Interview: John Rutherford’s Calcutta Cup Memories

John Rutherford in his garden in Selkirk with his dog Leo. Picture: Ian Georgeson
John Rutherford in his garden in Selkirk with his dog Leo. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Today’s Six Nations stars train every day and skip the post-match banquet, whereas the players of yesteryear were involved in rather less build-up and a good bit more wind-down – and oh how we chortle at those tales of aftershave-quaffing and the oldest trophy being used as a ball. But the yarns can do a disservice to guys like Scotland’s John Rutherford, who was devoted to his sport, otherwise how could he have become the best stand-off in the world?

Rud talks of the hard yards of the amateur era, the sessions that had to be fitted round proper jobs – but then he laughs. Is he concerned we think he’s bragging? He’s not the kind to do that – indeed, I have to work to get him to talk about his own achievements, rather than the ones he hopes come the way of his successor Finn Russell. In submitting to the grind, Tuesday and Thursday nights, he’s not suggesting he was doing anything his fellow fabled zealots of the 1980s dark-blue cause weren’t replicating, on other flinty fields in other rugby towns. No, it’s a memory of his wee brother Billy which is causing him to smile.

“Billy had a lot of natural talent,” says Rutherford, “but you have to be committed and, ach, he just didn’t train hard enough. At Selkirk, we’d be ordered to do ten 100-metre sprints and, me, I had to win every one. But Billy would jog the first nine and then on the tenth, well-rested, he’d zoom past me then turn round and smile, holding up one finger. There would be smoke coming out of my ears. I’d be raging!”

The younger Rutherford was a winger, played for Selkirk alongside our man, got as far as being selected for the South of Scotland – but, two weeks ago, aged 59, he lost his long battle against prostate cancer. “He’d been fighting it for four years,” explains Rutherford quietly. “The last few months he went downhill pretty quickly so it was a relief when the end came for the poor bugger. But, you know, he had a great life. Thirteen years ago he met a Spanish girl and moved out to Duquesa on the Costa del Sol where he ran a bar. Our eldest brother James and I visited him often and recently the three of us managed some great road trips together, a tour of the Scottish islands and around Spain. Billy had a wicked sense of humour. We cremated him on 25 January – Burns Day – and we know he’ll have loved that.”

James played for Selkirk, too, also on the wing, and the days when all three brothers lined up together must have been special ones. “They were,” adds Rud, now 60, “but what a scrapper Billy was – he loved a fight. Selkirk-Gala games were always World War Three, attracting huge crowds and I remember one featuring the young Peter Dods. Billy didn’t like the look of this upstart galloping up the wing so he took him out. For good measure, while they were both on the ground, he started punching Peter. This was right in front of the Gala stand which was in uproar. The touch-judge tried to get Billy off Peter and eventually the only way he could do that was by thumping him on the head with his flag. If YouTube had been around back then, that would have definitely gone viral!”

We don’t need old clips to remind ourselves of Rutherford’s genius, not if you’re a Scot of a certain age. Between 1979 and 1987 he won 42 caps and was never less than elegant and swellegant. Rugger aesthetes loved his artfulness with both hand and boot – everyone else just loved his cool.

In the Calcutta Cup victory over England in 1984, part of Scotland’s Grand Slam, our tall, handsome choreographer was required to collect a horrible, squirted pass which bounced in front of him, dangerously close to English boots. Unperturbed, he stooped to pop the ball to Euan Kennedy for the crucial second try.

Also that famous year, down in 
Cardiff, the Welsh were ganging up on him when, from a standing position, he showed the same grace under 
pressure to ignite the move for Iain Paxton’s score. That pass was reminiscent of Meadowlark Lemon and the man could also swing his hips like Jean-Claude Killy.

I admit to having consulted YouTube for one piece of classic Rutherford, but only to confirm the identities of the four – four! – Englishmen he flummoxed with a glorious sidestep. This was the ’86 Calcutta Cup, again at 
Murrayfield, when his try helped Scotland to a whomping 33-6 victory, still our biggest over the Auld Enemy.

