John Douglas: The Scots No 8 talks rugby and boxing

John Douglas tackles Alun Pask during Scotland's Five Nations game with Wales at Murrayfield in 1963. Picture: TSPL
John Douglas tackles Alun Pask during Scotland's Five Nations game with Wales at Murrayfield in 1963. Picture: TSPL
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ENTERING John Douglas’ well appointed Edinburgh flat involves passing through a treasure trove of sports memorabilia.

First, in the vestibule, an aerial photograph of Pine Valley Golf Club inscribed “to John Douglas”, next, in the hall, framed and autographed British Lions and Scotland rugby team photographs, then further along on a sideboard, the handsome 1979 Grand National winners’ commemorative trophy while in the lounge a silver boxing statuette figure sits on a side table. All represent strands of Douglas’ singular sporting career which resonates particularly this week with the announcement of the Lions touring party.

Douglas, then a Scottish international, was selected as a No 8 forward for the Lions’ 1962 tour to South Africa. It must have been written in the stars that would be the destination as it was in South Africa as a small child that he first became interested in rugby. It has to be said that Douglas’ early life was less ordinary. Son of an army officer based in Palestine at the outbreak of the second world war, it was decided once Italy joined the conflict, that the Douglas family should decamp to South Africa. But that was not before the young John had witnessed a cinema in Tel Aviv being blown up minutes after he and his family had left it and spike mines being exploded in the Red Sea by destroyers to clear his ship’s passage south.

Once “settled” in Durban, Douglas enjoyed watching the racehorses train near the sea front, used to watch rugby being played at Durban High School and also found time to observe golfers swing their clubs at Royal Durban Golf Club. Although too young to be aware then, interest in these sports must have taken root at this time. After several years there and six months under canvas in Egypt, Douglas’ family returned here where in 1946 he began attending Daniel Stewart’s College in Edinburgh. He well remembers the very first game of rugby he played at Inverleith aged 12, receiving a boot in the mouth as his opponent’s legs slipped through his tackle with him thinking “Not sure if I like this!”.

Such reservations were soon set aside as he grew to love the game and demonstrate great potential, confirmed by two seasons in the school’s first XV.

On leaving school he had a season with the FP’s while he attempted accountancy training for a year – which he says “took seven years out of my life but improved my billiards no end!”

Then National Service beckoned in Germany in the Signals Regiment – “the rugby players regiment”. There he managed to play three times a week, sometimes alongside Billy Boston the rugby league legend and uncle of Ryan Giggs. The high spot of his German rugby was representing the British Army v the French Army in the Olympic Stadium, Berlin; less of a high spot was being sent off in a game, the only time in his lengthy career. Even that was rather mitigated by the fact another 11 were sent off in the same match – “one helluva punch-up” as he laughingly recalls.

On returning to the UK he played for Blackheath for a few seasons before returning to Edinburgh and rejoining Stewarts FP in a team that included such stars as the Sharp brothers, Gregor and Clark, and Grant Weatherstone. Soon his talents were recognised by Edinburgh before in 1961 receiving his first cap for Scotland at No 8 against France in Paris and going on thereafter to win another 11 caps over the next three seasons. “Winning that first cap was without doubt the biggest thrill of my career,” says Douglas, now 78.

The sport was amateur back then and although the impression existed that rugby players trained by supping large quantities of beer and doing several laps of their club bar, Douglas certainly did not conform to that stereotype. He was a ferocious trainer seven days a week, culminating in a “seven-mile run in the Pentlands every Sunday”. He had begun weight training while in Germany and maintained a judo black belt at George Kerr’s Edinburgh Club throughout his career, at that time very unusual for a rugby player.

He had boxed with some success while in the army and once back in Edinburgh he began training with the Buccleuch Club in Granton. “Two wooden huts and cold showers but great trainers and some really good lads”. So effectively did he apply himself that within six months he won the East of Scotland heavyweight title in the Music Hall in George Street. That itself was a significant achievement but what made it a near incredible one is that he had already played at Murrayfield that same afternoon at second row for Edinburgh against North and Midlands in the old District championship. He was later selected to represent Scotland at heavyweight against Ireland but as it was due to be held two days before he was to play against Ireland at rugby, even he had to withdraw.

Although no puritan he only ever drank then on a Saturday night. “Things are a bit different now,” he grins.

The Lions Tour was the adventure of a lifetime, four-and-a-half months in South Africa playing rugby virtually full-time .

A manager, a secretary and 30 players, that was the Tour party – no coaches, no doctors, no physios and ten shillings a day spending money while the thought of an Alastair Campbell or lawyer on board would have seemed like futuristic fantasy. Generally they were made welcome in the country but on the pitch fraternal greetings ceased. Teams from the veldt were particularly uncompromising, some having been in training camps for two weeks before matches and then “coming at us like animals released from their cages” is how Douglas recalls it. Their itinerary alternated between the high veldt at about 6,000 feet and the coastal areas, playing havoc with the Lions’ attempts at acclimatisation. “The veldt caused you problems with breathing and producing saliva while the change to being on the coast just made you want to sleep,” says Douglas.

Another problem was the nasty grass burns caused by the hard pitches. To combat this, the Lions used to wear silk knickers under their shorts and apply vaseline. Douglas hates to think how the Springboks would have reacted had they been aware of such cross-dressing tendencies. Socially it could be a little overwhelming at times with so many functions to attend but their tactic, if caught in the company of a bore, was to pull their ear to alert a team-mate to come to their rescue. Douglas had the honour of playing in the final Test but had to return home before the end of the tour for family reasons.

Although 1963 was the end of his international career when Pringle Fisher (Royal High School FP) took over the No 8 jersey, Douglas continued to play at a high level until the mid-1970s.

He went on to represent the Barbarians and played in the Jed-Forest 7s final for Edinburgh Wanderers aged 42. After a dispute over selection policy, he had left Stewarts in the mid-1960s to join Edinburgh Wanderers, a move which caused ripples at the time, resulting in the Edinburgh selectors not picking him for six seasons before relenting and then making him their captain when aged 36 for three seasons. Latterly he combined coaching with playing and was proud to have coached the Edinburgh Wanderers team which won the Melrose Sevens in 1973.

His horse racing interest having been fired by joining fellow internationalist Ian Robertson’s syndicate in purchasing a horse, Douglas went on to buy the 
famous Rubstic, as a three-year-old in 1971 for 1,000 guineas. He saw it as a “chaser in the making” and his eye for a horse was vindicated when Rubstic twice finished second in the Scottish Grand National before triumphing in the Grand National in 1979.

Alongside the horse racing interest golf began to figure largely in Douglas’ sporting agenda. At one stage he succeeded in lowering his handicap to 4 whereas these days it’s in the high teens. Being a member of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield for some years has opened some doors for him, most memorably the trips to play the exclusive Pine Valley course in New Jersey, voted by Golf Magazine as the No 1 course in the world in 2012.

Nowadays Douglas plays for “the fun of it”, but in his prime, “the fun of it” did not really come into it. His genial easy-going manner contrasts with his reputation as a driven, hard-nosed international rugby forward. “Ah yes,” he says with a laugh, “I was very aggressive but I’ve changed a bit over the years.” 
Although he no longer attends games he still follows rugby. Like others, he feels the scrum has to be sorted by restoring real hooking and that penalty kicking is far too time consuming. He doubts if he would have enjoyed being a professional player, thinking it might be “boring”. Be that as it may, one reckons a part of him would very much like to be on that Lions plane to Australia.