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.
Determined to enjoy themselves, 114 GROGs attended the 2017 Xmas Lunch, not just turning up but participating in the revelries with their boisterous approach to merrymaking and seasonal singing led by keyboard maestro Robin Hopkins, subbing for Bill Gardner. It’s not often (if ever) that GROGS has a visiting Professor as a guest speaker but the long wait was certainly worth it. Professor David Purdie came to GROGS with an established reputation as a first class after dinner entertainer and first class he certainly was. Of course, he had that veteran GROG and regular Lunch chairman, Roy Dingwall, as his warm up act. When the raw, predator like, humour of one was mingled with the stylish, semi professional, delivery of the other, the result was pure entertainment for all. At this point, the reader must decide which one was which! Introduced as an Accie of a lesser world (being an Ayr Academical) David opened by showcasing 3 of his many talents - humour, delivery and mimicry - with a story about an Australian immigration officer, one of a long line of good stories. However, he didn’t depend on humour alone to entertain his audience. David showed he is also very rugby orientated with, among other interesting comments, a thought provoking treatise on the difference between backs and forwards of both the bygone era and the current era. If anything, he had too many good stories (recounted with a host of accents). Sometimes it was difficult to know which ones were true and which invented. It didn’t matter, they were all great, including possibly the best ever Will Carling story! And he wasn’t averse to a bit of name dropping - Willie Whitelaw, Robert Runcie and even our own Bobby Low. All in all, a wonderful performance which ended with a standing ovation. Certainly, he already had everyone on their feet for a joint toast to GROGS and EROS, but that was just part of the skill of the man. As a thank you for his company, David received a bottle of GROGS whisky to keep him warm on his train journey home. Previously, Gordon Wilson had outbid everybody else in an auction to ensure he took home a Bill McLaren ‘Big Sheet’ as an early Christmas present for his wife.
If GROGS has ever had a more insightful speaker on Scottish rugby than Kenny Hamilton it's hard to think who that might have been. The record number of 115 interested parties weren't to be disappointed! A quintessential rugby man, who is the current Glasgow Hawks President and Chairman of the Hearts and Balls charity, Kenny grabbed attention by touching on the 3 big issues of modern day Scottish Rugby ..... the state of the game, the "Super Six" and rugby injuries. He was bullish about the state of the game, pointing out the success of Glasgow Warriors, the progress of Edinburgh Rugby and Scotland being in their highest ever position in world rankings! With the 'Murrayfield debt’ reducing, rugby academies, improved coaching and the benefits of professionalism all bearing fruit, one could see why Kenny is enthusiastic about the future. He also praised the contributions made by the ever loyal and hard working voluntary sector in schools and clubs for keeping the sport alive for years. You could hear the jaws dropping when he said that currently the pro players' salaries are rising at about 30% per year! Kenny was more hopeful than bullish about the concept of the Super 6 but is willing to wait and see if the results of priming the next level of young players will prove more successful than before although he feared that the proposed blueprint has all the hallmarks of a committee designed camel! Nevertheless, if the current interdependency among players, supporters and management continues, it might just nurture the desired success. A reflection of such cooperation can be seen in the Hearts and Balls Charitable Trust which Kenny chairs. Life changing injuries are relatively few for such a physical sport but, since it was founded, the Charity has donated more than £1/2 million to help support individuals and their families. The financial and volunteer support comes mainly from the grass roots rugby community he admires so much. There was so much more to Kenny's talk which can't be recorded here. Safe to say that it earned him warm applause, appreciation and a bottle of that very rare GROGS whisky!
Almost 100 GROGs attended the monthly lunch to welcome Fergus Neil, breaking his duck as Chairman, and David Barnes, well known rugby correspondent, author and blogger, who broke the GROGS Speakers “height record”, towering over Al Kellock by almost 1 inch! Dipping into his considerable knowledge of the refereeing fraternity Fergus told some good stories about them, especially the more than famous Nigel Owens. The biggest compliment that can be paid to David Barnes in describing his passionate and insightful address is that he spoke completely in his own right as David Barnes and not as the son of Ian Barnes, the former Scottish international lock forward. A successful rugby player himself, having played for Hawick and Edinburgh Accies before being forced to retire through injury, David showcased his qualifications as a rugby correspondent for several broadsheet newspapers (and 1 or 2 not-so-broadsheet others)! He restricted his comments to a short description of his transition to rugby columnist and a much longer description of his concerns about what might be happening to club rugby with the desire of rugby “officialdom” to extend their power and authority over the sport. He was clearly unhappy about the present day governance of the game in Scotland and is further worried that some English clubs have too much control in European rugby whilst working with a lack of obvious viability. The setting up of the proposed ‘Super Six’ he sees as being fraught with problems and part of a creeping dimunition of the independence of the leading clubs on both the players and officials fronts. A frustration about the lack of the type of rugby coverage he believes the ordinary rugby enthusiast in Scotland looks for led David to establishing the website www.theoffsideline.com which has gained in popularity and stature since it was set up 18 months ago. His aim of wanting to report and comment in the way the 2 main ‘rugby papers’ should have been doing is clearly being achieved and discerning GROGs would do well to check out the site. In appreciation of his contribution, Fergus Neil presented David with a bottle of, what he assured him is, a very rare whisky indeed.
