GROGs were treated to a double dose of talent at the February Lunch with Hugh Dan MacLennan making a return appearance, this time as guest Chairman, and rugby legend Alan Lawson also returning, this time unfettered by the chains of office as SRU President as he had been at his previous visit in 2012. Both were completely at ease with their presentation and easily dovetailed with one another. Alan took his audience on a fantastic trip down Nostalgia Lane, recounting some of his experiences in his glory days as a club player, a Scottish internationalist and a Barbarians 7’s player. He remembered that part of the training regime when playing for Strathclyde University when they had to down 8 or 10 pints of beer the night before a game and hope for an early winning score the next day. A murmur of recognition could be heard going round the room at this. Other murmurs of recognition were heard at the mention of many well known names from the halcyon days of amateur rugby - John Douglas, Roddy Grant, Sandy Carmichael, Andy Ripley, Geoff Wheel, Peter Brown et alia. Alan clearly loved his rugby and enjoyed playing with a number of clubs, the most famous being London Scottish and the Barbarians. Later, when asked the question if he would rather have played in the amateur game of the past or the current professional game he didn’t hesitate with his answer:- “Without doubt, the amateur game”! Amateur rugby, he said, was all about fun and friendship, neither of which he could ever put a value on. Of course, Alan could not leave without giving a quick account of the charity set up in the name of his father-in-law, the late Bill McLaren and which Alan is heavily involved in. The Bill McLaren Foundation is almost 10 years old and has passed on just short of £1m to grass roots sports. A magnificent achievement, which is only going to be improved on. Finally, having donated a prize of a bottle of whisky to the winner of an innovative Dream Team selection competition that he had introduced, Alan received a bottle of GROGS whisky in appreciation of a magnificent effort!
Did the members of GROGS know something that hadn’t been publicised because there was a record turnout at the January Lunch? 123 members turned out to hear what Dave Rennie, the Glasgow Warriors Head Coach, had to say about his team and about rugby in general. The rugby savvy (and in some cases not so savvy) were hungry to hear such a world class coach and they were not disappointed. As Dave doesn’t readily speak publicly, nor actively seek the limelight, GROGS felt honoured that he had agreed to join us at a very demanding time for him. As there was a lot of pressure on his time, Dave’s preferred format was a Question and Answer session and, whilst agreeing to this request, Chairman Fergus Neil prevailed upon him to open with a short description of his coaching career, what had brought him to Glasgow and, most importantly, what had made him stay on by recently extending his contract (“an easy decision” in his own words). Dave’s delivery was a refreshing mixture of knowledge, insight, honesty and loyalty to his players. Thankfully, without participating in any of the hard work we felt as though we’d been in one of his coaching sessions. Certainly, those who would be watching the imminent Champions Cup match against Cardiff Blues would be keeping their slightly more knowledgeable eyes on any instances of players angling in or sheering across scrums or being thrown across lineouts. Throughout, he was consistent in his view of the importance of strong refereeing. If referees were more ready to be tougher with some of the more regular transgressions on the pitch then coaches would take steps to stop them. The standard of the questions from the floor was exceeded only by the standard of the answers. Here was a man, a gentleman, who clearly loves rugby and who spoke honestly for all of the time he was on his feet. He expressed his disappointment at some of the events of the past 3 weeks but remained positive about the future and felt that a bonus win against Cardiff Blues would put Warriors in a very good position to progress in the competition. He was wished well for that and was awarded with a bottle of GROGS whisky to toast his, hopefully, winning team.
GROGs enjoyed a triple whammy with their Christmas Lunch this year. A record number of 128 existing and new members were in attendance to experience the brave decision by the Committee to cater for the increase in numbers by moving location to nearby LOKs restaurant, This proved overwhelmingly popular and a stellar performance from guest speaker, Scott Hastings, made the occasion one of the most enjoyable in our 19 years history. Possibly the great atmosphere in the room helped Scott to speak for longer than he had originally planned but there were no complaints about that as he gave the rugby hungry GROGs exactly what they wanted. His delivery of an apparent limitless supply of anecdotes in recounting the history of his rugby experiences from garden rugby with his brothers, school rugby, club rugby with Watsonians, his 64 cap Scotland career, two tours with the British and Irish Lions and his rugby World Cup appearances, all peppered with an impressive list of famous names and characters whom he’d come across in his illustrious career, was seamless. Here was a speaker who was as captivating and fun filled as he was knowledgeable. He’s also an instinctive speaker. Spotting Glen Docherty, a GROG who helped to found the Hong Kong Sevens tournament, in the audience, he spoke about him with the same respect as he did about Nelson Mandela a short while later. It was sheer joy to listen to a star studded roll call of famous rugby names from the 80’s and the 90’s, all of whom Scott had met or played against during his playing years. Stories involving such names as Will Carling, John Jeffrey, Francois Pienaar, Michael Lynagh, the unfortunately named Dai Young and the colossal, in all senses of the word, Jonah Lomu came tripping off his tongue to the delight of his enthusiastic audience. Of course, he didn’t forget his famous brother and teammate, Gavin, reminding everyone (several times) of his costly missed penalty kick in the 1991 World Cup semi final against England and his “haemorrhoiding points” comment while commentating alongside Bill McLaren. Before a very lively and forthright question and answer session, Scott further delighted his audience when he proudly produced the colourful British and Irish Lions Cap he had been presented with. A great moment and a wonderful event. Thank you, Scott.
