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Sunday, 12 May 2013

End of an end of an earache

"Rugby is great. The players don't wear helmets or padding; they just beat the living daylights out of each other and then go for a beer. I love that."

Joe Theismann

Me too, Joe, me too. Having just attended the Presidents' game, Paisley RFC's end-of-season fun day, now would seem the right time for the sequel to last week's blog, now that I've had time to think about some of the names I missed out, or they've had time to let me know I did. The aim of the game is to have a reasonably competitive eighty minutes play between the 1st XV and a mixture of the 2nd XV and 'visiting players', past players and some from other clubs, invited by our retiring President, Gordon Carswell. It was a blast as always and ended with plenty of smiles and not a little beer. After the usual formalities, the Paisley head coach, Grant Sweenie, asked the Paisley players to form a tunnel again to see off retiring 1st XV Captain, Al Brodie in style. Al's father, Jack, was also similarly applauded. For those of you who don't know him, Jack, or "A' B's Da" as he's affectionately known, is Paisley's Number One Fan. I plan to spend some time on the touchline with Jack next season, albeit at a distance great enough to ensure the integrity of my eardrums. Get this, though. They clapped me off too, and afterwards, Paul Mallam made me a presentation in the clubhouse. I don't feel as if my contribution to the club is all that great, but these guys made me feel like a king. I'll never forget that.

Now, in my last posting, I waxed lyrical about a number of Paisley players, but in the main, most of them were guys I've been involved with as manager of the 2nd XV over the last three seasons. To redress the balance a little, I'd like to talk about a few players who have tended to play 1st XV rugby during that period, but nonetheless hold a special place in my heart, as well as one or two who have moved on. 

To begin, let's talk about Al B. Our retiring 1st XV Captain is a one-off, from his high pitched voice to his unique dress sense, Al is an integral part of everything the team has tried to do. Travelling from Lanark, Al regularly makes a round trip of not much below 80 miles to train and play for us. He's nursed a body which he would probably admit is not in its prime and has worked through the pain to lead in the true sense of the word. I'll miss him. We'll miss him.

Scott Sutherland. No, the other Scott Sutherland. Scott Robert Sutherland. Wait, the other one's middle name is Robert too. Well this one's tall. Nope, that won't do, the other one's even taller. Well this one's the older one. For a big guy, he's pretty quick though. He's very hard to stop when he gets  up a head of steam, and he likes to do that. What is unique is that he has his own catchphrase. "You've been Big Scotted" means someone's just corrected some factual error or other. A Good Guy.

Ryan McCready, newly re-elected Club Captain, is a big lad with a certain grace about his movement which belies his considerable frame. There's no insult intended here, but Ryan's a decent sized lad. He's a hard broken field runner with a pretty good boot when he needs it. He's very much part of the social fabric of the club and takes his boozing seriously.

Euan Stuart, on the other hand, can't hold his liquor. He has, though, gradually developed into a player who is normally one of the first names on the team list. He's had to work harder than some to reach that stage, but has shown that he is prepared to do what it takes. You can't ask for more than that. He's also, like Ryan, a social mover and shaker.

Michael 'Chinz' Somerville, he of the recently remodeled nose, has been a regular fixture for quite a few years now. He's a voracious predator at the breakdown and gives coaches palpitations with his habit of carrying the ball 'Fijian style' in one hand. He's a pretty good lineout thrower and still has a fair burst of speed when called upon.

I tend to think of Gordon Powrie and Andy Judge as a pair, because they've been the best of pals for many years, but they're both very different players, not the least because Judgey's a forward and Powrie a back. Gordon has played this season at fly half with young Martin McKellar breaking his arm, but he's more than able to adapt to any position. He's quick, wiry and sometimes irascible, but he always gives us all he's got, as does Andy. He's variously a hooker, prop, or back row player and loves nothing more than the dark arts, scrabbling around on the ground fighting to gain advantage. Baby-faced, you'd never believe it if you met him away from the game.

Stef Lach, lock, journalist and wag, is best described as a kind of South African Chic Murray, with a droll humour easily misunderstood by those who don't know him, but loved by the rest of us. A good lineout jumper, along with Al B and Murray Lowe, who has as much heart for the game as anyone I know, they form a fearsome challenge at the set piece.

Kevin Browne is unique. He was recently described as a 'gym junkie' and his physique bears that out. He's relatively small for a back row player, but anyone who thinks they can capitalise on that is in for a shock. He probably generates more gasps on the touchline than anyone, as a result of his uncompromising tackling.

