Hollywood has descended on Holyrood with Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town becoming a movie racetrack for sinister black hotrods to roar across the ancient cobbles in Fast & Furious 9. But will the plot be any more ripping than the yarn I’m being told by Norrie Rowan?
It’s highly unlikely, and I can’t help wondering why producers haven’t pounced on the extraordinary events of 9 December, 1989. Rowan’s rugby career as a Scotland prop had ended the year before and after that night Cristian Raducanu would never again play front row for the national team of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania, the dictator’s rule crumbling as the player was spirited down a tunnel behind our man’s pub. And this all happened mere yards from where Fast & Furious 9 was being filmed the day before yesterday.
Who is this Vin Diesel guy, anyway? Is he really tough? I bet he wouldn’t have lasted long in Rowan’s era of rugby. Maybe Norrie wasn’t very fast but he could get furious. Survival at the business end of the scrum meant never backing down. But the muddied oafs of the amateur game secretly loved each other and especially the props, which was how Rowan ended up coming to Raducanu’s aid.
Earlier in the day Romania had been visitors to Murrayfield, the final Test before Scotland’s Grand Slam glory the following spring. The post-match banquet was held at the Carlton Highland Hotel where Raducanu was being chaperoned by Ceausescu’s Securitate.
“These goons were keeping a close watch on him because he was high-risk for a possible defection,” explains Rowan, 67. “I think his dad was high up in the military and in the event of Ceausescu being overthrown, which obviously happened, he could have ended up shot like a couple of other Romanian players.
“I ran the Tron Tavern where teams would come after the official meal. I’d had Romanians there in the past. These guys had no money so I’d give them carry-outs for the journey home. Sean Lineen helped hustle Cristian into the pub. There was a back door which led down to the bottom of the Old Town. Cristian popped out in Niddry Street and asked a passing bobby for political asylum, which must have made for an interesting diversion from the usual police business of Saturday round about midnight!”
Told you it was a good story. Rowan has lots of them. Indeed he has lots of tales concerning games with Romania, including the encounter which marks him as the oldest Scot to have played in the Rugby World Cup. First, though, back to ’89:
“Cristian went to stay at a refugee centre in Edinburgh run by an old pal who phoned me up to say he was becoming restless so I said: ‘Tell him to come and work for me’. I had a building company, horrible jobs gutting grotty old places, you should have seen the stoor. I remember giving him a 20 quid note. He started crying and said: ‘Back home this would be a month’s wages’. Then I got him a game for my club Boroughmuir.
“He went down to Yorkshire after that to play for clubs there. The last time I saw him he burst into tears again. ‘You’re the only one who tried to help me,’ he said. He set himself up in business importing furniture and now he’s a millionaire. I said: ‘Can you give me a job?’ ”
From boom to bust, Rowan tells a harum-scarum story about his own life. He was a prominent, Porsche-driving property developer until being declared bankrupt. There may not yet be a movie about Raducanu but his Scottish friend’s re-discovery of 18th century vaults under the capital – special effects for the ghost tours – will feature in an upcoming TV series about subterranean worlds. Rowan is a kenspeckle Edinburgh character with a weel-kent face not too bashed up by rugby who’s split up from the mother of his three children although they continue to live on separate floors of a property with the name on the door: “The Rowin’ Rowans”. One minute he’s telling me he’s left the developing to his kids; the next how the city council have just knocked back one of his planning applications for a sixth time. His phone rings often during our chat, and the local authority get it in the neck constantly.
We’re in the Dome, definitely the Edinburgh nosherie with the most spectacular roof, and sat at the table where Rowan used to regularly meet the Evening News’ legend in his own lunchtime, John Gibson, and trade signature mince-and-tatties for mention in the paper of his latest grand scheme. I worked opposite the late Jaygee for many years and marvelled at his capacity for three courses plus wine while Rowan marvelled at his ability to get the story down, so we raise a glass to his memory. John wasn’t much interested in rugby, though, whereas I am and especially in Rowan’s case its redemptive qualities.
He explains: “I was at school for a while with Graeme Souness. Carrick Vale was great for football with five teams per year but I was considered too rough to get a game! A geography teacher ran a rugby team in his own time and that proved good for me because I was a bit of a wild boy, running riot in English and suchlike. I stole a car and was sent to the detention centre at Glenochil run by these ex-Army guys who had me charging up hills with telegraph poles.” Ideal training for future World Cup props, you would think.
During our lunch he keeps the waitress hovering by draining his soup. “I’m a Wester Hailes boy, you see,” he says. Rowan was raised on the housing estate in the city’s western outskirts which is currently celebrating its 50th birthday, an event missed by many of his friends who succumbed to the heroin scourge. “My mum brought up six of us and was a bit of a legend. My dad was a rich absentee father who owned a hotel in Burntisland and I never saw much of him. Once, because I was completely skint, I went to see him. I walked all the way to Aberdour before getting a lift the rest of the way. He put me to work for the day and gave me a fiver. Davey Johnstone – Elton John’s guitarist – was another schoolmate of mine. He played at the folk club Dad ran. I said to him: ‘You must have seen more of my father than I ever did.’ I’m sure I suffered from a lack of guidance with him not being around but at the same time I probably learned about survival.”
Rowan’s first cap – versus Wales in Cardiff in 1980 – was a long time coming. “I was at my best in the 1970s but wasn’t selected. I was No 2 to Sandy Carmichael, Norman Pender, Rob Cunningham and Iain Milne and must have sat on the bench more than 40 times, including on eight tours. I used to have to do Iain’s scrummaging for him which pissed me off. He’d come up from London, collect his expenses and leave me to grunt and heave. I was a better player than him until 1983 when he returned from the Lions tour and was able to sustain his fitness. He became this bloody rock. The Bear was the nicest guy in the world, which was unfortunate, because I wanted to hate him!”
