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.
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.