JOHN RUTHERFORD turns 60 later this year, but he still looks fresh enough and trim enough to pull on the No 10 jersey for his beloved Selkirk when they make their return to the BT Premiership next season, although the man himself is not so sure.
“I was 12st when I played and I was quite a big guy. David Johnston and Jim Renwick and those guys would be 10½st. You look at them now – 17st centres. I suppose we’d have been more into our strength and conditioning if we played now, but I think you have to stick with the era you played in,” he said.
In terms of skills, there are some good guys at our club who could play professionallyJohn Rutherford
Truth be told, we all know that size wouldn’t be the only problem. The march of time stops for no man – not even our rugby greats.
The deceptive pace which once allowed Rutherford to ghost past opposition players as if they were caught in quicksand, has long since flown the nest. And that devastating right boot, which he cultivated through hours upon hours of lunchtime kicking sessions during the early part of his career, no longer has the length and accuracy to reduce opposition full-backs to a state of quivering distress.
But at least the wit and intelligence are still there, not to mention that burning passion for the game, the club and the town, which has given him so much. So, rather than stage the most ill-advised sporting comeback since Lance Armstrong got back on the saddle in 2009, Rutherford is happy to play to his strengths in his role as chairman of the Selkirk Rugby Board – where he clearly derives a great deal of pride and satisfaction in helping the club he played for throughout his career continue to thrive against the odds.
The work he is doing might not be as glamorous as those wonderful playing days, but its significance cannot be under-estimated. Rutherford was on cloud nine yesterday morning as he offered coffee, tea and biscuits to the various guests who had been invited along to Philiphaugh to hear about how a cash injection from the SRU’s Club Sustainability Fund will help Selkirk finish the redevelopment of a ground decimated by two floods in quick succession in 2003 and 2004 (causing a combined total of £460,000 damage).
This particular piece of funding is worth £37,500 and has been matched by a National Lottery grant from sportscotland of the same value.
“Over the past few years we’ve added wonderful clubrooms which are not only used for matches but open daily for meetings, and in evenings for all the local sports clubs. We’ve added an all-weather floodlit area, which is used by everyone in the town, and we have to thank sportscotland because they were tremendously supportive of that project. And not long after that we added our gym, which is a fantastic resource and is packed every day from 4pm onwards,” he said.
“But these changing rooms were exactly the same when John “Basher” Inglis – our oldest living internationalist – was playing here during the 1940s and 1950s as they are today. The only improvement over the 50 years is we do have showers now. So this grant could be life changing for us, because, if you are a community club like us and you have to rely on producing your own players, then you need good facilities to keep the young guys motivated and inspired.
“The total cost of the project is £120,000 which means we’ve had to raise a fair bit of money elsewhere, but we’re lucky because all the local tradesmen help us out.
“The joiners all play here. The electricians are members of the club. The plumber, Cameron Cochrane, is our director of rugby.”
Selkirk’s grant is one of 14 rewards from the Club Sustainability Fund announced yesterday, reaching a combined total of £400,000. Other recipients include: Howe of Fife, who are building a new pavilion and changing rooms, with fitness, rehab and conditioning suites, plus a community café and social facilities; Clydebank, who are installing a 3G pitch as part of a community sports hub; and Lismore, who are erecting training lights and showers.
These are all good news stories, but huge questions remain over the role of club rugby in the professional age.
It certainly does not have the same breadth of appeal as in those glory days when the likes of Rutherford could be spotted at Goldenacre, Burnbrae, Philiphaugh or Mansfield Park on any given Saturday afternoon throughout the winter months – but it has shown remarkable tenacity in the face of some huge challenges and that must count for something.
“The clubs are vitally important. I can use the example of Lee Jones. He came through our system. He wasn’t involved in the age-grade set-up, but he played well for us and Rob Moffat signed him for Edinburgh. Then a year later he was in the national team.
“There will be loads of guys like that out there in the Premiership, and it’s really about giving them the opportunity,” said Rutherford, who coached the Scottish backline in 1999, when they produced some of the most exhilarating passages of play in the nation’s history – including five tries in the space of 20 glorious minutes in the Stade de France – to win the last Five Nations championship title.
“Just now the gap between club rugby and the pro game is massive [in terms of physicality]. You could take a guy out of the club game and in a year he could be ready as a pro because he would need better strength and conditioning, but, in terms of skills, there are some good guys out there at our club who could play professionally. The club game and academies – that is where your future generations of rugby are.”
Things are clearly looking good for Selkirk off the pitch, but Rutherford knows they face a huge step up in the Premiership next season. He believes the whole club is looking forward to the challenge.
“We were very proud last season to go up as undefeated winners of BT National League Division One and, in most of our games, there were 15 or 16 players in the squad who had come through our mini-rugby and schools programme,” he says.
“We are very aware we have to be competitive next season, and we will have to recruit, but that’s difficult for obvious reasons, so the core of our team will be Selkirk players again. It’s a challenge, but it’s going to be a great test of the set-up we’ve got here.
“We have a rugby board with a rep from mini-rugby, school rugby, youth rugby, the senior club and from strength and conditioning. We meet once a month and we know all our players, so, if there is a gem there, we can give him extra training, or, maybe, bring in another coach to help him. That is one of the advantages of being in a wee town.”