Clarke. And despite everything that went wrong, the nine Scottish guys on the tour got a wee important something out of it. At that time, I think Scots felt a bit inferior to the English and the Welsh. Personally speaking, I don’t know if that was me, my background, the way I was brought up, but I definitely thought I was going to be a second-class citizen out there. And then we got a look at our fellow Lions at training. We were like: ‘He’s not that fit. He’s just dropped it again. Maybe we’re actually all right.’ New Zealand was a step along the road to ’84, to the Grand Slam.”

Today, in a hotel close to his home on Edinburgh’s western outskirts, it’s difficult to comprehend how Iain Angus McLeod Paxton could ever feel inferior to anyone. Now 55, he’s a formidable fellow and doesn’t seem to have shrunk much if at all from the 6ft 4ins listing in the old match programmes. All that’s really missing from our abiding image of the 36-cap marauder is the rather splendid 1980s moustache. “My daughters can’t believe I ever had one. ‘Why, Dad?’ they say. ‘Moustaches aren’t cool!’”

And then he reveals how even back-row titans can be reduced to tears. “My Springer Spaniel died last Tuesday. I live in a houseful of women. They’re all very sporty – my wife Edith still plays hockey; Seona, our eldest, has a sports degree; Claire plays basketball and is currently on a scholarship in Colorado – but sometimes the chat gets quite girlie. That was always my cue to take Luke for a walk. He was my soul-mate. It’s sad…”

As close as it’s possible for one of his kind to be such, Paxton comes across as a gentle giant. Even though he considered the player a tremendous runner and rampager in the loose, Telfer deemed him not quite aggressive enough. Certainly he’s a quiet and thoughful fellow, not prone to outrageous rugger storytelling. Modest, he’ll describe the ’84 immortals as a “pretty reasonable squad” who “got a bit of success”. Remind him that he played against New Zealand ten times, that the All Blacks really rated him, and he’ll say: “Ah well…” Why, the big softie can even reel off the date when he and Edith met. “It’s very easy for me to remember because on the 28th of August, 1982 I was playing in the Selkirk Sevens. Between ties, Rud’s brother Billy introduced us. And at night I cemented our meeting at the victory disco after Selkirk had won the tournament for the first time in 25 years.”

What a year ’82 must have been for the Fife-born Paxton. In the March he’d been part of the first Scotland win in Cardiff for two decades, and part of what many reckon is the all-time greatest Scottish try. “Oh I don’t know,” says Mr Modest, “there have been loads.” It was scored by Jim Calder but after Roger Baird’s dance along the touchline from deep defence, Paxton’s role was crucial. What’s more thrilling than a big man on the charge? “Well, Toomba doesn’t always get the credit he deserves for keeping up, for taking it on,” he says, referring to Alan Tomes. Does Paxton know that Wikipedia credits him with the try? “Well, some folk still think I scored it and I suppose I wish I had done. When Roger passed to me inside our half all I could see was clear field. I didn’t notice Clive Rees coming in from the side for what was a terrific tackle. I only lasted eight more minutes because it tore my medial ligament.”

Paxton is the development officer at Selkirk and after our chat is coaching at the town’s high school. “Without being big-headed, I will say I had the presence of mind in Cardiff to keep the ball in both hands and I stress to kids the importance of that. And, you know, maybe one of these days I will score that try, get to the line myself’!”

Four months after Cardiff, Paxton was fit enough to tour Australia and play in a 12-7 win in Ballymore which made it three in a row against the Wallabies, a feat the current Scotland hope to match at Murrayfield this evening. What does he think of this side? “I don’t think they’re far away. For a while they’ve maybe struggled in the backs for the
x-factor but now there are some guys coming through. Up front I’m quite excited. By the Gray brothers, [Tim] Swinson and John Beattie’s son Johnnie who I really rate. The problem is the front row. We don’t seem to produce mastodons like the Bear anymore although there’s Ryan Grant. I just think this team need a notable result to get them going, which was what happened in my day.”

In truth, Paxton’s dark blues achieved any number of notables. Cardiff showed they could win away; Ballymore and the previous winter’s 24-15 victory that they could beat the southern hemisphere. “The Murrayfield game was the week before Christmas and there was snow on the terraces,” he remembers. “It was my fourth cap and in the Australia team was Greg Cornelsen who’d just scored a hat-trick of tries against the All Blacks from No 8. They also had Brendan Moon, Andrew Slack and Simon Poidevin, a future captain making his debut, and they scored three tries – but Andy Irvine kept us in touch with his kicking. Then Jim Renwick chased a high punt, their full-back missed it, and he went straight under the posts. The following summer Australia had the Ellas and Roger Gould but we were building pretty well. The games there were fast and open which suited us. It was a lovely day at Ballymore and a good track. Keith Robertson scored a try and Rud kicked a drop goal. Yes, we made a little bit of history but the feeling was more one of relief. We moved on to the next challenge.”

