Keith Robertson: Scotland's smout on beating Australia three times, the testicle twisters, life under Creamy and loading pockets with weights

The South will rise again. That’s South as in a rugby team representing the Scottish Borders, and while the old district XV beloved of romantics and nostalgists have a past that includes famously stirring victories over Australia, Keith Robertson is determined there should be a future, too.

Reinstating the name and the red-and-white hooped shirts, the side would be semi-pro, compete in the Super6 and, listening to this bonnie jinker as he reflects on his fine career, you might wonder if the revival could be achieved by passion alone.

“It began for me over the garden fence,” he explains. “Next door from us lived Jim Blacklock who’d played for Melrose with his brother Bert. Every night after school I’d stand in the garden waiting for them. When I heard the front door shutting I knew it wouldn’t be long. Soon they’d come outside and soon they’d be throwing a ball to me. My dad was an 80-hour-a-week lorry driver and a football man but he didn’t try and sway me. He knew I had my heart set on rugby.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

From there Robertson graduated to the Crichton Cup, a youths tournament so feverishly contested that Robertson’s home village of St Boswells on the south side of the Tweed had no trouble putting up five teams in the under-eights category.

From there he joined Melrose. “I was so lucky,” he says, “because the colts had just started being coached by Eck Hastie and Dave Chisholm who’d retired from playing for Scotland.” The pair drummed into young Robertson the psychological importance of spotless white shorts and laces. His mum taught him how to boil-wash them.

And from there … well, it wasn’t much later, watched by proud parents John and Rosie, that he was embarking on his own dark blue tenure, one stretching across 11 years and 44 caps. The highlight was the 1984 Grand Slam but there was also the inaugural World Cup, a treasured Twickenham triumph and two further victories over the Wallabies, this evening’s visitors to Murrayfield.

We’re in the kitchen of the Robertson abode in the hamlet of Redpath, a short hop through tunnels of vibrant autumn colours from Earlston. The name of the house, “Almakeni”, is an amalgam of Keith, wife Alison, daughter Nicola and son Mark, who followed his old man into the game, played for Edinburgh and is now a strength and conditioning coach at the club.

“Oh, that I had one of those in my day!” laughs the 67-year-old. For Scotland, Robertson flitted between will o’ the wisp winger and centre but early on he was billeted to scrum-half, which tended to happen to the wee guys. He puts it lyrically: “I was a smout.”

As an amateur with a day job he didn’t have the time, or the know-how, for bulking up. Eat more? Yes, but what? Rather less lyrically: “I just ended up shite-ing more.” So in preparation for his debut in 1978 against New Zealand at Murrayfield he approached the SRU scales with barbell plates in his pockets. “I knew I was only ten stone something and was embarrassed to hell about that. I wanted the match programme to say 11 – we were playing the All Blacks, for goodness sake. In the end the programme bumped me up to 11 and a half.”

Facing him that afternoon was the towering Bryan Williams, all 15 stones of him, the best winger in the world. “I was bricking it. Not about getting hurt but of a quality player making a fool of me. Right away a high ball was coming my way but I managed to take it with a mark, which settled my nerves. After that Bryan had two or three opportunities, one on one against me, but dropped the ball.” Williams was mortal after all and the Scots came away with a respectable 18-9 defeat. The smout did good, so much so that at the post-match banquet All Blacks captain Graham Mourie gifted Robertson his cufflinks.

The rest of the back division was Andy Irvine, Jim Renwick, Alastair Cranston, Bruce Hay, Ian McGeechan and Alan Lawson. “Not bad, eh?” When Robertson bowed out it was with the coming men of the 1990 Slam: the Hastings brothers, Gary Armstrong, Craig Chalmers, Iwan Tukalo and Sean Lineen. A constant presence – looming, barking, demanding more – was Jim Telfer.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

I always enjoy asking players of Robertson’s vintage to describe their relationship with the indomitable coach. Mention of Telfer – Creamy to the dressing-room – can prompt slightly mad laughter. Invariably, euphemisms prove useful, as do the titles of romcom movies, most notably It’s Complicated. A strange kind of love, then, but it undeniably produced on the pitch.

“Creamy’s first tour in charge of the team was in 1980 to France when he told George Mackie: ‘I feel sorry for you, George, because you’re a nice guy but if you’re going to play like a sissy you cannae be a forit [forward] in my team.’ He pushed George away but then George charged back at him, ramming him against a wall. Creamy said: ‘That’s more like it!’”

Forits came in for special attention and the fiercest scrutiny, Telfer having been one himself. “All he asked of the backs was that we didn’t lose possession.” Player and coach also teamed up at Melrose. “He used to rant and rave at me for making breaks from behind the forwards until I said: ‘Let’s strike a deal: if I can get in front of two of your men and present the ball properly to the pack then you shouldn’t have a problem with me having a go.’” Telfer really didn’t and upon retirement picked Robertson for his all-time greatest XV.

Having a go. That was how Robertson played, partly out of necessity for being such a slight, skelf-like figure, but also because it was the kind of rugby he enjoyed as an expression of the Scottish character. And in Renwick he found a kindred spirit.

