“It was a massive problem growing up. My dad worked in America a lot and I always made him come back with a pair of basketball boots - I had an insane collection. Shoe fashions completely passed me by. When whatever I was wearing were worn out and flapping I would be in denial about the size of my feet, going: ‘I’ll just head into town and find a pair I like.’ No chance.
“Ten-pin bowling was hopeless - the alleys never had anything like 15s - and the same with skiing. When I started playing rugby and managed to get boots that fitted these became my most treasured possessions and I’d be like: ‘Please, God, don’t make them rip.’ On tour with Scotland I always took them onto the plane with me. If they’d got lost I’d have been completely stuck.”
Fortunately this never happened and the giant lock’s big banana feet were no impediment to a long career in dark blue encompassing two World Cups and, most gloriously, the last-ever Five Nations title in 1999. Grimes is high up the list of the most-capped with 71 and this may come as a surprise to those not fully conversant with the dark arts of the middle row. He went about his work quietly though there was one famous moment when he had Bill McLaren pushing the needle on the volume gauge seriously into the red.
Jim Calder against Wales in 1982 is still the all-time, showstopping, makes-grown-men-greet, stone-cold classic Scottish try. But if that’s our Stairway to Heaven, then Grimes 17 years later versus Ireland was the Smoke on the Water: an electric break from deep by Gregor Townsend, basketball pass to Alan Tait, on to Glenn Metcalfe, sleight-of-hand delivery to Cammy Murray who looked set to send Kenny Logan into the corner only for the 6ft 6in fellow in the headband to come thundering into the line, confirming that slim-hipped backs in full flight might be aesthetically pleasing but runaway bullocks are more exciting. “That is one of the great tries!” exclaimed McLaren. “What an extraordinary score! You won’t see a better one all championship!”
“To be honest,” says Grimes, “I don’t remember much about the games I played. Silly things, the odd glaring mistakes, and of course the tries. We had great backs that season who really opened up games for a lot of above-ground running, which suited me - I was a loupin’ athlete. That try was a fantastic move and I was thrilled to be on the end of it. Poor Kenny, though. He hadn’t scored one in the championship and was becoming quite irritated about that. I think his eyes were bulging as Cammy made his pass. ‘Here we go,’ he must have thought. In the replays you can just see him slope off in a semi-sulk as everyone else jumps on top of me. To be fair to him, though, he joined in eventually.”
I’m catching up with Newcastle-based Grimes, 46, as he home-schools his two kids: “My son Harry’s just asked for help with a haiku poem - I must be the worst candidate in the world for something like that.” His real job is land director for major home-builders. “I find the sites and do the deals.” Battering down poor farmers? He laughs: “I get them good prices. We’re providing range-of-choice and value-for-money housing for the next generation.” Sounds like he’s quoting from the brochure. “Well, the amount of abuse you get for working for a developer.”
Grimes’s dark blue years were 1997 to 2005 and he has good stories to tell about them, including one that seems very Scottish. The current team achieving a historic Twickenham triumph and then tripping over themselves in two home games reminds him of the first-ever Six Nations in 2000 and a forgettable day in Rome: “We were defending champs, Italy were making their debut and, first game of the tournament, everyone expected a walkover. But they had the sun on their backs and after John Leslie got injured early we were chaotic. Kenny couldn’t kick for toffee and [Diego] Dominguez couldn’t miss. He had one of those days, flopping drop goals from everywhere.”
That wasn’t Grimes’ only defeat to today’s opponents at Murrayfield - he also lost in 2004 - but he won’t hear a bad word said against Italian rugby. To round off a club career of stopovers at Caledonia Reds, Glasgow Warriors and Newcastle Falcons, he enjoyed a “glory year” at Padua in the north-east near Venice. “The kit the players got given included sunglasses - of course it did. And the food! In the UK at that time clubs were phoning ahead to hotels: ‘We’ve got professional sportsmen coming in - no salt, sugar or butter.’ Anything that gave food flavour, basically, so we were eating boiled chicken breasts, not tasty at all. But in Italy the meals were incredible. I’m drooling at the memory of the parma ham.”
Grimes is that fairly exotic beast in our rugby. That is, a player hailing from Aberdeen. The last ex-Robert Gordon’s College pupil to represent Scotland before him had been fellow lock Bert Bruce who in his 1947 debut with the line at his mercy dropped that ball. Thankfully that didn’t happen to Grimes in the win over the Irish.
He’s in the school’s book of fascinating facts for being one of six from the same family studying at the one time. “All boys: Keith, Andrew, Alistair, Graeme, Dougal and me, the second oldest. And all 6ft 6in - he’ll hate me saying this - apart from Graeme. He looks funny in family photos when we’re all in a line as I don’t think he’s quite 6ft. ‘Who’s that?’ folk will ask. ‘My brother - the runt of the litter.’”