Appreciating that Rob Flockhart, President of the SRU, had made time in his very busy schedule to come to the GROGS, a record number for a September meeting attended the first Lunch of the 2017-18 season to hear what he had to say about the current state and progress of rugby in Scotland. They did not go home disappointed! As we entered the 15th. season of GROGS Lunches, Chairman Brian Rigby praised the enthusiastic support of members, both current and past, for making this tradition so enjoyable. He also paid tribute to Steve Begley, whose premature death at the age of 42 was announced recently. He said Steve, a well known Glasgow rugby man, was too young to have been a GROG and too young to die. In opening, Rob made 3 admissions:- 1) he was feeling very nervous; 2) he was not there to defend or attack the SRU and 3) he was a founding member of EROS, the Edinburgh equivalent, but much younger, association of GROGS. None of these confessions was held against him. In a wide-ranging address, Rob covered many points of interest to his audience. He had nothing but praise for the changes in the governance of the Union recommended by the Working Party chaired by Sheriff Bill Dunlop which, he said, had resulted in Scottish Rugby being the envy of both the Irish and Welsh Rugby Unions. He couldn’t express strongly enough his view that Scottish rugby starts and ends with the Clubs, although the SRU needed to be trusted in its actions. It’s vital, Rob said, that Clubs need to encourage greater volunteer support in order to attack the bedrock problems of ongoing sustainability and player retention. Success breeds success! He covered a number of other general points and then gave way to questions. From a knowledgeable audience came knowledgeable questions. Is a 3rd. professional side in Scotland a likelihood? Why were there so few Scots in the Lions pool? Is regionalisation of Club rugby the way ahead? How can the SRU police illegal payments to players? Is the season too short? Rob answered these, and several other questions, in an honest and forthright manner which much impressed his discriminating audience and for this he was gifted one of the much sought after bottles of GROGS whisky!
The last Lunch of the 2016-17 year started off more somberly than most. First of all, popular former Chairman, Roy Dingwall, took ill at the beginning of proceedings and was taken to hospital before he had a chance to enjoy the lunch he’d paid for. Thankfully all is well with him and he was released the following day. Then, in the chair for his swansong as GROGS Chairman, Gordon Wilson expressed the Club’s sympathy at the recent death of founder member and GROGS stalwart, Tom Morrice. A period of respectful silence was held before Gordon opened and closed the AGM in 2 minutes with details of the proposed charitable donations. He also announced that Brian Rigby was the Committee’s proposal as his successor, at which point there was a further period of silence and by such silent acclaim, the appointment was approved! After a fine lunch, the guest speaker, Johnny Bacigalupo, was introduced. Johnny, part stand up comedian, part rugby aficionado, was a welcome return speaker to GROGS. In between a selection of hilarious one-liners and some pretty tall tales. he described his career as a prop playing against such famous names as Iain Milne, Ian MacLauchlan, Norman Pender and Sandy Carmichael before an unfortunate accident put an end to it. What was the playing game’s loss became the regulating game’s gain when Johnny moved into refereeing. He quickly moved up the refereeing ranks before being promoted to coaching referees and then to his current position of Performance Reviewer, a role he clearly relishes. Peppering his description of his rugby career, thus far, with humorous anecdotes about well kent players and officials, including a good story involving referee Allan Hosie and England internationalist Ben Clark, Johnny made it clear he is still very much a grass roots rugby man. He’d recently watched 2 different matches - an open game between Trinity and Portobello in East 2A League and a tight, bruising match between the professional sides, Edinburgh and Connacht. We were in no doubt which one he preferred. He also expressed his feelings about the modern game’s scrums and lineouts and, in answers to questions, how he rated certain high profile referees. For his entertainment and honesty, Johnny walked away with a bottle of GROGS whisky.
