At troubling times we turn to wise old owls and who better for the Scottish rugby family to listen to than a man who, at the age of 61, has vowed that his game is not over.
Ian “Tam” Thorburn may not be a household name, and he’d rather it stayed that way – “I’m not a legend, just a guy who likes playing rugby” – but he is a well-known and much-loved character across the rugby clubhouses of the land.
None more so than in Annan, the club he has represented with distinction for 44 years. “A big plus for me has been playing in the same team as various past team-mates’ sons and even grandsons, including my own boy [Max],” said Thorburn as we caught up for an overdue catch-up yesterday. A declaration of personal interest here. As a former Annan player, I’ve played in the same team as Tam a few times many moons ago. I hung up my boots at 26 but Tam was in it for the long haul.
Thorburn’s early years were in the township (not a derogatory term, fact) of Eastriggs on the outskirts of Annan in Dumfriesshire. It was built during the First World War, opened by Prime Minister David Lloyd-George, to house workers in the effort to produce munitions. Tam grew up with his now late brother and two sisters and his dad built a house in nearby Gretna, which is where his love of sport, though initially in the football code, flourished.
“I played football for Gretna from under-18s and, to be honest, made a bit of a prat of myself, got led astray with the drinking and such like, so some pals suggested rugby and I’d played a bit with them at Colts so went that direction, and the rest is history I suppose.” He reckons getting picked on in childhood had an impact on his rugby ability and cites the school bus as a particularly daunting experience. “Oh I got bullied badly, I was a speccy b******,” said Thorburn as he reflected on that daily school bus gauntlet. “But eventually I fought back, and I think that helped me in rugby. Play fair, but, if someone comes at you, smash them.”
A former Annan Academy pupil, he joins i actress Ashley Jensen and former deputy First Minister Jim Wallace among the alma mater. On the eyesight issue, it would not be unfair to say that Tam is practically blind without his superstrength spectacles. He’s not known as “The Bat” for nothing. But he’s resisted contact lenses. “I could just never take to them,” said the man who has worked his life in the insurance trade. His rugby career started on the wing in 1977 against Wigton. In a magic piece of coincidence, his first game after turning 60 came, for Annan seconds, against the very same team in the Cumbrian hometown of Melvyn Bragg. A joint statue maybe Wigtonians?
His time in the backline could only last so long as the frontline beckoned. “This young guy called Shaun McGauchie came along at stand-off and he was so good I was out on the wing and not getting a pass for about three months, so thought ‘sod this I’ll go in the forwards’,” recalled Thorburn.
The McGauchie he refers to is the former Scotland B cap and Welsh Cup final winner with Pontypool, who was for a while Annan’s greatest. He moved to Selkirk, a link which has continued down the years. Thorburn has played alongside some standout Philiphaugh exports, from ex-Scotland Under-19 captain Sean Buckley, to Selkirk captain now match citing commissioner Paul Minto and even Alex Dunbar, the Brive and Scotland centre.
The pride of Annan RFC, 31-times capped Dunbar is an obvious choice when it comes to the best he’s been in a team with.
“I could name a few others, though, and your brother wasn’t bad.” Ah yes, my younger brother Niall, long-time stand-off and coach at Annan RFC, and one-time club finals diarist for The Scotsman ahead of the famous 2003 Bowl triumph at Murrayfield. Every eldest has a younger, more athletically gifted younger sibling to be proud of!
“I played in his first-team debut when he was about 16 at Creighton [Carlisle] and could see he was going to be a cracking player.” And how about his older brother?
“You turned up, gave it a go and always got your round in after the game, so you were a good lad in my book,” said Thorburn. I’ll take that!
Mixing it with Tony Stanger and Doddie Weir
He’s played against a few greats too. Thorburn was Annan captain from 1989-1991 at a time of change as they moved on from the tough school of the Border Junior League to National Leagues via Glasgow District and raced up to a high-point of the third tier. Back in his wing days he went head to head with the man who would go on to score the most famous tries in Scottish rugby history.
“It was at one of the Hawick junior teams and you’d get good crowds, hundreds in those days. And as usual you’d have the old Hawick guys getting in your ear and as I was warming up one of them must have seen the number on my back and said ‘you’re in for a bad afternoon today son’.
“He was right, I was up against Tony Stanger! Wasn’t great but he gave me a great afternoon a few years later with that try.”
He also played against Doddie Weir in a Gala junior sevens tournament. “We lost narrowly to Melrose in the semis and were gutted because we had a really good sevens team then and thought we could win it.
“But I remember clearly the strategy for that game was to keep the ball away from Doddie, or the lanky blond lad as we said at the time because he’s the main threat.”
Thorburn also recalls sharing a bath chat with John Beattie at West of Scotland and an uplifting encounter with one of his heroes. “John Rutherford would be my all-time rugby hero but a close second would be Jim Renwick,” said Thorburn.
“We played against Jim in his Hawick Harlequins days. But I remember in 2004 I was playing for Annan against Edinburgh Accies when he was assistant coach to Ian Barnes. I got sent off. But the ref was wrong. I’m not a saint but he was on this occasion.
“Jim came to me at half-time and said ‘I’ve had a word with the ref and told him that was out of order, you can’t send off someone older than you’.”
Wise words indeed. And Tam has plenty more to give, once normality resumes.
“Before games I always tell the young lads to enjoy the moment. This is the best time of the week. No work, no kids or family pressures. Forget the scoreboard, that will take care of itself. Let’s just go out and have fun.”