IT used to get pretty ferocious in the picturesque village of Glencoe in the western Scottish Highlands during the mid-2000s, when the Nelson kids got the rugby ball out for a kick-about in the back garden of the family home. It was the start of something pretty special.
Youngest sibling Helen is now a Scotland Women’s team regular and will be at stand-off for Shade Munro’s side when they take on Spain on Sunday afternoon, while Robbie – two years older – is co-captain and midfield enforcer for Currie Chieftains in the BT Premiership.
“We both picked it up at about the same time. We were playing with friends in the village and there was a local guy would coach us. He set up a minis club called Glencoe Village Golden Eagles, and we used to play in the garden all the time. Helen was always really good – she was quite well known in the area, playing against all the boys. She was a hard tackler – really tough,” recalls big brother.
“It tapered off for Helen a bit in her early teens. She was a very good skier – she was in the Scottish alpine ski team – so from the age of about 13 to about 16 or 17, that was her main focus, and rugby took a bit of a back seat just because there was nothing really for her in the area apart from the odd women’s rugby event. She didn’t pick it up again until she moved down to Edinburgh for university, and she’s had the bug ever since,” he adds
Eldest sister, Bryony, came to the sport a bit later, initially through social touch-rugby, she ended up playing that version of the game for Scotland, and has now embraced full-contact with Watsonians Ladies. She recently turned out alongside Helen for an East select team against West at Oriam High Performance centre.
There was, perhaps, a few more opportunities for Robbie as a boy to play the game growing up, but in a tiny village – the local primary school roll is just 28 and the nearest secondary school seven miles to the east had a roll of 141 – he was hardly in the fast lane to rugby stardom.
“We both played a bit of mini rugby at Lochaber, which is the closest club, but we were lucky to get one or two games a year against the likes of Mull or Oban,” he explains. “When I was 13, I was playing under-18s rugby because we didn’t have enough bodies to get specific age-group teams out, so we’d just pull it together with whoever we had. I was tiny up until my late teens. It was quite tough: not having many games and when we did get a game it was against big guys which meant getting battered around a fair bit.”
Fortunately, Nelson had got fairly used to that sort of rough and tumble through his association with shinty.
“I played for Ballachulish and we had a really good youth team, I think we were one of the best teams in the country,” he reveals.
“It is basically 90 minutes of fighting. There are only two rules and they are very vague. Other than that, anything goes. I probably owe quite a lot to it. It hardens you up. Even as a small kid you get used to getting smacked by the stick and by the ball, so you definitely learn to cope with the idea that playing might be painful.
“It’s the same principles as rugby – it’s about controlled aggression and a bit of skill. The big thing is having that want to get the ball – putting your body in some places where you are probably going to get hit by something and learning to deal with that.”
Nelson did get involved in Scottish Rugby’s Highlands and Islands Pathways programme for promising youngsters, and from there he was invited along to play for Highland RFC when he was about 16.
“That kept me ticking over in a rugby sense, it was quite nice to play with a group where everyone was the same size and the same level, but it was difficult with the travelling – even for home games we were in Inverness, which is at least two hours away. My folks would have to run me there, or I’d get the bus or stay with a friend the night before. And then there was the away games in Aberdeen, so it was quite hard to link up for them.
“I’d train with Lochaber on Thursday nights but we’d only have five or six blokes training so there’s not that much you can do.”
After leaving school, the bright lights of Scotland’s capital beckoned, and all of a sudden more rugby opportunities began to open up.
“I started studying civil engineering at Heriot Watt and joined the university team to begin with. I hadn’t really played that much competitive rugby so I didn’t think I’d be good enough to compete at a club like Currie. In my second year, I got dragged along to Malleny to turn out for the 2nd XV a few times, but wasn’t training there and wasn’t really too sure about it,” he recalls.
“The head coach at the university was from Kelso originally and he asked if I wanted to go there and play a bit of 1st XV rugby, so four of us went and did that. I was there about half a season but injured my knee so played only three or four games.
