THE Melrose Sevens may be renowned for the quality of foreign stars it brings to Scotland every year, but the Greenyards today will provide the stage for arguably the greatest Scottish sevens player of the past 15 years to take his bow.
Adam Roxburgh was born to entertain, a player whose skills and reading of the game was way ahead of its time, and whose whole character simply came to life more often on the sevens field than anywhere else. However, with his 35th birthday now just five days away and his wedding five weeks away, ‘Roxy’ has decided this will be his last outing in a Kelso jersey.
He has made previous attempts to step down from the game, but this time insists it is for real. He played his final XVs game last week, the occasion inspiring Kelso to a great win over Dundee. While he skirts around the issue, there is no doubt his longevity has owed a great deal to the struggles of his beloved Kelso. Had the team been in the top flight or battling at the top of the second division, rather than the bottom, he would have gone before now. But he has, many believe, been the rock which has kept the club from collapsing in recent years.
He admitted: "I thought seriously about it after ‘the incident’ [a stag night prank involving Kelso players and a pool cue went horribly wrong four years ago - Roxburgh was not present], but I felt I couldn’t turn my back on the club. And there have been other times since.
"My mother persuaded me not to give it up. She said if you love the game so much, why walk away? She was right. I get called Alan Shearer all the time and people have asked whether I’m going every year but, physically and mentally, I now feel absolutely drained after games.
"There have been games where I’ve had a nightmare but I look around and there are other guys not pulling their weight, expecting me or Kev Utterson or Graeme Cowe to do it all. I’ve seen that change this season in the bigger games, more people standing up and on Saturday I wasn’t pulling the strings. So, it feels time to move on.
"People will probably worry how you fill the gap I leave, but they wondered that when JJ [John Jeffrey] went, when Kerry [Andrew Ker] went, when Eric Paxton retired. There may not be as many boys now but we have a good Harlequins youth side and about ten boys stepping up, while there are already talented back rows like Scott Newlands, Torrie Callander and Ian Wallace there. It’s their time to take this club forward."
It is fitting that Roxburgh will bring the curtain down on the sevens stage after a wonderfully colourful career. An intensely loyal character, he was that rarity in 1997 who stepped out of the rush to full-time rugby and remained with the firm of precision tool makers, Abbey Tool and Gauge in Kelso, his first employer from school. He did not fancy the daily rugby diet and believes players’ performances have suffered in recent years due to a "lack of mental freshness". He admits: "The full-time regimes the guys have had would have driven me mental."
Though he had few peers in terms of rugby skills, he was always going to struggle to keep up in terms of power and fitness with full-timers, but not before a memorable 1997-98 season.
It began, typically, with scintillating sevens form. He helped secure four titles with Kelso and a fifth, the Middlesex Sevens, with the Barbarians in the spring, and then became a key figure in the Borders’ first Heineken Cup campaign, as a part-time player. His form won him a call into the national squad, bridging a five-year gap since he was first involved, and when Rob Wainwright was injured he was into the starting line-up against Australia aged 27. Roxburgh suffered concussion in the first half and was replaced at the interval. His cheeky smile appears as he recalls that Australia perhaps won 32-8, but the score was 8-8 when he departed.
He was not involved in the subsequent 68-10 record defeat by the Springboks, and went on to win seven more caps without ever tasting victory. Gordon Simpson, Budge Pountney and Martin Leslie were parachuted into the scene and Roxburgh never featured again after the 1998 summer tour to Australia.
However, the sevens arena has long been his domain. From a sporting family, Roxburgh was great all-rounder, and he bemoans a lack of the same opportunities for schoolboys to learn a wide variety of sports.
"It’s the old clich, but I play rugby because I enjoy it. The crowd like to be entertained and there aren’t enough entertainers in the game anymore.
"I don’t know if I’m arrogant or cocky; I have a Jekyll and Hyde character, quiet off the field and, well, once you cross the line you have to go for it. But I just love rugby and want the crowd to love it too.
"There is a place for showmanship in the game. I remember seeing the Jed player Kevin Amos doing the biggest, most outrageous dummy in the world which left Jim Thomson for dead once, and he ran up the wing with the ball in the air.
"I remember watching as a kid and seeing people doing jinks, sidesteps, blowing kisses to people and winding them up; it’s been going on for a hundred years, but we’ve lost that in the modern game.
"I don’t think people want to see guys stick the ball up the jumper and bash into each other all day, and maybe sevens allows coaches to give a free rein to players. I was delighted with the team last week when they scored 50 points, and conceded a lot too, because they expressed themselves and we had a great expansive game.
"I was left wondering: why couldn’t they play like that every week? It’s a problem in Scottish rugby now, with players being coached to do everything and so expecting to be told everything and not being confident enough just to try things. My approach is that there’s not a right thing and a wrong thing to do, it’s what you think is right at the time."
Having taken over from Derrick Patterson earlier this season, the sacked coach who he credits with stabilising Kelso and avoiding the drop into the third division - "we’re still using his coaching" - Roxburgh is likely to coach next season. The committee has yet to decide, but his enthusiasm for coaching will surely not be ignored.
From his senior debut alongside Eric Paxton in 1989 to now, more than 16 years on, Roxburgh has managed to wrap more into his career than most. One hopes he will savour his send-off and his team-mates will help to eke it out for as long as possible - perhaps to a fifth final for the charismatic flanker, who was on the bench when Kelso last on at Melrose in 1989. What is certain is the Greenyards will delight in cheering the Roxy smile one last time.