“ … and Scotland are simply thrilled!” exclaims Bill McLaren. Well, I’m simply thrilled to be meeting my rugby hero in an Edinburgh coffee shop. I read out the names of the vanquished: Rob Andrew, Jamie Salmon, the Simons – Smith and Halliday – all of them very nearly being sent into touch by the dummy, where at least that day there would have been no Billy 
Rutherford waiting to finish them off. In the 30th anniversary year, it’s high time we learned how Rud did it. He blushes like he will a few times. “These things were never planned but they were easier to pull off in my day. Defences now are so much better organised and the inside player would know to stay and not sell himself.”

I’m not having this. Did an Englishman – I forget which poor fool – not admit that Rutherford once persuaded him to lunge at fresh air with merely a debonair glance? More blushing, then: “I did practise my sidesteps – a lot. In the modern game I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on evasive skills. It’s too much about physicality and smashing the guy.”

But the sashay hasn’t altogether become a lost art and Rutherford is delighted Scotland currently boast some decent practitioners. “Young [Mark] Bennett is a throwback to the 1980s – he can beat a man one-on-one – and so can Stuart Hogg. And I really like Finn Russell, who’s a great prospect, so much so that he’ll probably find himself heavily marked this year. I’m not about to tell him how to play but I aimed to start games by doing the first three things – pass, kick, tackle, ideally one of each – really well. I didn’t try anything fancy too early. You played and played and then the chance would come, a wee gap would appear… ”

Rutherford’s idol was Barry John and he cringes slightly when recalling the first time the stand-offs met. “It was in the Angel Hotel in Cardiff and he tapped me on the shoulder. The great John! I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I stood up and bowed in front of him. He must have thought: ‘What a loony’. The other Scottish boys gave me a right load of abuse for that.”

Rutherford’s first love, though, was football. This was a passion passed down from his Glaswegian father Bill, an ex-Royal Marine who, after the Second World War, moved to Selkirk where he had a cousin to take up a job in one of the town’s textile mills. Then when the cousin married a farmer’s daughter, Bill got hitched to her twin sister Helen.

“Because of the bigotry in Glasgow, Dad supported Partick Thistle. I grew up a Hibs fan in the 1970s when they had a great team. There was a chance for me to train with them on Sundays when a lot of Borders boys went up to Easter Road, but dad didn’t have a car.” Any hope the old man might have harboured for at least one of his sons becoming a footballer was dashed by the local rugby orthodoxy. Might as well join them, he thought, so he became a Selkirk committee man while Helen made the teas. And the entire family, Billy included, were at Murrayfield for Rud’s debut against Wales.

“We were a very tight group and still are. Billy had two lovely kids and we’ve been phoning them every day to make sure they’re okay. My wife Alison is from Edinburgh, where we lived when I worked in finance and we were starting our own family. Then when I wanted to come back to Selkirk, she wasn’t sure, but now she loves it down there. She’s ladies captain at the golf club and beats me every time we play. Selkirk got a bit small for our three sons when jobs began to disappear but it’s a place with a great history which needs to be maintained. What do the Borders mean to me? Everything.” From the time of his first cap, Rutherford cherishes a walk along Edinburgh’s Princes Street to RW Forsyth’s department store. “They always put pen portraits of the Scotland XV in the window and there I was, the first Selkirk cap since Ronnie Cowan.” His next game was England at Twickenham, Rud nabbing his first international try in a 7-7 draw. “Andy Irvine got whacked – you could get away with murder in those days – and I won the race for their line. I thought ‘Flipping heck, I’ve just scored for Scotland!’ and wanted to jump for joy, but this was still the era of a wee handshake then smartly back into position for the restart.”

The following year at Murrayfield, 1980, Rud scored another try but Bill Beaumont’s England did the Grand Slam. “That was a great game, though, and we made a contribution. Same in the defeat in ’81, three tries apiece.” The Calcutta Cup was starting to conform to a pattern. “England would try and bludgeon us with their big forwards while we would wait for a stray pass and then pounce, or hope that Andy or Jim Renwick could turn the match with a little piece of magic.”

