Revisiting the Reivers

Reivers demise
Image: David Gibson

by STUART RUTHERFORD

THE history of Borders rugby is littered with tales about clubs, characters and events which are as eccentric as they are pivotal to the development of the game as we know it in Scotland. However, there was perhaps no affair quite as extraordinary as that of the Border Reivers’ short lifespan, which came to an unceremonious end in the summer of 2007.

Monday marked tenth anniversary of the SRU’s decision to axe the Reivers; a ruling which prompted widespread consternation in the region. However, with a decade of reflection under our belts, how should we really assess this particularly turbulent episode in the history of Scottish rugby?

When the Reivers came back to life at the start of the 2002-03 season (following a four-year hiatus after the number of district sides in Scotland was cut from four to two in the summer of 1998), it appeared to be the genuine article. An enthusiastic local support; a competitive league including both Irish and Welsh teams; a highly decorated figure at the helm in the shape of former All Black assistant coach Tony Gilbert; and a squad littered with native Border rugby stars, including Gregor Townsend, Gary Armstrong and Doddie Weir. On paper, the Border rugby culture and professionalism looked like a match made in heaven, however, when the time came to actually put theory into practice, the Reiver’s dream soon turned into a nightmare.

In five seasons of Celtic League competition, the faltering Borders side could muster only 18 wins – finishing bottom of the league on three separate occasions – and a domino effect was created. Poor results led to attendances dropping from regularly being in excess of 4,000 during that first year back to consistently less than 2,000 by year three onwards, which had an inevitable knock-on effect on other commercial factors such as recruiting sponsors and advertisers. Something had to give.

On the 27th of March 2007 the SRU took drastic action. Following weeks of speculation, the governing body’s chief executive, Gordon McKie, called a press conference at Murrayfield, in which it was announced that, in order to strengthen Glasgow Warriors, the Reivers would be closed down once and for all.

The Reivers’ dream was over and many argued that it had never really been given a fair chance to get started. The side’s last match – a 24-16 defeat at home to the Ospreys – ended with fireworks and ticker tape, but only 1,800 hardy souls turned up for the wake. As it’s players, including internationalists Ross Ford and Kelly Brown (both Borderers who had got their break with the Reivers), transferred to Edinburgh and Glasgow for the 2007-08 season, it almost as if the club had never existed – although you could still spot the odd Reivers jersey being worn around Borders’ clubhouses on a Saturday afternoon.

It is important to remember the context of the time. Back in 2007, the SRU were in a ghastly position: creaking under the weight of a £23 million bank debt with crippling interest payments, there was very little cash leftover for two under-performing and over-spending pro clubs in the Reivers and Glasgow Warriors; and with the governing body’s relationship with Bob Carruthers deteriorating daily it was becoming increasingly apparent that Edinburgh was soon going to return to the SRU’s fold as well after a

disastrous flirtation with privatisation.

The governing body had to act quickly and whatever decision they made was going to cause some sort of backlash.

Nowadays, it may seem like keeping Glasgow Warriors – a club situated in a city with an urban population of over one million people – was the obvious answer but it was not as clear-cut back then, because the team in the west was an entirely different organisation than the slick operation we see today. Playing out of Hughenden, the pro-team from Scotland’s biggest city regularly attracted even smaller crowds than the Reivers, whilst their league form rarely saw them move out of the bottom six places.

The SRU found themselves in the Sophie’s Choice of rugby predicaments: get rid of the Warriors and risk alienating the entire west of Scotland and all the commercial opportunities that area can access; or disband the Reivers, a club situated in the one area of Scotland where rugby is viewed as the be-all and end-all. Whilst Andy Irvine (president of the SRU at the time) claimed that it was a ‘margin call’, any man and his dog could have forecasted the result as soon as money was involved.

