Interview: Peter Stagg beat France at height of his career

Peter Stagg leaps highest for the ball at a lineout against France at Murrayfield in 1966. Picture: Hamish Campbell
Peter Stagg leaps highest for the ball at a lineout against France at Murrayfield in 1966. Picture: Hamish Campbell
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You wouldn’t imagine it possible to misplace the man who once stood 
tallest in world rugby, whose party-piece was, from underneath a crossbar, to jump up and clap his hands above it, but I’m thinking I might have to admit defeat in the search for Peter Stagg.

Jim Telfer, whose left ear used to nestle next to Stagg’s right buttock in the Scotland scrum, hasn’t heard from him for “years and years”. Sandy 
Carmichael, whose right bum-cheek was in turn a pillow for Stagg, says: “Six-foot-something-incredible, size 14 feet. When he entered the grand ballroom of Edinburgh’s North 
British Hotel he had to remember to duck. Isn’t he in Zambia?”

Then, a breakthrough! Peter “PC” Brown, another old team-mate in dark blue, tells me he’s recently made contact. “I’m going to be down a drain for the next couple of hours but I’ll pass on his phone number later,” Brown says. By some weird symmetry - part of the impenetrable secret code of international oval-ball heavers and grunters, no doubt - Stagg when I finally reach him is constructing a water-wheel in his garden in the Dordogne.

Actually, not constructing so much as reconstructing. He and his wife Sue live on the site of 14th century ironworks in this corner of southwest France where cannons were once produced for the navy. But, hang on: PK Stagg of Oxford Uni, Sale, Scotland (28 caps) and the British Lions is 75 and he’s just been telling me how he’s been battling prostate cancer. Is he really going to start his own foundry?

“Ha, not quite. We just want to see the wheel turn again. I applied for a grant to repair it. French bureaucracy took seven years to say: ‘Non.’ But the local cultural association have taken it on as a project. Myself and four retired chaps do a morning’s shift, stop for a pretty alcoholic lunch, then a few more hours before we finish the day with drinks.”

The wheel of life turns constantly for Stagg. “I’ve lived abroad for the best part of 40 years,” he says, explaining his vanishing act. “When you’ve been away from the old country for a while it’s difficult to think about going back. Your horizons broaden, you seek out new challenges. We wouldn’t mind trying Australia next but time may be against us now.”

Stagg will take an extended break from the wheelwork tomorrow afternoon to watch France vs Scotland 500 kilometres up the road in Paris. Encouraged by the thrilling start made by the current team, he’s keen to see it continue. But memories of his old XV will undoubtedly be stirred. He made his international debut in Paris way back in 1965 and is a member of that exclusive Scottish club of two-time winners in the French capital.

His story is remarkable, involving as it does can-can girls, explosives, the weatherman who won the war, finnan haddies served daily and how growing onions landed him in jail. But (and this is a minor tragedy for your correspondent) it does not include a threat to go on strike from Scotland’s middle row if the beaks didn’t sign an expenses chitty bearing the out-and-out legend: “Copy of Playboy magazine – 10s 6d.”

John Frame recounts the story – it’s in a rugby book – about a full and frank exchange of views between Stagg and SRU secretary John Law in Edinburgh’s Braid Hills Hotel. It was witnessed by some of the hotel’s “dowager ladies in permanent residence”, which given Stagg’s X-tra long and lean disposition makes me think of a classic scene from Fawlty Towers.

“Cross my heart and Brownies’ honour:
that wasn’t me,” he says. “I mean, I can sympathise because I had the notorious red pen put through the price of a phonecall I’d made from the NB. One shilling, it was. One shilling! Sending out the bill would have cost more! In those days you paid for everything. You got given a shirt but it was to last the whole season. I liked to swap with my opposite number so was always buying a replacement. What a wonderful, convivial game rugby was in my day.”

Once he was in urgent need of substitute socks. “My dark blue pair were full of holes and there was no time to rush out and buy new ones. I didn’t have a wife – didn’t marry until I was 48 – and wouldn’t have been able to darn them. So I simply covered my calves in boot polish.” The holes were from the hacking and stamping he’d received in the lineout during the previous game; you could do that sort of thing in those days. Wonderful, convivial game and all that.