Marky Conroy, a winger who punches well above his weight, is worth a mention for his sheer bloody-mindedness alone, as are Ben Van Eyssen and Gavin Postlethwaite, two front row players with the right stuff. I coached Gav as a junior and have watched him blossom, along with the baby faced assassin that is Chris Lyall. Scary dudes.

That's about it for the current crop, but a few of the older players, either retired or still playing, are worth talking about. If you're discussing role models, you could do worse than Colin Reekie. Creekie is now 60 years old and still actively pursuing squash, sailing, skiing and most importantly rugby. Of course, he comes from a rugby dynasty, one to rival that of the Harans (of whom young Gregor is the latest and potentially the best). 

Gavin Newlands was Paisley's first choice stand-off for several years before succumbing to a knee problem. Having been advised that he would need a new knee and that he should not play meanwhile, he just kept going. Although work gets in the way of his playing often nowadays, he still turns out occasionally for the 2nd XV. Whisper it quietly, but I think he had the sweetest boot kicking from hand I've ever known at Paisley. When it was firing it was a joy to watch.

My own son, Iain 'Fester' Lewis, has suffered with serious knee problems over the last couple of years, but has never given up on the idea of a comeback. I hope he gets his wish, but if it doesn't work out, I know this amazing game has has given him some great memories and greater friendships. For the record, at his best he is far better than I ever was. A solid scrummager and ferocious tackler, he's even got a bit of speed about him. That's because he was listening all those years ago when I was doing sprint training with his team.

Neil 'Nelly' Ritchie, whose job keeps him away from us for too much of the year, is one of the players I once coached and I'm quite proud of my involvement with him. He's a bit oversized nowadays, but he still has a great mind for the game and pops up in situations in which you would least expect a burly prop. A couple of seasons ago, Paisley beat Mull away, at least partly because of a try saving tackle from Nelly. One of the Mull centres had broken though Paisley's back line and looked favourite to score under the posts. From nowhere emerged the train wreck that is Mrs. Ritchie's boy. I think the guy ended up on the nearby beach. I still can't really get my head around how Nelly did it, but he did it all right. I'd have bought a ticket to see that.

Seve Smith would be better to sleep at the club sometimes. Sometimes it seems as if he does. He works tirelessly for the club and for other causes (running 10k races for Yorkhill Hospital, for example), is President of the PRFC Junior Section and still finds time to play rugby regularly. Seve, Hilary, Rory and Zoe are an example of what a family unit should be.

In terms of rugby stalwarts, the people who move around in the background at any club, we have a rich seam of them. In the past, guys like David Rodger, who now lives in Rio de Janeiro with his wife Connie, and Tom Blair, our late friend and President, were absolutely pivotal in the functioning of the club. More recently, Scott 'Ted' Glover, out Fixtures and Referees Secretary, has made endless phone calls, changing things at the last minute, using his network of contacts to keep things flowing. Oh, and he plays too. Jack McKechnie and Douglas Wilson, two very good friends to Brenda and I are integral to our club too. I've mentioned Malcolm and Kathy Dodd before. With their retirement, we've now got a small army of ladies making the transition seamless. Of course it doesn't hurt that Big Grant knows his way around a kitchen. 

In the bar, an area that has benefitted us greatly over the last two or three years, we now have June Kir running a  tight ship along with Alison Perry and other helpers who serve to make this club a fun place to be.

Finally, I'd like to give a mention a certain player who will probably be more surpised than anyone at seeing his name here. We all know him as Davie the Jannie. His name is David Guthrie. He's relatively quiet and unassuming and took the game up very late. He's probably not going to get a phone call from Scott Johnson any time soon, but I for one love having him around, not least because he typifies the saying that rugby is a game for all shapes, sizes and abilities. He faithfully attends every training session he can always gives of his best. If asked to fetch water, he will. If asked to play any position on the park, he will. On occasion, like yesterday, Davie will even surprise you. He performed a gorgeous sidestep before being tackled after another few yards. In the last quarter, he made some real progress up the right wing, finally attempting a flip, which, had it come off, would have sent the support runner in for an almost certain try. We love Davie and he loves us. Does any of the rest of it really matter?

Well, I'm off to enjoy my summer if it ever arrives. Come autumn, it'll be time to dust off my waterproofs and wellies and get back to the place I love. Referees, I'm back. Bill McLaren, when asked what he'd loved most about 50 years of commentating on rugby, said "I've hardly ever had to pay to get in." Ye cannae whack it.

"There are no great men. Just great challenges which ordinary men, out of necessity, are forced by circumstance to meet."       