It was an injury to Milne which let in Rowan, which was a surprise, given how that season began for him. “I’d converted this bus into a mobile home, driven to the Atlas mountains, fell asleep on the roof, woke up disoriented, fell off, caught dysentery. It was Ramadan in Morocco and I was stuck there for 40 days, losing three stones. When I got back I had to play in Boroughmuir’s fourths.”
Rowan won only 13 caps but managed to pack in a lot including two acknowledged classic matches either side of the 1984 Slam both ending in a loss although he still doesn’t know how: 23-17 to England at Twickenham in ’81 and 25-20 to Wales back in Cardiff in ’88.
There were also plenty of bumps and scrapes; instances of great comradeship and riotous laughs, not least by the time Jim Telfer had taken charge of the team. “I think I had one of the first mobile phones in Edinburgh, a muckle big thing of course. I had to show the boys but it went off in my bag in the middle of Jim’s team-talk and he went ballistic. We called him Creamy because he used to foam at the mouth and that day he picked up the bag and threw it against the wall. But I managed to get the phone on to the pitch. Alan Tomes would ask: ‘Can I use it to call my missus?’ One time I was on it as John Beattie got injured. I was like: ‘I’m off … no, wait a minute … I’m on!’”
Rowan credits Telfer with “transporting Scottish rugby into a whole other dimension” but in those days there was still the opportunity to refuel with more than just water. “We were allowed to party,” he grins. “The team would be professionals – architects, lawyers – mixed with farmers and guys who’d come from manual work. That’s why I never enjoyed training: I’d already done a lot of heavy lifting through the day. But we all got on brilliantly and sometimes went a bit wild.”
France was always a great trip although the game in ’81 was another Scotland could have won, the referee denying Jim Renwick what seemed like a perfectly legitimate try. “Our hotel in Paris was the one where the Gestapo based themselves during the war. The chandeliers were amazing… and all that ornate, gilded cornice-work.” There speaks a man appreciative of high-class construction. He continues: “I was down the Pigale at night, swinging the kilt, and bumped into the ref, a wee Welsh bloke: ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘but it’s awfully hard to see France lose.’ I said: ‘What are you talking about?’ He said: ‘The first thing that happens when you arrive in Paris for an international is you’re given a gorgeous blonde as an interpreter to do with as you wish… ’ ”
Rowan played in JPR Williams’ last game for Wales and is charged with ending England Grand Slam captain Bill Beaumont’s career. “It’s in his book. I kicked him in the head. Completely accidentally.” And so we return to the reign of Ceausescu and the privations suffered by his people. Rowan witnessed them touring in ’84 when he turned up with an overstuffed suitcase for bartering, and in one transaction was offered more than he anticipated.
“The bag was seized at the airport in Bucharest. I needed [rugby writer] Brian Meek to big up his councillor’s role in Edinburgh to help me get it back. It was full of groceries because Rob Cunningham, who’d been before, told me I shouldn’t trust the local food – plus soap, ladies’ tights and Kensitas cigarettes which he said would go down well with the locals.
“Well, Renwick, who I roomed with, stole all my grub. And he couldn’t stop laughing the day this chambermaid spotted all the stuff, jumped on my bed and hoicked up her skirt. ‘No no,’ I said, ‘I only need my washing done!’ ”
A larger-than-life figure, Rowan made an impression on Romanians on that trip, and this would be enhanced following the rescue of Raducanu. “There’s a waiter I used to know in Edinburgh, bit of a player,” he says, and here I don’t think he means a practitioner of rugby. “He said to me one day: ‘Norrie, you saved my life.’ ‘How come?’ He said he was in Bucharest, trying to change a load of money when he got himself into a situation. ‘I reckoned these heavies were going to kill me,’ he said. ‘They asked me: ‘Engleesh?’ ‘No,‘Scottish.’ ‘Where from?’ ‘Edinburgh.’ ‘Ah, you know Norree Rowan, yes?’ So maybe the waiter got away with whatever he’d done as a thankyou for Christian escaping that night. And do you know? One of the heavies was a prop and I’m pretty sure I played against him.” Ah, the international fraternity of front rows. It stretches far and wide, it helps out those in trouble.
The ’84 game, played in stifling heat, ended in defeat but three years later in New Zealand, in Rowan’s sole World Cup appearance a few weeks short of his 36th birthday, Scotland beat Romania 55-28 with John Jeffrey nabbing a hat-trick of tries.
This was the first time the tournament was staged, a new experience for all. Rowan remembers a training session suddenly becoming a full-scale practice match against Ireland, with him once again having to serve as the Bear’s stunt-man. “All the coaches were screaming and shouting and I was up against some young buck, far too keen, so I had to collapse the scrum and stamp on his ankle. ‘Do you want to play in this bloody World Cup?’ I said. He calmed down after that.”
That may have been a bloody World Cup but the men in dark blue still had fun. There were the parties when dirt-trackers such as Rowan would hit the streets of Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington and hand out printed invites. There were the Sunday sittings of the kangaroo court, complete with judges’ wigs, which would dole out sentences to those who’d disgraced themselves at the bashes. And while Scotland may not have won the competition, they proved themselves world-class at something else.
“Each country got given crates of Steinlager, the New Zealand beer. Halfway through the tournament the liaison officers worked out that we were consuming more of the stuff than all the other teams put together!”