There was another draw in ’82 – Scotland were getting closer, greatly aided by Jim Telfer’s coaching and cunning. He’d criticise the best players, which would surprise the others, and Rutherford reckons this was a ploy to encourage, or scare, better performances from them. Modesty prevents him from naming himself among the best but that’s undoubtedly what he was. “I remember Brian Gossman coming in for me when I was injured and playing very well. Jim made me watch clips of his terrific tackling. My attitude when I was fit to return was ‘Right, Jim, I’ll show you’ which I guess was what he was looking for.”

Don’t know about you but I never tire of tales concerning the great and grumbly Scottish rugby oracle. Rutherford provides a few more today but asks that I don’t print every detail. “These stories are very precious and I’d like them to stay in camp.” Suffice to say, though, that Telfer had a special way of describing English prancing and perceived superiority; a special way, in games against the red-rose crew, of persuading a knackered Scot to give a little bit more; a special way of reminding the team that some other folk – an entire nation, no less – were rather keen on a positive outcome.

In 1983, there were three key staging-posts along the way to our Slam: the first victory at Twickenham for 12 years; the 25-all draw with the All Blacks; the Lions tour of New Zealand featuring eight Scots, who all returned emboldened. Not all eight played in the Tests – indeed, there was astonishment in the Land of the Long White Cloud that no places could be found for Colin Deans or Iain Milne. “I know,” says Rutherford. “Colin and The Bear were probably the best 2 and 3 in the world, though the rest of us didn’t rebel. Scottish boys don’t do that – they’re incredibly loyal. But, having seen the English, Welsh and Irish up close, we did come back thinking: ‘Hey, we’re not bad’. That’s another Scottish trait, I think: not realising how good we are.”

On the plane home after what had been a whitewash for the Lions, a disillusioned Telfer had to be persuaded not to give up coaching altogether. Rud was the man to do this. “Actually, it was myself and Roy,” he says, always keen to spread the credit around. Mention of scrum-half Laidlaw brings us to their brilliantly dovetailing double-act – was it telepathic? “Well, there were one or two similarities between us. Roy’s birthday is 3 October, I’m the 4th. We both had a parent from Glasgow who moved to the Borders. When we both had two sons, Roy phoned me to say his wife Joy was pregnant and two days later we found out Alison was expecting. It was marvellous to get to play rugby with a great pal, one who really knew how to win games, and we’re still 
really close, speaking to each other every week.”

Both moustached, the half-backs were once likened to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In ’84 and ’86, those mean critters England were decisively run out of town. The secret of Scotland’s success? “We were fitter than anyone else. Honestly, we trained so hard. Jim was brilliant tactically and, in ’84, he got me to kick and try to move Dusty Hare about the pitch.” An account from the time describes Rud as playing the hapless full-back like a fish on a line. So could the ’86 margin of victory ever be topped? “Records are there to be beaten. Jim used to tell us England were stronger and that we’d have to play out of our skins to win. That’s what the current team will have to do. They mustn’t be distracted by the thought that they had a great World Cup while England didn’t.”

My audience with my hero is drawing to a close. He’s worried he hasn’t namechecked enough men he admired from his era, but he has. Roger Baird was “one of the greatest Scottish players ever”. Gerald Davies, for leading the Welsh singing of Flower of Scotland at the banquet in ’82 after they’d just been hit by a five-try blast, showed himself to be “a class act”. Similarly Ollie Campbell, his Irish rival on that Lions tour, for in the heat of battle in Dublin nodding his approval of a typically scintillating Rutherford break. “But here’s the thing about being a Borderer: you won’t get to believe your own publicity. Maybe I’d played well on the Saturday but come Monday morning back in Selkirk there would be a shout from across the street: ‘Hey John, I thought you made a right mess of that kick-off’!”

Could that have been brother Billy? He laughs as he gets up to go and I just manage to stop myself bowing.