BILL McLAREN taught me at primary school and I played a bit of rugby there, but it wasn’t until I was 20, that I started to play properly.
The first night I went down to Hawick Trades, a now defunct social rugby club, me and a mate were parked up in my little Ford Fiesta before training and I said, ‘do you fancy it?’ and he said ‘nah’. So we went back to the Conservative Club (where we’d been playing snooker) and had a couple more pints. The coach asked us to go back again, and this time I actually put my boots on.
Once I got into rugby, I enjoyed it, especially the physical aspect. Having played basketball, I had good handling skills. From there, it was on to Hawick, where former Scotland international and coach Ian Barnes instilled the professionalism in me that enabled me to go further.
I signed my first pro contract with the Borders and was capped during my four years there, but I felt my international prospects would be improved if I moved on. This was reinforced when I was dropped after we’d beaten England at Murrayfield in 2006 in what was my second start.
My first season at Scarlets was brilliant, going through a really difficult Heineken Cup Pool unbeaten. The home-and-away games against Toulouse were special. I scored in front of my parents at home and we turned around a huge half-time deficit at their place. We then beat Munster, the defending champions, in the quarter-final. I helped set up a try, and the commentator said, “what a performance, you’ll go to bed dreaming about Scott Macleod’s offload!”
I was also enjoying my best run of games in a Scotland jersey but then the drugs thing screwed me. I’d had asthma all my life but there was a shortage of my usual medication and I was temporarily prescribed a different inhaler, which was perfectly legal. A simple oversight on my part meant I forgot to record it on the relevant form. The same test also showed I had high levels of testosterone – triggered by alcohol consumption the night before after I’d just found out I was to be a father for the first time.
I had abnormally high levels anyway so when they doubled, alarm bells rang. It took a lot of time and money to clear my name but the damage was done. I’m so against drugs in sport but it was difficult to escape the dark cloud hanging over me, and we returned to Scotland.
My only goal after that was to get capped again. I played well against Japan in a friendly and Andy Robinson picked me for the tour to Argentina. I came on for about 25 minutes in the second Test and made a crucial lineout steal in the last play of the game as we hung on for the win. After what I’d gone through, that win felt really special.
My final start for Scotland was against South Africa in 2010. I’d always respected the Victor Matfield/Bakkies Botha combination and knew how tough it would be. I was having my best half for Scotland, but Botha got me in a DDT (wrestling) move and my ribs popped out. I couldn’t breathe. Game over. But winning that game probably got me my contract in Japan which I chose over Toulon.
My nephew Darcy Graham, and Mark Wilson, keep sending me photos back from Kobe, my old stomping ground, and it brings back fond memories of my time there.
With my daughter ready to start school, we decided to move back and I joined Newcastle, picking up the Coaches’, Supporters’ and Players’ Player of the Year awards in my first season when we won the Championship. I struggled a bit in the Premiership; I was a bit too light and getting older, so I started to transition into coaching. I’m enjoying my role at the Falcons, taking care of the lineouts and helping Micky (Ward) with the forwards.
When I look back on my playing days, I cannae complain. I was part of the first Scotland team to win a series in the southern hemisphere; I played England twice and beat them twice and in my last start, we beat South Africa. I’ll take that.
– as told to Jon Newcombe
Comments are closed on this article.