Rugby has always played an enormous part in Scottish culture, writes Ryan Nixon. Whether you play, support or just watch for fun, there are few people who haven’t brushed shoulders with the game at some point. For a relatively small country, Scotland has produced some stellar players and so, when we bring into conversation the topic of rugby legends, there are numerous names in contention for every position.
You have the likes of Gavin Hastings, Andy Irvine, Gordon Brown and Gary Armstrong among countless other names which are often mentioned alongside the term ‘legend’ in Scottish rugby. However, when discussing the position of stand-off, or ‘fly-half’, there are no Scottish players better than John Rutherford.
A sure-footed, speedy and technical stand-off, Rutherford was a star of Scottish rugby for much of the 1980s, gaining 42 caps for Scotland over eight years, and in that time developing an almost telepathic partnership with Jedburgh-born scrum-half Roy Laidlaw.
This year marked 30 years since John made his last appearance for the national team – a World Cup game against France – and this month in turn, 4th October to be exact, marked Rutherford’s 62nd birthday.
With all of this in mind, I thought there would be no better time than the present to see if I could sit down and have a general chat with Rutherford, or ‘Rud’ as he is affectionately known around his hometown of Selkirk, and find out some of his opinions and memories relating to the world of rugby.
Now I have the great fortune of already being acquainted with John through work I’d done previously at Selkirk Rugby Club, so he seemed happy to accept my proposal and so on Sunday, with pen and paper in hand; I set out to see what stories he would have to tell.
Greeted with a handshake and a “How are you doing?” from John, I find out he’s already got the kettle on and I’m asked what I take in my cup of tea – an inkling as to the personality of the man. He asks a few questions about my university course and my work outside of class before setting the two mugs down and pulling out a chair.
Sitting down opposite Rutherford, I notice he seems completely at ease, as though he’s done this a hundred times before, which wouldn’t be a surprise.
Memories of a Legendary Career
Opening the interview with one of my most eager questions, I ask: “So, it’s been thirty years since you last appeared for Scotland” which is met with a somewhat reminiscent nod, “do you think rugby has changed for the better or worse since your days?”
“I think some changes are for the better and some are for the worse”, he starts. “I think the professionalism has completely changed the shape of the player. The average weight for a back 30 years ago would have been 12.5, almost 13 stone, whereas nowadays you’re probably looking at 15.5, maybe 16 stone. But it’s not just bulk – it’s muscle. So, the collisions are far greater than when I played.”
A statement that rings true, as one can see from YouTube highlights nowadays just how easily Rutherford danced round defences compared to the impenetrable fortresses that teams such as New Zealand demonstrate now. This is a point that John picks up as he continues his answer.
“The other big changes are around organisation, in that professional teams – their defences, their attacks and their phase play – are so well organised compared to the 1980s. The problem with that though, is that it’s made the game a wee bit boring. For me, the challenge for modern coaches is ‘How do you break these defences?’ What I notice now is teams are kicking more, and that’s seen more as an attacking weapon rather than a defensive weapon. Generally, I think the game now is a far cleaner game though. You don’t get away with the shenanigans that you got away with in the 70s or 80s and for me that’s important because the officials – the International Rugby Board – had to get hold of that, and I think that’s good for the sport overall.”
Following on from that question, I wonder if the hero to so many young Scots had his own personal inspiration as a youngster when he first set foot on a rugby pitch?
“Well, in Scotland there were blokes like Andy Irvine and Jim Renwick who were all good role models for me when I was starting out. But my personal hero was actually Barry John – a man you’ve probably never heard of”, he admits, showing my inexperience with the world of rugby compared to his own. “He played for Wales in the 70s and I honestly just thought he was fantastic. I loved watching him – his nickname was ‘the King’.”
Rud seems caught up in his own awe at Barry, which speaks volumes about the Welsh international if such high praise comes from someone of John’s stature in the rugby community.
For a man with such experience in the sport though, one would expect John to have a fair few memories of his time in the game, and my next question would be which of those was his favourite.
“Well some of my happiest years were playing for Selkirk,” John admits humbly – never one to discredit or shy away from his love of his home town, “your teammates were your best mates and you made a lot of memories – not just on the pitch but off it as well. But, in terms of actual rugby, I’d say the Grand Slam year was something special for us. I think it was 1938 that Scotland last won it so 1984 was a big year in winning that. And also, being selected for the Lions. That’s just the highest you can get, that was fantastic – no greater honour.”
This statement about being selected for the British and Irish Lions is one that John has always stood by, and in that answer it’s obvious that rugby, for Rud certainly, was always about the love for the game. Money and fame have never been ones to attract John and he remains as humble now as he appeared to be back in the 80s.
Reflecting on his time as a Scotland international, I feel I can’t go an entire interview without asking the question. “What was it like scoring your first try for Scotland? It was against England wasn’t it?”
John thinks for a second, almost as though he’s recreating the score in his head. “It was, yes. It was a funny try though because there was nobody near me!” he laughs. “We moved the ball along the backs and it was Andy Irvine that kicked it through from about the halfway line. And I just chased the kick! I’m running, and I realise that there was no one closer to the ball than me, so I just dived on it. But ach yeah it was euphoric. I couldn’t stop thinking ‘Wow, I’ve just scored a try for Scotland!’”
He laughs again, the try against the old enemy obviously bringing back happy memories for Rutherford. The Scots would manage to hold the English to a 7-7 draw in this 1979 match – a Five Nations game – that brought the relatively young Rutherford into the limelight at the time.
His mention of Andy Irvine spurs me on to ask the question: “In your eight years playing for Scotland, who would you say was the best player you played with?”