After a brief run of guest speakers who were not front line rugby people, normal service was resumed for GROGS at the November Lunch, in the person of Matt Vallance, sometime freelance rugby sportswriter for The Herald, The Scotsman and the Sunday Times and an enthusiastic ‘blogger’ writing under the intriguing nom- de-plume, Aristotle Armstrong – Scottish Rugby Philosopher. Listeners might have been confused about which sport Matt was most interested in as his initial remarks were all about football and, in particular, junior football, the mainstay sport of the Ayrshire mining communities in which Matt had grown up. Real men, he said, played junior football while rugby was reserved for others, more light on their feet! He is proud of his own club, Cumnock RFC, founded in 1962 and now home club to more than 300 young players. Matt regaled us with stories about his playing days with generous sprinklings of names which he felt might have resonated with the audience, including Billy Herbertson, Jacko Quinn, Jock Craig and Robert (Rab) Dale. Regardless of their familiarity, one name will surely be remembered, that of “Stiffy” McClure, a former Ayrshire PE teacher. Inevitably, Matt broached the subject of current day rugby in Scotland. Mourning the loss of friendly matches with the advent of the leagues he feels the fun has gone out of the game. Clearly not a fan of the Super Six, he expressed a personal view that the motivation behind its creation was more fiscal than the development of the sport. Although he wishes the nominated clubs well, he has reservations as to whether they will all manage to survive in their current form, especially with 3 franchise clubs in Edinburgh and not one in Glasgow (a view loudly supported by the audience). He sees the creation of a Scottish Junior Rugby Union representing the interests of the amateur game not outwith the realms of possibility. Matt ended with a proclamation of shame about what the rugby media has become. From the heydays of such luminaries as Bill McLaren. Norman Mair, Brian Meek, Bill McMurtrie et al he feels no-one is carrying the journalistic torch for Scottish rugby any more. To give him solace, Chairman Alasdair Graham rewarded him with a bottle of GROGS whisky.
Not even the announcement that the GROGS Christmas Lunch would take place in a different venue this year could steal the spotlight from the broadcasting legend that is Dougie Donnelly who graced the October Lunch as guest speaker. Regaling his audience with tales of his experiences at sporting events all over the world, he gave the impression that there was very little he had not experienced as a commentator or presenter. There was a sense that, if he was asked to pick his two most memorable career experiences, the recent European victory in the Ryder Cup and the moment Scottish curling skip Rhona Martin slid the last stone of the match to win gold medal for Great Britain at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City would win out. His own sporting achievements had peaked when playing 2 games as centre half for Clyde F.C. reserves and, later, when he regularly played golf as the “Am” in a number of Pro-Am tournaments. Considering himself “an extremely lucky individual” in a career spanning over 40 years, Dougie talked about its development from the early days in Radio Clyde to being a top broadcaster with the BBC and now lead commentator for TV coverage of the European Golf Tour. He said he would be eternally grateful for all the opportunities that have come his way, visiting places all over the world covering sports he had never previously been interested in and knew very little about. However, as he explained to us, whenever he was asked by a producer if he was familiar with them he would say “Give me a few days and I will be”. For a man whose main loves in life, outwith his family, are music and sport, a career which started off as a DJ and moved on to allowing him to mention such sporting names as Gavin Hastings, Nick Faldo, Sam Torrance, Ally McCoist, and to be able to call them friends, must seem like a dream come true. Dougie Donnelly proved to be one of the stars in the GROGS speaking galaxy and was a delight to listen to. He deserved the gift of a bottle of rare GROGS whisky he was presented with.