Your poor mother, I say, having to cook for such a scavenging gang of growing lads. “That’s why I eat so quickly now - it was survival of the fittest. And my poor father, too. We were always breaking stuff, playing football in the house. He’d buy a new TV and within six months it had a cracked screen. That happened a few times. He went nuts.”
Dad Douglas working in the oil industry which meant a peripatetic childhood for Grimes: Milan, Singapore and London before Stonehaven and a regal address, Fetteresso Castle. “We didn’t have the whole thing, it was a semi-detached castle by the time we moved there.” Nevertheless this caused much amusement when he came down to Edinburgh to sign up for Watsonians.
“In the queue for registration behind me was Gordon Hannah, a welder from Kirkcaldy. ‘So you actually live in castle?’ he said. I tried to explain that it wasn’t quite as grand as it must have been back in the 14th century when he fell to his knees and, like that scene in the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America, shouted: ‘Praise the Lord!’ That was how I got my nickname - Lord Grimes.”
When he thinks about it, though, Grimes reckons it’s remarkable he ever became a rugby player. “Maybe the reason Robert Gordon’s produced so few players is that rugby was a fair old commitment. Many Saturdays in my time there we were up at 7am for away games in the Central Belt. Because of lack of sleep, greasy spoon breakfasts at The Horn just south of Dundee and us having to jump straight off the bus after a three-and-a-half hour journey, it was hardly any wonder that the likes of Stew-Mel and Merchiston put cricket scores on us. Then it was manky pies and back on the bus with no internet for another three-and-a-half hours home.”
At Edinburgh Uni he didn’t have a rip-roaring start to varsity rugger, only making the 6ths. He only made a North American tour because a friend pulled out but achieved his first man-of-the-match. It was another call-off that got him onto the bench for Scotland Under-21s. “I was a late developer. When rugby turned professional and the first intake had been signed up I was working for the Bank of Scotland [in the building which now houses your newspaper of choice, as it happens]. Most mornings I’d see Trevor Steven, who lived nearby, drive off to Rangers in his gleaming Porsche and I’d think to myself: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to play pro sport for a living?’ For the second intake I got signed.”
Grimes knows that the work of middle rows can often go unnoticed by those who wait for the moments when the backs blow up games. “That doesn’t happen in New Zealand where the grafters, the Brodie Retallicks, are revered almost as much as the guys with the flash skills. But the ball won’t reach them without the determination, drive and tackle-counts of those in my position. That stuff may not always be visible but it’s an elite skill and vital.”
Grimes would more often than not bind with Scott Murray who was the target in Scotland lineouts. So there’s inconspicuous and below that there’s another sub-level of being a lock. Murray, voted the Five Nations’ top man in ’99, possibly seemed the star of his own TV reality show next to Grimes. “I was definitely more of a workhorse,” he laughs.
Interestingly, while he would admire others in his position who could “turn into a beast” on the field, Grimes was like an actor workshopping a role and really had to psyche himself up. “I’m not naturally a confrontational person, I didn’t have that spike in me. So all week in the lead-up to games I’d have to mentally rehearse what relentless aggression would be like.”
As was typical of his career, Grimes didn’t start the championship season but, coming in for the second game, he seized his chance. After the fantastic, five-try success against France, Scotland had to wait on Wales doing them a favour and shutting out England. The team were back in Edinburgh by then, some in bars with the supporters, but Grimes who’d misplaced his passport took up Townsend’s offer to join him on the train down to Brive where the fly-half was playing at the time. “We were hungover, and only half-watching. England were leading but Neil Jenkins was keeping Wales in touch. Then Scott Gibbs dived over for that wonderful try. Gregor and I opened the windows and cheered but we must have sounded like madmen. There wasn’t a soul around.”
Grimes’ World Cups ended, as they tend to do for Scotland, in the quarter-finals. In 2003 in Australia there was controversy in the group game against France and our man thinks he was probably the cause of it. “Martin Leslie, great guy, was cited in the previous match against the USA and banned. He had a twitch which never bothered him; he used to make fun of himself. I suggested the team could all twitch during the anthems as a tribute to him and thought no more about it. Then, during Flower of Scotland, something had got to the crowd. I thought it was a streaker. But up on the big screen some of the guys were twitching. They got a cheer and the ones that didn’t were booed. Our gesture didn’t go down too well, especially after we were beaten so heavily, and Martin was awfully embarrassed.”
Then, with the game lost, the team were chilling out in a pool where at least Grimes was able to achieve some international recognition for the Scots with his enormous plates of meat.
“Ian Thorpe and the rest of the Aussie Olympic swimming team were finishing some training and some of the boys were waiting for him to turn at our end then diving in to take him on for 50 metres. The only one who got close was the team manager, Gav Scott, who was wearing flippers.
“The Thorpedo came and chatted to us. What could I ask him? It could only be: ‘I hear you have big feet.’ We talked about our shoe dilemmas and then we had a ‘foot-off’. I didn’t win - he’s size 17 - but I got pretty close!”