And the next notable results. In ’83 Scotland won at Twickenham; it remains our last win there. “Just unbelievable,” says Paxton. “I’m thinking of Roy [Laidlaw] scoring that try down the right-hand side as we’re talking. I was second-row, my first time there since school, and I was really nervous about being able to hold up my side of the scrum because England were big. In later games in second-row I would be behind Iain [Milne], the Bass Rock, just a pimple on his big backside, barely making an indentation, which was ideal – but that day it was Jim Aitken who’s obviously smaller. It worked out all right.”

The team reassembled in London to reminisce about the victory earlier this year. You imagine, given the big man’s knack for big results, that he could be present at a good number of such gatherings: “That’s me away, Edith – another reunion.” On the other side of the Lions summer he played in the 25-25 draw with the All Blacks; another step along the Slam road. As usual against New Zealand he had to face Murray Mexted, a formidable No 8 who was somewhat less flawless in his career as a commentator. New Zealand’s response to Colemanballs, he’d reach for a phrase like it was the try-line, only to fall short. “He ran like a bat” was one of Mexted’s few quips that isn’t a double entendre. But maybe it’s not a bad description of what Paxton did in Cardiff.

Hailing from Dunfermline, our man has been called Jim Telfer’s greatest “creation” because he didn’t come from a rugby heartland and had no background in the sport. “That makes Jim sound like Dr Frankenstein!” laughs Paxton. “But it’s true I was a blank canvas for him.”

Paxton’s father was a policeman and the lad’s first love was football. “I was a Raith Rovers season ticket-holder. We moved around Fife to wherever Dad got posted but for a while we lived almost in the shadow of the Stadium of Light, Stark’s Park, and Gordon Wallace was the old First Division’s top scorer.” First day in the gym hall at Kirkcaldy High School he and the rest of the intake had a straight choice: “All those who want to do cross-country running take one step forward – the rest of you on the rugby field.” Paxton, who’d never held an oval ball before, opted for the latter. But even though the family were soon on the move to Cowdenbeath, posting him to a football-only school where the entire first XI had signed S-forms with senior clubs with the exception of a boy called Derek Stark – “who’d later score an absolute screamer against Roma for Dundee Utd” – rugby had begun to sway him.

“I remember watching Gareth Edwards on TV score that fantastic try against Scotland [’72] and running out of the sitting-room and upstairs to the toilet in complete disgust. I wasn’t playing rugby at that point; that was just me being a passionate Scot.” There was more passion to come. “My first cap was on tour in New Zealand [’81]. Carisbrook is an old stadium shared with cricket, wood-panelled, holes in the floor from all the studs that have tramped over it, and before the kick-off I was beside myself. Tears were streaming down my face. Playing for Scotland, being in a team with guys equally committed to the cause, meant everything to me that day and every day after. When I had to stop, when I wasn’t getting picked anymore, that really hurt. Rugby had been such a huge part of my life and I really loved it.”

Paxton, who worked in finance under Gordon Brown during his playing days, turned to coaching after hanging up his boots. Following stints with first club Glenrothes, then Boroughmuir, he was tipped as a future Scotland coach but those ambitions stalled at Edinburgh. “I didn’t get my head round the changeover to professional,” he says. “As a player from the old days I guess I’d quite like to travel through time like like Doctor Who to have a go at the pro-game. But only a wee go. I’d miss my era too much.”

We’re not quite done with that era, either. Paxton kept one of the five tries he scored in the dark blue for Cardiff and the first win of the Slam. All those big games in the previous two seasons had fed into the big effort. In his modesty he calls them steps but really they were giant strides. And by ’84 – anniversary coming next year, there’s bound to be a reunion – the whole team were running like bats. Jim Telfer made sure of that and Paxton is full of praise for the Slam’s demanding, brilliant mastermind. “He came back from that disappointment with the Lions and got us playing rugby that was ahead of its time.”

One innovation had Scotland lining up with five No 8s. “There were a few of us around 6ft 4ins who were quite quick around the paddock.” They couldn’t all play in every match, though, and Paxton and John Beattie were involved in a fierce and fascinating rivalry. “It was intense. What if the other guy was doing extra training? I remember one Christmas morning thinking I’d better go for a run. Burntisland to Kinghorn, back along the beach through the water, and then I got my mum to sit on my feet for proper sit-ups. ‘Beat that, ya bastard!’ But we were good friends through it all, John and me, and years later he confessed to doing something pretty similar.” Paxton was dropped the year before the Slam only to win back his place for the glory season. “And then Derek White replaced both of us. He must have been running Christmas morning and afternoon!”