The outcome led to protests from both the club’s players and supporters. For many, the whole thing fed a perception that Murrayfield was taking for granted the one region where rugby remained king. A furious Jim Telfer, recently retired as the SRU’s director of rugby, claimed that an “Edinburgh-Glasgow mafia” had hijacked power at Murrayfield and fretted that this decision would leave Borders rugby as a “dustbowl”.

The ‘Borders Rugby Action Group’ was set up, and fought the decision to the bitter end.

The handling of the situation as a PR exercise was diabolical. The Reivers players were called together to be given the bad news but before the meeting started they had all seen a press release – headed: Warriors pro-team strengthened as Border Reivers closes – which had been carelessly left on a nearby table.

The Scottish Rugby Players Association wasted little time in releasing a strongly worded statement which highlighted a number of grievances and requesting a meeting with the SRU’s three leading figures in McKie, Irvine and chairman Allan Munro.

Statement issued by Scottish Rugby Players Association –

The SRU have stated that they are at fault and have let the Borders down. If that is the case then why has the club been closed, rather than helped? The players feel this statement is grossly patronising given that it is the players, and not the SRU top brass, who are losing their jobs

The feeling amongst the players is that they were set up this season to fail. Despite qualifying for the Heineken Cup last season, the club was subjected to negative comments from Gordon McKie, the SRU chief executive, after only three matches of the current season. This drove away two local sponsors.

The SRU also dragged their heels when it came to issuing season tickets; marketing was either negligible or non-existent … the club was only able to employ three administrative staff, who were moved into portacabins mid-season … the pitch was poorly maintained … two coaches were re-designated to the national team midway through the season.

The players are also disappointed that Frank Hadden – who is acting as director of rugby, and one of a few people who must have had input into this decision – was in Hong Kong, coaching an invitational side, when the players that are being made redundant were hearing the news.

The SRU talk about the lack of support from the public. However, the actions of the CEO have been counter-productive. Initially he demanded that people go to watch Reivers games, but then filled the air with uncertainty about the future. The players believe that people in the Borders don’t want to support the SRU, and that’s the main reason for poorer crowds.

The phrasing of the press release announcing Tuesday’s decision – Warriors pro team strengthened as Border Reivers closes’ – was highly insensitive.

One thing is clear: the Reivers’ legacy lives on today. You might say it was the sacrificial lamb that Scottish rugby desperately needed. With extra funding and support, Glasgow Warriors have developed into one of European rugby’s leading sides, and now regularly sell-out their state-of-the-art ground at Scotstoun. The team provides the backbone of a national side which currently has its highest ever world ranking of fifth.

For a generation of players from the region – including two times Six Nations player of the tournament Stuart Hogg – the Reivers were an inspiration during a critical stage in their development.

“Growing up, the first thing you wanted to do was play for Hawick. The Borders were up and running at the time and it was a target to be a professional rugby player. I remember my family, the four of us, me, my father and mother and brother, would go and sit bang on the halfway line in the temporary stand on the far side of the [Netherdale] field. I was either there or on the touchline as a ballboy. We were a huge part of 
support for the Borders and it is a great shame that it is no longer there,” recalled Hogg last week.

It is now Hogg’s turn to provide the inspiration for the next generation of Border rugby stars, but he does so – at least in a rugby sense – from a distance.

We’ll never know whether the Reivers could have reached the lofty heights that Glasgow have today had the SRU decided to swing the axe the other way. However, there is an irony in the fact that Townsend – who was a staunch and vocal opponent of the union’s decision at the time – was the man to lead the Warriors to their first ever league title, and will now take over Scotland’s top job in the summer.

In the end, the Reivers vacated the Borders almost in a flash, leaving loyal supporters feeling as if they had been mugged. It was perhaps a fitting end for a club named after 16th century raiding thieves.

About Stuart Rutherford 50 Articles
Stuart hails from the Borders town of Selkirk and has been around rugby all his life, largely thanks to the influence of his father, John. Not only a fan of the modern game, he is a keen rugby historian, and produces a regular 'Throwback Thursday Column' for The Offside Line.