More than 90 GROGs attended the first meeting of the new season and enjoyed an absolute treat in the person of guest speaker, Willie Allan. Those GROGs who didn’t manage along missed a cracker! Fittingly, the Chairman, Johnston Sime, commenced the proceedings by asking for a period of silence as a tribute to Founder Member, Roy Dingwall, who passed away during the summer months after a long and, latterly, wretched illness which he had endured with great courage and spirit. His humour and unique brand of irreverence will be sorely missed.
Willie Allan lived up to his reputation of being one of the funniest after dinner speakers in the country. A P.E. teacher from Buckhaven in Fife, and from 2 generations of miner stock, Willie is a man of many interests and talents and a rugby man to his boots. In fact, the MBE he modestly flashed from behind his jacket lapel, which he was clearly enormously proud of, had been awarded to him in part for his services to youth rugby. Pacing up and down in front of the top table, Willie entertained us for almost 30 minutes with a series of non-stop jokes, stories and personal experiences. He wasn’t afraid to enhance his humour with the use of a number of self-created sound effects, ranging from a heraldic trumpet fanfare to the noisy rasping of a man in an oxygen mask. Showing his professionalism and experience, Willie remained in constant touch with his audience both as participants and foils to his quick wit. But his presentation wasn’t all about jokes and funny stories. He showed his serious side too when he talked about the time he had gone to Hong Kong, using his skills as an auctioneer to support a fund raiser for the Doddie Weir Foundation and was blown away with the galaxy of international rugby stars which had gathered there in support. Willie Allan is clearly a caring person and is impressed with the value of friendship and the goodness in others. After ending with a quote from Rabbie Burns, he deservedly received a prolonged and enthusiastic applause from the appreciative GROGs and a well earned bottle of rare GROGS whisky.
Well, the 2017/18 season certainly ended in style with the April Lunch. Not only did we have an excellent speaker in Jim Robertson but we also had a Barbershop Singing Group (Close Shave Chorus) and an unexpected awards ceremony honouring various GROGS for some rather curious achievements during the past year. Add to those an AGM which included details of record disbursements to various rugby related charities and you could see how this last Lunch of the season left the 100 odd attendees with a hearty appetite for the start of the new season in September. The Chairman, Brian Rigby, explained that the surprise presence of Close Shave Chorus was in order to help celebrate International Barbershop Quartet Day. The celebration was as catchy as it was highly colourful and a much appreciated ‘starter course’ to the meal proper. Another welcome innovation to the normal Lunch format was the introduction of the ‘GROGSCARS’ awards. Described as the first, and probably the last, of such ceremonies, this saw some GROGs being acclaimed for previously unrecognised talents! Some may have been tongue in cheek awards but certainly not in the case of founder member Roy Dingwall’s Lifetime Achievement Award, in appreciation of all the work and humour he had given in service to the GROGS over the past 16 years. However, the star of the show was undoubtedly Jim Robertson, a still active Procurator Fiscal and a speaker of exceptional talent. Jim confessed that he was not, in any way, a rugby man - football and golf (particularly golf) being his sports of choice. Jim is obviously a seasoned pro as a speaker. To use the popular Just a Minute radio show catchphrase, he entertained the gathered GROGs without hesitation, repetition or deviation for fully 30 minutes, and they loved it! He used his wealth of experience as a lawyer, Procurator Fiscal and a son of Lanarkshire to regale his audience with story after story of good, clean fun. At the end, everyone understood exactly why he had been awarded the Wittiest Wit of Wits title at the erstwhile St. Columba’s Hospice Wits Dinner. A worthy recipient of a bottle of unique GROGS whisky as a thank you for the entertainment he provided!
Allan Mackintosh, an erstwhile GROG and a complete rugby man, was the guest speaker at the March Lunch in front of 98 assembled GROGs, disappointingly short of the 3 figure turnout we have become used to. Chairman, Fergus Neil, introduced Allan with as full a detail of his rugby career as we have ever heard before. Here was a man who could talk about grass roots rugby with the authority of a former club player, a former referee, a former coach, a former Chairman of Glasgow Hawks and a former President of Marr RFC. Thus qualified to speak on a number of rugby related topics, Allan chose to restrict his talk to his relationship with Marr RFC, illustrating the extent of the journey the Club had travelled in a relatively short period of time - initially playing in Division 5 West and currently in the Premiership. Allan’s enthusiasm for the club, which was in deep trouble when he became President, was reflected by his regular use of the adjective “fascinating” when describing many of the problems faced, the solutions to those problems and the personalities and character of the early movers and shakers of the revitalised club and their successors. The turning point in Marr’s recent history was the signing of New Zealander Kyle Brunning as player/coach whom Allan credited with a major part in the great breakthrough. He was speaking in ‘club rugby’ language which many recognised as a reflection of their own clubs’ experiences. However, if he had to choose one word to describe the reason for Marr’s success it would likely be “loyalty”. He highlighted the loyalty of everyone involved with the club, especially the core group of players who had been with the club from mini rugby to senior rugby as well as the club coach, former internationalist Craig Redpath. In finishing, Allan imagined that he might write a book one day about his experiences with Marr RFC, with the title “From Mull to Melrose”. From the look on Fergus Neil’s face throughout Allan’s talk, he’s guaranteed one sale at least! This was a thoroughly illuminating and refreshing delivery from a man who clearly loves rugby and he well merited the bottle of GROGS whisky he was presented with.