GROGS continued with its much acclaimed policy of diversity and inclusion with top female referee, Alex Pratt, journeying from Edinburgh to join us in our celebration of International Women’s Day! And celebration it was for a number of the 95 GROGs present who had not previously been aware of the extent that women’s rugby had become established in Scotland. As the old joke goes, thanks to Alex, “they ken noo”! In the story of her life, travels and involvement in rugby, Alex was as natural a speaker as we have had over the years. She made no apology for, or special explanation of, her involvement in a sport which most, if not all, of her audience would never have envisaged in their playing days. The language she used, the technicalities she explained and even the post match drinking culture she described were no different than would have been heard from her male counterparts and or from the majority of those present. Alex described how she came to Scotland in 2001 on one of those ‘world tour’ rites of passage that seem essential to young Kiwis and Aussies. She liked it so much she ended up staying and quickly took up rugby with Watsonians. She felt she took so much from club rugby that she wanted to put something back into the sport and, thus, took up refereeing. This has led, so far, to a stellar, and rather unique career, in that she has now officiated at all levels of club rugby as well as the Olympic Games, the World Cup, the Six Nations and the Melrose 7s. Her ambition for herself, she explained, is for rugby fans and officials to think that “she is not too bad”! After her talk, which centered mainly on her development as a referee, she took a number of questions from the floor. Interestingly, and as a compliment to her, these all focused on the technical side of modern day rugby. She handled these with the authority of someone who clearly knows their stuff. So far as GROGS is concerned, Alex more than achieved her ambition of being “not too bad”. The bottle of GROGS whisky she took home assured her of that!
Those GROGs attending the February Lunch 2017 will be delighted to tell anyone who might be interested that they were present on the day The Bear of Scottish rugby came to Braidholm. Iain Milne, the great Scottish International, British Lions warrior and 1984 Grand Slam winner did, indeed, come to Braidholm to address 103 GROGs who still see him as a hero from the “Golden Age” of rugby. A huddle (being the collective noun) of props gathered at the top table, in the shapes of Iain Milne, Chairman Alasdair Graham and Robert Dean, comfortably taking up the space usually reserved for 5! For the second month in a row, a former Scottish Internationalist and British Lion entertained GROGs with a delivery, full of good stories of the goings-on of some of the top rugby stars of yesteryear, linked with a clear knowledge of the sport, at all levels, and covering decades of playing and observation experience. Iain’s story ranged from his playing days at George Heriots school, Heriots FP, to his Scotland and British Lions career - a story laced with tales of high jinks both on and off the pitch. He clearly loved his rugby and he loved the fun with his teammates, fun that might have been put down as being boisterous in the 1980’s. There’s one ex mayor in a small town in New Zealand who probably still treasures a ripped blazer as a souvenir of a Lions visit! Iain’s nostalgia included a euphimistic account of a shared love of watching television with a Kiwi fan and the day he became semi professional by accepting a white pudding supper from an appreciative Jim Telfer. Iain has had his demons to fight over the years and the fight continues. Still heavily involved in rugby with Heriots, he works very hard to foster the old style club spirit there, efforts that are bearing fruit. Although not a great fan of the SRU’s apparent desire to control all levels of club rugby, he gave it a reasonable report as he did with Glasgow Warriors and Gregor Townsend, but was less praising of Edinburgh Rugby and former coach Alan Solomons. He ended by exhorting club representatives to speak out strongly for collective club rugby, answering questions openly and honestly and taking possession of a prized bottle of GROGS whisky with enthusiasm.
There has to come a time when the talents of the guest speakers at the GROGS lunches cannot keep excelling. Happily this was not the case at the first lunch of the New Year when the ever youthful Roger Baird reached new heights of entertainment value. The event hadn’t got off to a great start with numbers being decimated by call-offs due to last minute illnesses. However, the survivors were well rewarded for their stamina and resistance to germs! In a speech peppered with famous names from 2 decades of top class rugby, some great stories from his playing days, some out and out jokes and strong views on the current state of Scottish rugby, Roger delighted the 92 GROGS present with a thoroughly enjoyable blend of rugby knowledge, humour, mimicry and nostalgia. Having a pop at his erstwhile playing colleagues and friends, albeit laced with poetic licence, Roger kept his rapt audience in the palm of his hands with his skilful blend of oratory. He also showed a fine talent in mimicry, particularly when talking about Gavin Hastings and the fearsome Jim Telfer, who Roger confirmed is, indeed, larger than life! In the safety of a warm room at Braidholm, with the benefit of a fine ‘Burns like’ lunch well digested, GROGS got a taste of what it must have been like to be faced with that Melrose legend in full flow! It wasn’t all fun and flippancy, though. There were serious comments from a man who clearly loves rugby and is still involved in it. Roger Baird is, by his own admission, not an admirer of the lack of support that the SRU gives to its member clubs, although he remains optimistic about Scotland’s immediate international chances. Also, though clearly an admirer and supporter of Gregor Townsend, he gave the impression that the replacement of the current Head Coach, Vern Cotter, may have been dealt with differently if Gavin Roger Todd Baird had been in charge. Not surprisingly, Roger received a standing ovation and a bottle of the priceless GROGS whisky by way of appreciation for a stellar performance.