Admiral William Frederick Halsey Jr.

"Sure there have been injuries and deaths in rugby - but none of them serious."  

Doc Mayhew

Sunday, 5 May 2013

End of an earache

"In our country, true teams rarely exist . . . social barriers and personal ambitions have reduced athletes to dissolute cliques or individuals thrown together for mutual profit . . . Yet these rugby players. with their muddied, cracked bodies, are struggling to hold onto a sense of humanity that we in America have lost and are unlikely to regain. The game may only be to move a ball forward on a dirt field, but the task can be accomplished with an unshackled joy and its memories will be a permanent delight. The women and men who play on that rugby field are more alive than too many of us will ever be. The foolish emptiness we think we perceive in their existence is only our own." - Victor Cahn

It finally came around; the day I've been looking forward to and dreading for a while now. Today marked my last game as manager of PRFC's 2nd XV. We were up against GHA 2A at Braidholm, and we even got to play on the main pitch. The team have been pretty buoyant this week, with Frank Nitti, the team's new enforcer, insisting that the only acceptable result would be a win to see me off in style. Well, the win didn't quite emerge, but they certainly achieved the second objective. Stylish was exactly how I'd describe today's performance.

A word first of all about Alan Gibson, 2nd XV Coach. Alan had this team thrust upon him two seasons ago and I have to say he took it well. He works as hard as anyone at improving things and has something of an uphill task, as anyone involved with rugby outside the top echelon will testify. He's made my lot better and I appreciate that.

Rather than a traditional match report, I'm just going to waffle on about some stuff, and particularly some players, so be warned. It's a truism in rugby as much as anywhere that just when you think you've seen everything, life ups and proves you wrong.

Such was true today when our first hero, appropriately in the number one shirt, one Italian Stallion, the ravishingly good looking Michael Di Duca, announced around about the 60th minute that he would need a temporary replacement (bear in mind this conversation was taking place at a distance, so it was conducted loudly). When asked if he was bleeding, he replied, " Naw, I just need a shite", and left the field of play without further ceremony. Luckily his emergency was resolved quickly, poor Sean Butterfield arriving in position just in time to come back off as a considerably lighter Michael arrived back. At this point, the tears were blinding me.

Jingles, ah Jingles. GHA had just enjoyed a purple patch, scoring 5 tries in 6 minutes, when our heroic hooker spotted their modus operandi. He stepped up into their back line and beautifully intercepted a floated pass, taking off in a  southerly direction as fast as his chunky legs would carry him. Unfortunately, he had around 70 metres to cover, with a GHA centre catching him fast. Jingles reached a position around ten metres short of the line, hesitated, waited for the centre to catch up and executed a beautiful hand-off to the face. Sadly, he didn't see the juggernaut arriving from his blind side. However, with Paisley on the front foot, the ball was quickly recycled and the move ultimately led to the last try of the game, finished by the man himself.

TB. These are two letters which sum up my love affair with PRFC. Craig Thomson is his Sunday name, but he'll always be TB to me. He's spent the last couple of years since coming out of retirement lurching from one medical emergency to another, although his body never quite seems to get the better of him. Still recovering from a bad ankle injury, he nevertheless managed to score two tries today, so there's life in the old dog yet.

Spud. The illustrious, elderly, likeable, tough, irritating-in-a-way-that-only-scrum-halves-can-be, metal-detector-setting-off, Calum Walker played at full back today, which given how much metalwork he carries around with him is probably unfair of us, made his name a scrum half, and like the even older Grant Murney, has learned a few cute tricks along the way. It's always good to watch an opposition scrummy blowing off steam at the ref because Spud's pissed him off once too often.

Zane Grey. Only just returned to the fold, we've missed this Zombie Viking Vlad the Impaler. He's shaved the beard off and lost a shed load of weight, but he's still scary. Someone recently clotheslined him around upper lip level, and the immediate opinion of most Paisley spectators was , "Don't shoot Mongo. You'll only make him mad." The new, leaner version of Zane is having a ball. I'm not going to say anything about his style of play, except to say that he does it with the biggest cheese eating grin on his face I've ever seen. He clearly missed this sport, and it missed him.

Colin May. Over the last few weeks, Colin has done more than anyone to make my life easier. He's been a maniac, badgering, cajoling, threatening and schmoozing players to make sure we've got a team for a Saturday. Oh, and he's played a lot of rugby too. So far this season, he's played at 9,10,12,13,14 and 15 to my recollection, although I have to say I like him best at scrum half. He captained the side for the first time today and did a great job. He also gathered the guys in for a post-match huddle in my honour and insisted on a tunnel just for me. That felt good.

