When Ned Haig came up with the idea of seven-a-side rugby in 1883, it was still 13 years before the first hosting of the modern Olympic Games. The Borders butcher, who dreamt up the concept as a moneyspinner for Melrose RFC, could never have imagined that, well over a century later, the abbreviated game would find itself the centre of global attention in the unlikely setting of Rio de Janeiro.
It is fitting then that there will be a Melrose connection when rugby makes its return to the Olympics and sevens makes its debut next month as Mark Robertson will be part of the Great Britain squad aiming for a medal.
Now 31, Robertson is joined by fellow Scot Mark Bennett in head coach Simon Amor’s 12-man pool and the link with the home of the sport was certainly not lost on the centre/wing.
“To be able to represent Melrose at the Olympics is a huge thing for me,” said Robertson. “I grew up in Melrose and never played for any other club at amateur level. I’m massively proud to be able to represent the club.”
There was a small fly in the ointment at last week’s announcement as the Team GB protocol of announcing members with name, age and birthplace refused to take account of Borders sensitivities. “I was a bit gutted when they announced the team and put ‘Mark Robertson – Galashiels’. I’m not happy about that, I’ve got to say,” said the man who was born in Borders General Hospital in the year of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
“I’m heading back to Melrose before rejoining the GB squad so I’ll be grabbing a couple of things from the Greenyards and popping them into a few photos here and there when I get to Rio.”
As the Games approach many inspiring tales will emerge of various members of the British team’s inspiring “Olympic journeys” – as they are often termed – and Robertson’s can compete with any when it comes to the fairytale factor.
Following a career which never quite reached its potential, due in the main to unfortunate injuries, the former Melrose, Borders and Edinburgh player has enjoyed a sweet Indian summer through his contract with Scotland Sevens and can’t quite believe that he will soon have Olympian as part of his CV.
In 2010 and 2011 his playing future hung in the balance as a complicated groin/abdomen injury threatened to end his career while he was at Edinburgh.
“I would have finished. I went for my career-ending insurance because the surgeons that I’d seen all over the country weren’t able to tell me what was wrong or how long it would take to get back. They just said there were a lot of injuries there,” he explained.
“But my career-ending insurance was void because I hadn’t played enough games at the time I’d taken it out. That was luck, complete luck that it didn’t happen. I perhaps wouldn’t have been here if I’d taken that policy out.
“I paid to go over to America to get treatment for my groin and abdomen. I saw some specialists who said, ‘listen, it can get better, it’s just going to take time’. Once you hear that, once you have someone being positive about it, that definitely made me believe I could get back and play.
“I came back and went to Edinburgh University to do my Masters in Physiology with Strength and Conditioning. I wasn’t playing at all, but at the end of my Masters I went to London Scottish where I got a few games before getting back on to the World Series [with the Scotland Sevens squad].”
Coming through these tough times added extra emotion to the raw excitement of Olympic selection. “When I said to my old man, my mum and my wife last week, there were quite a few tears; we were just so, so proud,” he said. “I’m very fortunate at the same time. It has taken a lot of hard work and a lot of pretty crap times. When you’ve been through a bit of adversity, it makes it a lot sweeter.”
The “old man” is Keith Robertson, pictured, the 44-times capped wing who played in Scotland’s 1984 Grand Slam. He will be heading to Rio to watch his son a few months after taking great pride in watching him play his part in Scotland’s historic first ever Cup win on the world sevens circuit when they beat South Africa in the final of the London event.
“He’s been a massive supporter all through my career,” said Robertson of his father. “He thinks I had the potential to play 15s for the country, and that injuries have limited me. He’s seen how grumpy and pissed off I’ve been over the years, how much it’s taken out of me but also how much I’ve got from it. I think he’s just massively proud for me, and for the family, that I’ve managed to do something for the family that’s a dream come true.
“When they were down at Twickenham, my mum was seriously worried. When we won that final, he said it was the most excited he’s been in his life. He got up and my mum said he went white and she thought he was having a heart attack. He had to lie down; he didn’t know what was going on.”
Robertson carried that cup-winning form into his time with the wider Great Britain training group, scoring two tries in the final of the recent Sevens and the City event at Saracens’ Allianz Park and doing enough to convince Amor he deserves his place on the plane to Brazil alongside Glasgow Warriors centre Bennett, two Welshmen and eight Englishmen.
From the despair of six years ago when it seemed like he might not play rugby again, walking out at an Olympic opening ceremony will be a triumph for Robertson, but he is adamant that the “journey” won’t end there and a golden, rather than silver, lining is the aim.
“I don’t want to just get in the squad, go there and be just another number. I’ve got this far – I want to go out there and actually achieve something,” he said.
“I’ve got a Melrose medal but unfortunately it’s a silver one. We got to the 2005 final when I was 19, and it was 30 years to the day since my old man had won Melrose Sevens when he was 19 in 1975.
“All I ever wanted to do growing up was play at Melrose Sevens, never mind play Hong Kong and other stuff. Playing at Melrose Sevens was the biggest thing in my life – it was always a day that I looked forward to, that second Saturday in April.
“We were 24-0 up at half-time in the final against Stellenbosch University. I’d scored two in that half, and then we lost 42-24. I remember sitting on the pitch afterwards the most gutted I’ve ever been.”
More disappointments lay in store for Robertson in subsequent years but his tenacity has been rewarded with a trip to Rio and an experience he, never mind Ned Haig, could never have believed was possible.