Lunchtime stories with BBC commentator Ian Robertson
What characters there are in rugby. Drunks, geniuses, wordsmiths, shining stars and grizzled anvils, all thrown together by the love of chasing a pigskin about a grassy rectangle for the right to throttle each other when they’re caught with it.
It’s a wondrous thing, that attracts wondrous people, who are wondrous on several different levels.
Some are wondrous for their ability to play the game, others are wondrous for their acumen in teaching it, and a small elite are truly wondrous for their talent in describing it for those watching and listening on the other side of town, across a country or in another hemisphere.
Although the players and teachers create the spectacle, these last few are the men who bring the game to life – who use words to enchant their spellbound audience, who allow silence to speak for them when words can add nothing, and whose intuition and exquisite emphasis can create a sparkling narrative from the most beige events.
Such a pleasure then, to be treated to lunch with one of these unsung gems of the rugby world, BBC commentator and former Scotland international, Ian Robertson, who is on tour in Australia following the English rugby team.
Robertson actually tagged along to lunch with his old mate, the king of the playing geniuses, David Campese, but the ever canny Campese, always aware of his strengths, said early on in proceedings, “I’ll do the straight stuff, and leave the stories to Robbo,” whereupon Robbo obliged with several gems.
In one hilarious conversation with champion England prop Jason Leonard, the proudly Scottish Robertson candidly described the England team as “utterly sh*t”. Leonard protested, whereby Robertson reeled off the statistics, something like seven English losses in a row from their most recent Tests.
Leonard, unable to argue such telling facts, resorted to that last refuge of a scoundrel, patriotism. “We might be rubbish now Ian” he proclaimed, “but soon we will rise from the ashes…just…like…a…PHEASANT!”.
After the collective mirth had subsided, Robertson informed Leonard that it was in fact the phoenix which was famous for rising from the ashes.
“Oh yeah” said Leonard “I knew it was some fancy bird beginning with F.”
Robertson’s fraternal bond with the likes of Campese and Leonard is that of the fellow international. He was a Scotland international of some quality, robbed of the latter years of his career by a serious knee injury.
Before then, though, he was good enough to win 8 caps over three or four seasons, tour Australia and Argentina, and play for the Barbarians from London Scottish RFC.
Also around this time, rugby being then an amateur game, Robertson was a schoolteacher whose notable pupils included former British PM Tony Blair (a smart-arsed little snot since you ask), and Phillip Wragg, who was nephew of well known horse trainer Geoff Wragg, and grandson of the legendary jockey and trainer, Harry Wragg. Harry Wragg was famous enough that at the time his name was rhyming slang for a cigarette, as in “fag”.
Unusually for a schoolteacher and a pupil, Robertson and Wragg first met in the local betting shop around the corner from their school, Fettes College, Edinburgh. Assuming an arch headmasterly tone, Robertson enquired the name of the schoolboy hiding his school tie with his hand.
The busted Wragg, apologetic to a fault, replied “Wragg sir”.
“And how do you spell that Wragg?”. “That would be W-R-A-G-G sir”.
Further enquiry revealed that the boy was indeed the progeny of the famous Wragg sires, and further, was at that moment in possession of a missive from home territory which strongly recommended that the boy invest everything he could lay in on one of the Wragg stable runners post haste, a horse known as Charles-Martel (after “Charles The Hammer”, notable 7th century Frankish leader and grandfather of Charlemagne).
Charles-Martel was not rated as highly by the bookies as he was by the Wragg family who clearly knew something, since the bookies were at 50-1 and yet the Wraggs were gathering the family treasure to throw at the nag.
At this moment, in had walked Robertson, a young teacher on a poorly salary, looking for an edge.
Clearly, a teacher placing bets for a pupil would not be at all the done thing, so Robertson informed Wragg that he would be severely punished should he ever be found at the betting shop again, and he had better slip off back to school sharpish and leave the letter and the sum of money he had on his person with Robertson for safekeeping.
Furthermore, if he was to receive any further instructions from home pertaining to wagering on horses, he was to consider the letters confiscated, and immediately leave them in Robertson’s study along with any sum of money he was planning to wager. The letters and the money would be held in trust and returned at the end of term.
Both teacher and pupil appeared to be well satisfied with the arrangement, which neglected to clearly explain how the Wragg balance remitted at end of term was well in excess of the amount confiscated, or how a teacher of Robertson’s modest salary had managed to parlay it into sufficient capital to purchase a new motorcycle for cash around the same time.