John pauses again, racking his brain for the best names out of an already immensely talented bunch. “There was a load of great players. The best was probably David Leslie – he could have played anywhere – he was an outstanding player.” Rutherford then seems to evoke more and more players though, seemingly stuck for the best of the bunch. “But then you’ve also got guys like Ian Milne – maybe the best tight head prop in the world at that time. Then there’s Roy Laidlaw, a terrific player.”
This was the mention that I predicted John would come up with. Laidlaw was the Scottish, and Lions, scrum-half at the same time that John played and the two had a bond like no other. He and Roy were the standout stars of the Scottish squad in the 80s, demonstrating a devastating partnership which struck fear into most national teams at the time with their explosive runs, nimble feet and quick passing.
While on the subject of the best player he saw, I decided to see what Rud’s answer would be if I asked: “Which team, from memory, was the best that you saw playing?”
“The All-Blacks”, he says without hesitating. “The All-Blacks were always ahead of their time. Even nowadays, they seem to be one step ahead of every other country. But, we managed to get a draw with them in 1983 I think it was!” he exclaims, recollecting the fixture. “It was 25-25 and one of only two times Scotland has managed to get a draw with them (the other time being a 0-0 affair back in 1964). And we had a conversion to win the game but we fluffed it!” he chuckles a bit, obviously recalling what could have been an even more historic memory than it was. Was there a hint of regret there?
This was an obvious answer from John – I don’t think anyone could fault him for it. Being one of the most prominent and best teams in the world since its inception, New Zealand have won 28 of the 30 games they have played against Scotland. John seemed to consider himself lucky to have been a part of the team that almost felled the giant of world rugby.
I decide to pry a bit deeper into John’s experiences with New Zealand: “Obviously you toured with the Lions in 1983, taking on some of New Zealand’s best club sides, but what was touring life like back then?”
John was confident in his answer:“It was fantastic. You’ve got to remember though, it was the amateur days – we got £3 a day in expenses!” I laugh at this –laughter that John joins in with. “Of course, what all the boys did was just save all the money up and on the last week of the tour, they went mental! Touring was the only time you could say you were truly professional, because you were training everyday.”
“But, once you finished training it was great- you were away golfing, walking, hunting, fishing and shooting. It was a great country to tour, but I just loved the fact that you could really say you were a professional rugby player. By the time I got back from that tour, I was a much better player than I was before I left.”
John once again made it clear that he played rugby for the enjoyment, and that he focused on the game on the field rather than all the activities that came with the sport off the pitch. Even after describing the training as brutal, it was evident John had kept his devotion to the sport at the forefront of his mind.
Some Thoughts on the Modern Game
Moving away from Rud’s memories though, I decided to get some of his opinions on the state of the modern game. Relating back to an article I wrote last week, I ask John: “An issue I was writing about was that of the tackling ban that experts are talking about trying to introduce at youth and school levels of rugby. What do you think about this – is it the right step to take?”
“No I think it’s completely the wrong step to take”, he says, shaking his head slightly as he leans back with folded arms. “When are you meant to start learning tackling then? I would move to the New Zealand model, where you pick school teams by size and not by age. In this case, you wouldn’t get the injuries early on that you get now. It’s like a professional team against a club team in some instances with these youth teams. But no, I’d be 100% against that if it were to happen.”
John had hit the nail on the head there. On the topic of contact in rugby though, I brought up the fact that these experts argue that rugby holds the title of the sport with the most concussions. What are John’s experiences with concussion on the field?
“Oh yeah, I remember being concussed. Our trainer ran on – a man called Sandy Pow – and he just gave me some smelling salts!” he laughs out loud, shaking his head again, this time at the treatment, which back then, would have been considered completely normal. He continues: “They certainly woke you up, but I remember being sick on the pitch! You didn’t want to go off though, because in those days there were no replacements.”
I’m in awe of John’s honesty about this. Any treatment like that nowadays, and the club in question would likely be heavily scrutinised and investigated. My time with him was coming to an end though – our mugs of tea were almost empty.
I decide to get one last question out of Rud, another one related to modern day rugby. “What do you think of the present situation in club rugby, in that local clubs bring in foreign or professional players and pay them to play, resulting in some cases keeping local players out of the squad?”
I mention the situation that Selkirk are in – they have two South Africans, but these players aren’t paid and are simply here for the experience. The South African Rugby Union pay for their flights and then the men stay with family or friends in the town.
John knowingly nods his head. “I think that it’s something that needs to be managed. I’d be against teams bringing in five or six players. But, if you look at Selkirk as an example, we’re a tiny town. We’ve got one of the smallest high schools in the Borders, so we simply cannot produce big men!” he declares.
“So for us to be competitive, we need to be able to bring people in. Would you rather have us going away and poaching players from other Border clubs? We don’t want to do that, so we have this arrangement with the South African Rugby Union in that they supply the players and fly them over – it’s excellent! But yeah, I think it has to be managed – maybe two per club at maximum.”
And as soon as it had started, my time with John Rutherford was over. He picks up the mugs and returns them to the sink – all the while asking me a few more questions about myself. He never was a man to talk about himself unless urged. Anyway, his personal achievements more than speak for themselves.
So there we have it, a short chat with one of Scotland’s best ever players. A man whose humble beginnings and modest personality always played a bigger part in his life than the enormous achievements he recorded throughout his career. No one can doubt the ability John had, but it’s easy to forget just how good he was, given the fact that he never took the attention for himself.
As John shows me to the door, he thanks me for coming round. I stop myself from turning around and reminding him of the respect that his status in rugby had gained him, and that in this instance, the pleasure was all mine.