Obituary: Gary Callander: captained Scotland in five of his six cap matches

Hooker was the key man in golden era for Kelso during the 1980s

Gary Callander was a leader of men and one of Scotland's most astute rugby players during the 1980s. Image courtesy: Kelso RFC
Gary Callander was a leader of men and one of Scotland's most astute rugby players during the 1980s. Image courtesy: Kelso RFC

Gary Callander

  • Born: 5th July 1959, Edinburgh
  • Died: 5th December 2021, Melrose

GARY CALLANDER, who died from cancer earlier this month aged 62, won six Scottish caps as a hooker while playing for Kelso. If it were his misfortune to be playing at the same time as the outstanding Colin Deans resulting in a relatively modest cap total at a time when tactical substitutions were not permitted, it is testimony to his leadership qualities and standing in the game that he captained his country in five of these matches.

Captaincy was a constant that accompanied him throughout his career, from early days onwards with Kelso, at both 15s and 7s, with South of Scotland, the Scottish Border Club and then the national team including foreign tours.

Not only did he bring a hard edged attitude to front-row play with an all consuming will to win but he was a master of the game’s technical aspects and possessed a wealth of knowledge about all aspects of play. Given that combination of factors it was little surprise that after stopping playing he became an inspiring and influential coach with various clubs.


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Kelso, His hometown club, was central to his career and it is hard to overstate just how central and pivotal he was to the Poynder Park outfit’s raft of success in the late 1970s and the 1980s, and how much it meant to him. The roll of honour featuring Gary included two Border League titles, two First Division National League Championships and five Melrose 7s wins, in addition to being losing finalists three times.

Other career highlights included representing the Barbarians in 1987 against Newport and reaching the final of the Hong Kong 7s in 1982 as captain of the Scottish Border Club team which lost narrowly to Australia having beaten the All Blacks in the semi-final, while in 1986 he was part of the Co-Optimists side that lost to eventual finalists, the French Barbarians. The same year he captained a Scotland tour of Spain and France which included a non cap international against Spain, and in 1987 Gary formed part of the Scotland squad at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in New Zealand but did not play.

Gary Callander was born in Edinburgh to parents Alexander and Mary nee Taylor. Together with older sister Linda he was brought up in Kelso where his father was a farmworker and mother a bookkeeper. His sporting genes may have derived from his mother as she was a Scottish sprint champion in her youth. After attending a local primary school he went to Kelso High School where he began playing rugby, leaving school aged 16 to begin an apprenticeship as an electrician and initially playing for Kelso Harlequins. Always fairly vocal, his leadership qualities were soon apparent and with the guidance of coaches like Jake Graham, Jim Chisholm and Charlie Stewart he was soon playing for the Kelso 1st XV, which he would captain and where he would remain until the late 1980s when back problems started to curtail his career.

His form soon attracted South of Scotland selectors and in 1981 he represented the district against Romania in a fairly close defeat, and five months later made an international debut in Bourgoin Jaillieu, Lyon, for Scotland ‘B’ against a strong France ‘B’ team, which comfortably overcame the Scots 44-4. Teammates that day included future Scotland ’regulars’ such as Peter Dods, Iwan Tukalo, Tom Smith and Kelso teammate Eric Paxton.

Another ‘B’ cap followed against Ireland before Gary made his full international debut against Romania in Bucharest in 1984, praised in a press report for “a notable debut in the loose” and being favourably compared to Deans in various facets of his play. But the Hawick man was to prove difficult to dislodge with Gary’s next cap not coming till 1988, by when it was reckoned he had sat on the bench for Scotland over twenty times.

 

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Meanwhile, on the domestic front he was the principal catalyst for Kelso’s success, the team winning its first Border League title in 50 years in 1985-6 under his captaincy, and following up with another a year later, clinching the title with their first win at Mansfield Park in 60 years. The club almost made it three in a row in 1987-8, just losing out to Jed-Forest in a play-off by one point.

Borders success was topped off by national success with Kelso, winning the Scottish First Division Championship consecutively in 1988 and 1989, Gary’s input being fundamental to those triumphs. It was a hugely significant achievement for a town of 5,500 people and one that understandably gave Gary great pleasure and pride.

Prior to their 15-a-side victories, Kelso with Gary at the helm had been very successful at 7s , clinching notable wins at the ‘Blue Riband’ Melrose tournament.

In 1978, Kelso for the first time in its history, won it, Gary then aged 18 winning the first of five Melrose medals. Others followed in 1980 and three consecutively from 1984 onwards, not to mention three losing finals in 1979, ’81 and ’82. He was a very astute exponent of 7s, utilising his excellent positional play and good hands while contributing well at set pieces.

His expertise at the abbreviated game was recognised when appointed captain of the Scotland 7s squad to play in Australia’s Bicentennial tournament in Sydney in 1988.

In the 15-a-side game he was recalled to Scotland colours for a non-cap game against a French XV in Galashiels in 1987 before playing all of Scotland’s Five Nations’ games in 1988 as captain, which included a memorable win over France.

His final cap came later that year when he captained the team to a defeat by Australia by when he was having problems with his back, leading him to wind down his playing career.

 

Coaching was the next logical step for someone who had always been a deep thinker about the game. Gary was demanding and set high standards as he imbued his charges with the benefit of the width of his technical knowledge and psychological insight.

Over several years he coached Haddington, Gala, Watsonians, Kelso, Scottish Students and ,briefly, Boroughmuir. With the Myreside club he won the Scottish Division Two title in 2002 before leading them to the Scottish Cup Final in 2003.

In 1980 he married Diana Wight in Dunbar with whom he had two children, Torrie and Becky, but the marriage ended in divorce. After setting up and operating his own electrical business he later worked in building supplies with former Kelso teammate Bob Hogarth.

His interest in and enthusiasm for rugby remained but increasingly severe back problems linked to rugby made life difficult for him over the last 10 or so years. Golf, at which he had been a single handicap player at the Hirsel course at Coldstream, became no longer possible.

Over that period he received immeasurable support from rugby friends, especially Kevin Liddle of Jed, Finlay Calder and Roger Baird, with Roy Laidlaw also helping.

Old friend Roger recalled how Gary had: “Unparalleled knowledge of rugby and had been integral to all the success at Kelso. He was great fun to be with and a very effective mickey-taker, leading  you along with a story only for you to realise too late you were the butt of the joke! He also fancied himself as a ‘crooner’ and would launch into ‘Sweet Caroline’ and Johnny Cash numbers at parties.”

He is survived by his mother, children and three grandchildren.


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About Jack Davidson 8 Articles
Jack is a retired lawyer/QC from Edinburgh with a passion for sports history. He has contributed obituaries and historically themed sports articles to various publications, including: The Scotsman, The Herald and Nutmeg Magazine.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent, richly deserved eulogy about a true local hero.

    Hard to accept that of the 4 kenspeckle rugbymen in the foreground of the photograph, including Gary, the only survivor is Kelso, Scotland & Lions great, Ken Smith, CBE, a much-admired former SRU & IRB President, a wonderful gentleman of the Game.

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