There was the distinct possibility that this Lunch would not go ahead as there was no running water at Braidholm. However, a “Dunkirk” spirit prevailed and, after a fighting promise from the caterer and a unanimous vote from the gathered GROGS, the Chairman, Johnston Sime, confirmed normality would prevail, making a valiant opening statement in “pig” Gaelic. The audience didn’t have a clue what he said but the guest speaker might have understood him. If he did, he didn’t let on, maintaining a diplomatic smile throughout. The guest speaker was, of course, Hugh Dan MacLennan, the Gaelic language rugby commentator of BBC Alba fame. Though Gaelic is his first language, to everyone’s relief, Hugh Dan gave his talk in English, lapsing only once to explain that the Gaelic word for ‘penalty’ sounds very much like the male appendage, whilst assuring us that his commentaries were never as rude as they might sound. Hugh Dan turned out to be a very interesting, and accomplished, speaker. His personal sporting history isn’t one steeped in rugby, shinty being his premier sport. Nevertheless, he clearly has a deep passion for the game and waxed knowledgeable at many of its aspects and participants. He was educated at Lochaber High School where shinty ruled the sporting roost, until one day a new teacher appeared in class, twirling a rugby ball, with an invitation to “meet the future”! From then on, Hugh Dan had 2 sporting loves. There existed a school of thought that speaking Gaelic could hold one back, but not in his case. Before his broadcasting career, he had been a teacher of Gaelic and was heavily involved in Gaelic associations. Obviously, it features highly in his life and helped to start his career with the BBC in 1982. He talked through the learning curve of his early work aided and abetted by the legendary David Francey although he regretted never having collaborated with the even more legendary Bill McLaren. A firm believer in ‘free to view’ and not ‘pay to view’ rugby, HD hopes BBC Alba will retain broadcasting rights for rugby in Scotland, otherwise there might be no domestic rugby on TV. He is proud to be the Sports Writer in Residence at the National Library and ended by commending 2 of its aspects - the “Rugby’s Roll of Honour” book and the work of “Rugby Memories” enabling Alzheimer’s sufferers.
In recent times there have been some excellent and entertaining speakers at the GROGS lunches, all enjoyed by the ever increasing number of attendees. However, at the heart of the GROGS ethos is an abiding interest in the sport of rugby and this needs to be nourished every now and then by speakers who really know their ‘rugby stuff’. Mark Palmer, Scottish rugby correspondent of the Sunday Times, fitted this description when he addressed 115 GROGs at the January Lunch. In a presentation which could have been titled “The shape of Scottish Rugby today and where it might be going”, Mark gave a very good account of himself with an insight gathered from a number of previous career positions. He was aware that he might be accused of criticising the more capable but it was clear that here was a subject he felt passionate about. Mark praised the successes of the SRU, especially in the way the finances have been turned round and the popularity of Murrayfield as an International venue. However, he was concerned about the way Scottish Rugby's Agenda 3 project to form the new Super 6 league for the 2019/20 season was being presented with little clarity and consultation and even some degree of secrecy. Although most in the audience were interested in this new direction for Scottish rugby, it would have to be said that not many were well versed in the details. The same could not be said about Mark who had clearly researched the subject as far as he was able and who presented a number of facts and figures leading him to the belief that the proposal, at this stage, is somewhat divisive and might lead to a situation of a 2 Club tier system - the smaller number of “haves” and the much larger number of the “have nots”. His view, expressed rationally and dispassionately, is that the SRU have put forward a very flawed proposal for the future and the improvement of Scottish Rugby. He invited questions by asking one:- “What do you want the future of Scottish rugby to look like?”. This inspired considerable participation from the floor, although not much by way of solutions.