Young rugby fans watching throw-ins now must think: “How quaint, how civilised.” Stagg again on his era: “The line-out was a lawless place. The dark arts were well-practised. You got guys twisting your balls, jabbing fingers in your eyes, everything to put you off jumping. The worst was when they took your legs away. You came down with a helluva thump.”

Well, Stagg had that much farther to fall. His height was the stuff of Murrayfield legend. For a long time it seems no one really knew the full extent of him. Brian Henderson, the team-mate responsible for logging weights and measures, is supposed to have been sworn to secrecy. Then, on the Lions tour of South Africa in 1968, the man from the Daily Telegraph thought he’d got himself an exclusive, placing marks in the sand while the sunbathing Stagg dozed on a beach. Six foot seven inches was the big reveal. Stagg, who was always unimpressed with this hack, adds: “No, at my peak I was six-ten.”

Self-conscious he might have been, but he wasn’t going to have three inches nicked from him. “I was always tall, shooting up at 14 and again at 18. I used to get dreadfully embarrassed about my height. You either like sticking out in a crowd or you don’t. I’m the shy, retiring type. There was some bullying at school and I was made to fight because I was so tall.”

Scotland in 1965 were happy to have him on their team. The French team, who, according to Norman Mair in The Scotsman, were full of wee guys like Lilian Camberabero, Paul Dedieu and Jean Gachassin who “wouldn’t look out of place alongside Jimmy Johnstone and Willie Henderson”, gawped up at the new cap in wonder. “L’interminable Stagg,” they called him. The tartan challenge to the Eiffel Tower.

Stagg was apprehensive before that debut in the Stade Colombes but not the only one. “I roomed with Mike Campbell-Lamerton who was an incredibly nervous chain-smoker. He was up half the night and, in the morning, went to mass. But that team was a super bunch of guys. Pringle Fisher, Derrick Grant and “Creamy” [Jim] 
Telfer were salt-of-the-earth. David Rollo was as strong as an ox, a farmer with the farmer’s strength, indefatigable. Then there was the mercurial character of Tremayne Rodd, part of that fantastic London Scottish back-line, who dressed artistically. No country yokel, he was a town sophisticate!” But the French weren’t short of artistry. “[Walter] Spanghero, [Benoit] Dauga, [Michel] Crauste – that was a great team. They ran everywhere, lobbed the ball, passed it overhead. That was when the French played with a spirit of liberation.” They won the game 16-8.

Stagg’s Scotland defeated Australia and South Africa twice, including your correspondent’s first match viewed from Murrayfield’s schoolboys’ enclosure in 1969. “That was the game when there were rumours anti-apartheid protestors had scattered broken glass on the pitch.” The Parisian double came in the next two trips across the Channel. In ’67 Scotland won 9-8 when they added Jock Turner to the side and France had Jo Maso. Stagg’s height was still causing Gallic consternation and Norman Mair felt compelled to trot out Gulliver-Lilliput references. “You had to grin and bear that sort of thing,” he sighs. This was very much the forgotten win because the one in ’69 (6-3 with the help of Telfer’s try) would be endlessly recalled as subsequent Scottish hopes disappeared into the Seine mist. But the victories were equally hard-won, much-cherished by the players – “To win in France was very special” – and royally celebrated. More of that in a moment.

Peter Kinder Stagg – Kinder was his mother’s maiden name - was born just a hefty punt from Twickenham, the son of James Stagg, the man responsible for one of the most important weather forecasts in history. Stagg Sr was the RAF meteorologist who persuaded General Eisenhower to change the date of the D-day landings. Stagg’s father had to withstand heavy pressure from the west in the shape of a loud American meteorologist with, he reckoned, inferior methodology.

As the story was told in a stage play a couple of years ago, the US system was based on looking at past weather charts while the Brits studied the jet stream, a very new science. Stagg Sr warned a big storm was coming and recommended the Normandy landings be delayed 24 hours, otherwise tens of thousands of men could be killed and the fighting prolonged by three years. David
Haig played Stagg Sr on the stage and there have been other portrayals in films like The Longest Day. Presumably Stagg, just three in 1944, was knocked out by the answer to the question: “What did you do in the war, Daddy?”