“To be honest, it was difficult with the travel and trying to balance training Tuesday and Thursday with uni work – especially in the winter when it was howling weather – so the following season I went back to Currie and was playing for the 2nd XV again, just trying to get my foot in the door, and then there was a few injuries and I ended up in the 1st XV out of nowhere – away to Hawick of all places, which was a baptism of fire.”
That match ended a 31-31 draw, with Ross Weston scoring a hat-trick and Nelson breaking a foot. He returned to play in a 24-0 demolition of Melrose at Malleny a few months later and hasn’t really looked back.
“I started training every session and taking it a bit more seriously. After university, I wasn’t sure of where I was going to be until Ben Cairns spoke to me, he explained that they were quite keen to keep me at Currie and said I should let them know if they could help out in terms of finding work. So, after that, I just decided to get my head down and see what comes of it, and it’s been going alright so far.”
It is hard to compute Nelson’s lack of game time during his youth with his on-field persona now. Within three years he has become a Scotland Club XV cap – last year’s debut against English Counties was his first representative rugby of any sort – and he was appointed co-captain of the Chieftains this summer.
“In those first few years at university and when I played at Kelso, there was a lot of moves and a lot of the language I just didn’t have a clue about – so it took a while for me to get my head around the structures and that side of the game. It was quite tough to begin with but I managed to pick it up – although it still happens once in a while that I get caught out with stuff,” he smiles.
“To begin with, I found the captaincy quite tough – especially with Fergus Scott, my co-captain, out recovering from shoulder surgery up until now. I was trying to make a lot of the on-field decisions by myself, but as the season has progressed I’ve got better at leaning on other senior guys like Jamie Forbes and Mike Vernel,” he adds.
“I just try to do the things I’m best at. Guys will follow you if you do your job well, so I just try to make my tackles and make my carries – get us over the gain line – and play to my strengths as much as I can.”
Physically and psychologically, Nelson seems like the type of player who would have flourished in a full-time professional environment – and he acknowledges that there is a slight frustration that he was never really in a position to be picked up by the SRU’s academy programme, but he clearly doesn’t lose sleep over it.
“Maybe if I had gone to a rugby mad school I would have burned out,” he muses. “Because I didn’t play much at all up until I was 18, I feel pretty fresh with it mentally, and physically I feel quite young. The gym work is pretty new to me, whereas a lot of the guys I come up against now have been lifting huge weights since their early teens, and that’s got to burn you out a bit.”
In theory, Super 6 would be an opportunity for Nelson to test himself at a higher level, but he seems unsure about how he would fit into Scottish Rugby’s controversial new scheme for the top end of the club game.
“Looking at the payment breakdowns, for myself it doesn’t seem sustainable,” he shrugs. “It is probably aimed at young lads who are still living at home, which is what the academy system seems to be based on.”
“I don’t think I’d be able to do Super 6 and do the job I’m doing now [he is a civil engineer for SLR environmental consultants], but I’d have to do some other part-time work – it wouldn’t be ideal because I’d like to progress my [non-rugby] career. So, I’m just not sure whether it would be possible to strike that balance.”
In the meantime, Nelson has far more pressing rugby matters to contend with, such as helping ensure Chieftains’ recent rich vein of form continues when they take on Glasgow Hawks at Old Anniesland this weekend.
The Malleny Park men go into the game on a real high off the back of an impressive victory over league leaders Melrose last weekend. That result put them firmly in the driving seat to finish second in the table this year, which would ensure a home draw in the play-off semi-finals in April.
“We’ve had some pretty close games against Hawks in recent years. They are probably feeling pretty hard done by after that game at Malleny earlier in the season [when Chietains came back from 0-27 down to secure a famous 29-27 victory]. They have quite a similar game strategy and structure to us – a good scrum and a good maul – so it is going to be tough,” said Nelson.
“Like I said to the guys after the game on Saturday, it is really easy to get buzzed up for those big games against the league leaders, but we need to sustain that. If we play like we did against Melrose then we have to be in with a shout against any team, but if we drop off then we know in this league that we will pay a heavy price.”