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The Musings Of A Happy Old Prop

November 11th 2009

Old Prop steve

Incredibly we are already half way through the first phase of the League season and it is now time to turn attention to the new British and Irish Cup.

Nobody quite knows what to expect from this new venture introduced almost apologetically by the powers-that-be.

It may yet turn out to become a very serious competition indeed but alternatively it may be a chance for players and spectators to relax a bit and throw the ball around as a pleasant release from the weekly battle to grind out League points.

At the same time it will be a grand opportunity to see some different teams and supporters and hopefully make a few new friends. .

As the pipe opener (no doubt they will bring a few pipes of their own) we will be welcoming a assortment of bonnie Scotsmen operating under the unlikely name of Gael Force which sounds a bit like the product of a pun-loving marketing man who has just listened to the shipping forecast.

Despite the huge geographical separation, the Pirates have locked horns with the Scots on a few occasions in the past. Way back in September 1957 they set off in a creaky old coach and ventured mile after mile on winding roads (no motorways then) to land up in Jedburgh and Hawick just across the border.

The latter club in those days bristled with current and recent internationalists and their lovely Mansfield Park ground was a real fortress. Nevertheless the Pirates only went down by a very respectable 6-15 scoreline despite having already played the previous evening against Jedforest.

Rugby in the Borders was always an enjoyable experience and the parallels with west country rugby have been striking. Fervent club loyalty centred upon small wool weaving and market towns like Galashiels, Kelso, Melrose and Hawick itself and this did not translate itself well into the recent vogue for regional franchises.

So if anyone at Twickenham or elsewhere thinks of digging up that hoary old theme again as the answer to top rugby in the South West let me give them a terse two word answer. No not those two words - but ‘Border Reivers’.

For decades the Pirates used to enjoy a visit from London Scottish every September and they also used to bring down many of the current top players with two intentions – to get fit and enjoy themselves with a bit of late summer Cornish sunshine. One of my earliest memories of the latter aspect was watching transfixed as a group of about six of them in their tartan kilts tried to blag their way into the Winter Gardens without paying.

Typical Scots! The resident bouncer on the door was a wonderful character who was an ex-Pirates prop called Ben Perrin. He was famous for wheeling his bicycle around Penzance in the depths of winter clad only in a sleeveless vest and trousers. When he said they couldn’t come in unless they paid up the inevitable happened – up came the kilts towards Ben - and the screams of the young maids queuing to go in would have awoken the dead.

I had a couple of games against London Scottish myself and we lost both times. At that time they had a famous international player called Alistair McHarg who was an eccentric genius whose exploits veered from the brilliant to the disastrous within seconds. He was nearly six feet six but probably never weighed more than about fifteen stone and was as lean as a whippet.

In those days lock forwards were supposed to leap unassisted like salmon in lineouts, push like hell in the scrums, wrestle for the ball in the mauls and ruck like their lives depended on it. He often did none of these. He would turn up in the centre selling outrageous dummies, career down the wing, take over at scrum half and spray massive passes all over the shop whilst giving a running commentary in a slightly upper class Glaswegian brogue. He nevertheless played over forty times for Scotland and scored loads of amazing tries and once punched me on the nose for daring to laugh at him.

They also had a prop of superhuman strength called Robin Challis whom even Stack Stevens felt was one of the hardest scrummagers he ever met. He was a bit of an oddball too in that he often swapped sides in the scrum when he felt like it and always played with his socks rolled down around his ankles. I played against him once on the Mennaye but you can rest assured I wasn’t planning to try to kick him on the shins! Over a beer afterwards I asked him what he did for a living and found out he was an antique dealer who specialized in porcelain – yes that turned out to be true.

In fact the Scots were always great defenders of the amateur ethos in rugby to the extent that they once famously refused to play the 1924 All Blacks reportedly because they had numbers on their shirts. Uh?

Despite this their amateur players always had a good eye for business.The story goes that in the 1980’s the Queen was visiting Edinburgh and the Scotland team were invited to a Royal Garden Party. During the course of the afternoon HM mingled with her guests and fell into conversation with hooker and skipper Colin Deans.

“It must be such tremendous fun having nothing else to do but play rugger all the time” she volunteered brightly.

“Och no Your Majesty we all have full time jobs during the week”

“Oh so what is it that you do?”

“ I’m in double glazing Your Majesty”

“Oh how interesting”

“Aye wuid ye like me to do ye a wee quote for Holyrood Palace Ma’am?

Anyway lets give these Gaels a good Cornish welcome and then ‘send them homeward tae think again.