James MacRae, one of our islanders, had a ball today in the lineout. James is a flat out player, no nuances, no subtlety, just in-your-face toughness. Robbie Druce, back for a short holiday from Loonland, showed he's still got it. He's quick and he's a terrific tackler. Scott Sutherland, Lurch, the biggest Jean Valjean I've ever seen, has a weird running gait, but I shudder every time he runs into some poor bugger. John McLellan, the Galloping Giraffe. Like Scott, you suspect the seismometers at Paisley Observatory start making scratchy noises every time he collides with, or rather, runs over the top of, any defender not smart enough to run away or purchase an elephant gun. Ross Warden made what has become an all-too-seldom appearance today, up from Fareham for a visit. It's a joy to see this elegant runner, with his silky skills, finessing through the opposition like Mikhail Baryshnikov (Google it, you philistine). Who am I kidding? He's a big bastard who likes nothing better than doing steam roller impressions. You're beginning to see a pattern here perhaps? David Guthrie, or Davie the Jannie as he is known in polite circles. Davie took the game up late and has constantly surprised spectators. He attends training almost religiously and leaves everything he has on the field of play. He's his own biggest critic, and he needs to cut himself some slack now and then. Sean Butterfield, the social monster, party animal. After only two seasons in the game, Sean has become established as one of the first names on the team sheet. He's got some decent pace and he's strong. That'll do for me. Then there's Simon Keatley, the slightly built, elusive centre from Northern Ireland. He lines you up, cocks the hammer and pulls the trigger. Boom! Another tackle in the stat bank. Last, but by no means least, there's Shaun Brittain. He covered the width of the field today to make a try saving tackle. It was very impressive. The saying, "He puches above his weight.", could have been written about Shaun.

Now these guys are just a sample of the players on the field today. Over the three years I've been in charge, I've worked with some great players. Youngsters like Calum MacLeod, a prop forward who's solidly built, strong, dependable, yet can run faster than most back lines; Colin McKay, flanker-turned-winger, with a burst of speed and an absolute desire to be all that he can be; Mark McKinnon, a back rower who is built of granite, with absolutely no fear and whose jumping in the lineout is as good as any lock's; Murray Sutherland, Lurch's wee brother (although I use the word 'wee' loosely in this case), who works as hard as any member of the team and is another one of those lads who displays an intense joy in his game; Martin McKellar, all silky skills and an excellent kicker from hand; Andrew Gibson, a scrum half still developing his trade but showing every sign of being a cracking player; combine these players with the younger ones yet to emerge from the junior ranks and the future is bright.

Of those not quite in the first flush of youth, I offer a sample; Grant Murney, returning to playing in his forties, becoming a mentor for young players and the scourge of his opposite number in many games, is someone I owe a lot to. He knows why. Fraser Ross, Fraz, our regular captain until his trip to New Zealand to get married this year, has been a rock. He can play and has played in most positions on the field and appears to be able to handle any of them well. He is also one of the best on-field motivators I've seen. Paul Mallam, captain since Fraz went to NZ, has done a marvellous job. He takes the captaincy seriously and has done everything I asked him to. David Dodd, Mr Paisley, has helped us with some training and some of his usual brand of shoot-from-the-hip motivation this year. On the occasion of Doddsy dropping to the 2nd XV, there's always an air of expectation. That's the effect he has. If I've missed out anyone, it's senility rather than spite, honestly. Would I have played to watch these guys play. You bet.

As for those who are not playing staff, but have helped or influenced me, I'd have to start with Malcolm Dodd, who offered me the post of team manager in the first place. Malky befriended me when I first brought my son Iain to the cub 20 years ago, and has remained my friend ever since. His wife Kathy, has been the mainstay of the kitchen, cleaner and enforcer of discipline as long as I can remember. Grant Sweenie, head coach for the last two seasons has done everything he can to help me and I appreciate that. Taz, Fairley, Worzel, Davie Jack, Nelly, Marky, Pascal, Max, drunks, degenerates every one, and every one my family, I've loved every minute of it. To my absent friends, Tom Blair and Craig Grumoli, I miss you and will do everything I can to ensure the continuance of the club you loved.

I began with a quote from Victor Cahn, who summed up rugby as well as I might if I had his talent. I leave you with one from a great soldier and a terrible human being.

I don't know what effect these men will have on the enemy, but by God, they terrify me.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.