“Well, my father never discussed the war. I only found out about his role after he died. As the anniversaries have come along there have been more and more books. The American meteorologist, by all accounts, was a bit of a bullshitter. The stress my father was under must have been unbelievable and it was a helluva judgement by him.”

The dad-son relationship was of its time, and maybe then some. “My father was a dour man with a very stern voice,” explains Stagg. “My brother and I were never praised and our upbringing was extremely Victorian. We would eat our meals in the kitchen and our parents would eat theirs in the dining room. We were seen but never heard and we lived more in fear than in love. But I think he was proud of my rugby career, as I was of his work. He hoped to become director of the Meteorological Office until being passed over, which caused bitterness. But he would have made a formidable player himself if he’d had the opportunity. He was six foot four which was tall for his era and hard as bloody nails.”

Stagg has two children and his son Jamie is now even taller than him. So how Scottish did our man feel before wearing the thistle on his shirt, given his early life and all his education had been in England? “Very. Family 
holidays were spent in Dalkeith, where my father was born. He was a plumber’s son in a tiny house who studied by candlelight after his parents had gone to bed. My grandmother was always dressed in black. She gave us porridge every morning and finnan haddies 
every afternoon. My brother and I played by a stream blackened by dust from the coal mines. Yes, extremely Scottish!”

A treat on these holidays would be an excursion to the beach at Musselburgh. If that doesn’t sound terribly far-travelled or exotic then neither was the life Stagg later made for himself. He’d studied chemistry at Oxford but hated it, having been nudged down a scientific route by a tutor friend of his father. Recruited by ICI in Manchester he was posted to England’s north-east as a sales rep for paints, inks and explosives, which meant trips back across country to play for Sale. He had to train on his own and remembers running round football pitches in the dark – “in bare feet for some reason and a few times in a foot of snow.”

There had to be something else. “I had a romantic notion to play for Hawick. They were a great team in the 1960s of course. I loved the town and Billy Hunter was one of my good chums. But it never happened.”

Life did get more lively, though.

After his Scotland career was over, work took Stagg to Zambia where he continued playing in the Copperbelt, scoring his first-ever tries. He appeared in Zambia’s maiden international and, not wanting to become institutionalised with ICI, stayed on in Africa, moved between states, went kind of native and lived in the bush – not without its dramas. In Nigeria, still involved in chemicals, his plant was held up by robbers and a passer-by shot and killed.

Once, in dead of night, his “head boy” brought a pregnant tribeswoman to his door. “The baby was half out; she’d tried to deliver it herself. I took her to the nearest hospital which was practically deserted.” Another time, 5am, he was arrested and thrown in jail, the tarpaulins he’d acquired for his onions fields having been nicked from Zambia’s railways. “Africa was never dull,” he says. Then came Indonesia, which he found “incredibly corrupt”, and Saudi Arabia. In France for 14 years, Stagg’s nearest village is Javerlhac – “but it’s not even on the map.” Lions reunions come round every five years and are hugely enjoyable but may soon end as more die off. From Scotland duty Rodger Arneil - popping in for a glass en route to his French retreat - is the only old boy he sees anymore.

But Stagg has never forgotten those wins in Paris or the parties which followed. And, on one occasion, preceded? I read out a ’65 despatch from John Rafferty of The Scotsman, very much a football man, who was appalled that photographs of the players frolicking with Folies Bergere can-can girls had appeared in racier newspapers on the morning of the game.

Stagg laughs loudly. “That was a great night, as was every night the team spent in Paris. I’m pretty sure that was the Thursday evening, not the Friday. It must have been because we moved on to the Crazy Horse Saloon where the choreography was even more spectacular and the girls even more beautiful and naughtier, then ended up at the market at Les Halles at 6am with bowls of onion soup with a thick layer of cheese on top.”

Hope no one went to jail for those onions, I say. He tells me to visit him the next time I’m in France. “Hopefully the water-wheel will be in full working order.” I say I will, but first I must find the fellow who heroically tried to get the SRU to pay for his Playboy.