“Jim was a thinker about the game and wouldn’t be shy of saying to Creamy: ‘This team doesn’t have enough imagination. We’re not big beasts so we need to be more expansive.’” Against Wales in 1982 they were. Jim Calder’s sensational try was probably our most expansive ever. “Scotland’s first win down there for 20 years and I was sick to have to miss it, stuck in bed with tonsillitis.”

Looking back, Robertson reckons the biggest physical challenge he confronted was from France, not by way of one particular opponent but the collective, fond of a sneaky immobilisation technique. “They liked to grab your balls and twist them. Fortunately mine are quite small!”

So who had the better sidestep, Renwick or our man? “It would be gie close,” he smiles, “but I bow down to Jim for his superior sense of humour. Knowing I was nervous about my debut he said: ‘Don’t worry, Keith, when the All Blacks thunder right over the top of you I’ll be first on the scene to try and put you back together again.’

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Another time against France, as a sub for Dougie Wyllie, I was running to get into position next to Jim and he shouted: ‘Is that a cockerel straying onto the pitch? Oh no, it’s Keith … ’” Surely, then, Bill McLaren did not let Robertson’s mien pass without comment. “He didn’t. He said that I ran like a scared rabbit. I wasn’t sure how to take that. ‘Oh no, son, it’s a compliment,’ he told me. ‘Scared rabbits are very hard to catch.’”

The French tour, victory in Cardiff, a New Zealand expedition, Twickenham ’83 (“My best game”), eight Scots being selected for that year’s Lions – all were staging-posts along the way to Slam glory. Another was Scotland’s first win in the southern hemisphere, against Australia, with Robertson our try-scorer.

That ’82 success made it three in a row for the Scots, a sequence begun seven years before. In ’75 Robertson was triumphing in the Melrose Sevens but he was playing in the ’81 game versus the Wallabies six days before Christmas when instead of peace and goodwill to all men, their captain, Tony “Crazy Eyes” Shaw, socked Bill Cuthertson in the jaw. “The most imprudent punch there had ever been,” reported The Scotsman’s Chris Rea, with the giant lock “to quote PG Wodehouse, laid out as flat as a Dover sole”.

Robertson missed the assault but had a good view of his pal Renwick’s try, with Irvine’s five penalties being crucial to the 24-15 scoreline. Then, seven months later in Brisbane, the Scots won again.

He emphasises the commitment of the amateur player, training at night after a day’s graft, then on Sundays when the internationals came round, all for the glory of the thistle on your breast and a petrol allowance, strictly governed, so when Robertson took a detour to pick up Roy Laidlaw in Jedburgh, there would be a query from the SRU’s accounts dept. “And that tour to Oz, not long after Alison had given birth to our daughter and me having just set up a small business in the motor trade, meant six weeks with no money coming into the house.” Still, that 12-7 victory at Ballymore produced a sight to behold. “Creamy never went overboard with his praise but we could tell when he was excited because he would be frothing at the mouth. He was that day.”

Robertson’s try was the simplest of his career: “The ball squirted out the side of the scrum, Rud [John Rutherford] flipped it to me and I had free run to the line.” His score was actually cheered by the home crowd – Queenslanders irked that recently-appointed Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer, a New South Wales man, had loaded their team with players from his territory. “Afterwards, the mood in the dressing-room was elation. We knew we’d done something special.”

So, after three in a row, could the Scots make it four? The answer, just a week later at the Sydney Cricket Ground, was a resounding no, Australia gaining revenge by 33-9, so it’s over to the current team to see if a quartet of wins can be achieved.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Says Robertson: “We were tired and carrying a few injuries, but fair play to the Aussies that day, they were outstanding.” And, in the next meeting between the countries, more outstanding still. Brisbane was probably a watershed for both. Scotland used that game as a spur, Australia as the moment to re-set. By the time they came to Murrayfield in the winter of 1984, David Campese, Mark Ella, Andrew Slack, Michael Lynagh and Nick Farr-Jones had developed a buccaneering attacking style. They were roughed by Robertson’s South a few days before – “That was a mess of a game in horrendous weather, a glorious mess” – but at the national stadium ran out 37-12 winners to complete a tourists’ Grand Slam.

By then the Scots had a Slam of their own, although Robertson would have to sit out the opening victory in Cardiff. “Creamy went with Steve Munro. He told me he needed more physicality. I was disappointed although to be honest I could see his point of view. If I was the coach I’d have been looking for someone better. But Steve got injured and never played for Scotland again. He’s the forgotten man which is unfortunate because he’s a right good guy.” Robertson seized his opportunity and dived over in Dublin for a Triple Crown-clinching try, that being the game of which he’s most fond because of the brotherhood with the Irish who threw a great hoolie for the victors. Then came France, the testicle-squeezers, and another mess of a contest with “hardly any rugby played” but again a glorious one.

And the smout sneaked out with a match ball after the Murrayfield groundsman looked the other way. It was in his possession until just a few months ago when he auctioned it for the Hearts+Balls charity which looks after stricken rugby players, raising £4,500. Says Robertson: “At the final whistle I saw Peter Dods snaffle a ball and thought: ‘Right, I’m having one.’ I don’t know what he’s done with his. Peter keeps his cards close to his chest – typical Gala man! But there were three in use that day and I’ve always wondered what happened to the other one … ”



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.