Anyway, these mysteries aside, Robertson was having success on the rugby field, and was touring Argentina in 1969 with a Scotland team captained by the dour Jim Telfer.
After a typically tough match against a local side the visitors started to celebrate, none more then Robertson. The local poison was some sort of raw red wine which Robertson downed by the tumblerfull, until he observed a mountainous Argentine prop forward tippling a small nip of the vin rouge into a glass and topping it up with a generous draught of water.
Shanghaiing one of his fellow tourists into the role of interpreter so as to find out what was going on, Robertson soon learned of the respect that the Argentines had for the punchy little local red, and that they virtually never drank it neat.
The fact would have made a more sober man apprehensive about the several glasses of potent swill bubbling away in his stomach, but Robertson was already gone – a staggering, dribbling and eventually vomiting shadow of his former self. So ill in fact, that teammate Mike Smith, a doctor, sat up and kept watch over him through the night in case it all got too much for his teetering system.
In the morning, Robertson was alive, almost. Telfer, on the other hand, was positively vital, livid at the evenings shenanigans and had called a training session at San Isidro, where he ran the team until they dropped. The reason that Robertson dropped before Telfer was simple.
Robbo was dehydrated, half starved and mildly alcoholically poisoned, to say little of the poor quantity and quality of sleep he’d been getting lately.
Eventually the nightmare session ended, and a still raging Telfer ordered the team into the change rooms, giving them one minute to change and be on the bus.
Robertson, in his own words seeing “about four different doorways” managed to collect his gear and make it to the bus last, where he found the door blocked by Telfer, who coldly informed him that he wasn’t coming on the bus and instead would be walking back the hotel some twenty miles away.
After delivering the news, Telfer turned on his heel and found his own seat, two rows from the front of the bus.
One can only imagine the parlous physical and emotional state of one Ian Robertson at this moment. Hungover, exhausted, still slightly drunk, and nauseous as an apprentice seaman with stale cigar, Robertson nevertheless held one ace up his sleeve.
Before leaving home shores, his protégé in the horseflesh stakes, young Wragg, had duly delivered a likely hope for the 1969 Group 1 St Leger Stakes for three year olds, a horse named Intermezzo, trained by his grandfather Harry.
Robertson had thrown a sizeable bundle on the nag before hopping on the plane, and had that morning, through a fug of vicous Argentine liquor, been delivered the news that Intermezzo had obliged at 66-1.
Robertson was not only still living, he was rich.
Climbing the stairs onto the bus, Robertson took strength from his win and drew himself up to full height before owlishly addressing one of the three or so Telfers swimming in front of him.
“I won’t be leaving this bus, because it’s mine. I’ve just bought it!”. (Telfer wonders if this maniac is serious). ”In fact, since it’s my bus, you’ll be getting off and walking back to the hotel”. (Telfer glowers and half rises from his seat). “Of course when you get there, you’ll find your bags packed and waiting in reception…” (Telfer steps into aisle)”…because I’ve bought the bloody hotel as well and you’re NOT WELCOME!”.
At the punchline, Telfer hurled himself at the delirious Robertson, only to be held by the powerful frame of Ian “Mighty Mouse” McLauchlin, as the whole thing descended into a wicked farce.
Eventually Telfer was placated, and a thoughtful touring party made their way quietly back to the San Isidro Sheraton – all on the bus.
As the Scots would say, those days are gone now. But for Robertson, the touring life goes on in his capacity as BBC rugby correspondent, following in the footsteps of the greats like Cliff Morgan and Bill McLaren.
In fact, he visited McLaren shortly before his death early this year, only to be informed by McLaren’s wife Bette, that McLaren was deteriorating rapidly and would be unlikely to remember him.
Robertson steeled himself for the encounter, but upon entering the room, was greeted by the stentorian McLaren tones.
“I. Robertson! Cambridge University! Watsonians! London Scottish, the Barbarians and Scotland! 8 caps! Couldn’t kick, and never tackled!”.
McLaren may have been drifting, but he was dead right about one thing at least. What a wonderfully unforgettable character is Ian Robertson.
Andrew Logan has played rugby for over 25 years. A contributor to The Roar since its inception, he also writes for Inside Rugby magazine, and Super Rugby and international match day programs. A regular panellist on ABC Grandstand discussing rugby and other sports, Andrew has appeared on ABC's The Drum and also Sky Sportsline. He has convened and managed several touring sides including the Australian Rugby Sevens team on the IRB circuit, and the Australian Barbarians XV.