Obituary: John Roxburgh: rugby player, coach and pioneering administrator

Stand-off in the Jordanhill College side which won the unofficial championship in 1969 and was the SRU's first technical director

John Roxburgh was Scottish Rugby's first technical director
John Roxburgh was Scottish Rugby's first technical director

JOHN ‘ROCKY’ ROXBURGH

  • Born: 20th June 1938, Knightswood, Glasgow
  • Died: 21st May 2023, Glasgow, aged 84

THE death, aged 84, following a period of illness, of John Roxburgh leaves a huge hole in the fabric of Scottish Rugby, particularly in his native Glasgow.

‘Rocky’ was a very-good player, talented enough to play for Glasgow in the Inter-District Championship of the amateur era. He was a key player as captain of the Jordanhill College team which won the old Unofficial Championship in 1969, but, it was as a coach, and in particular as an educator of other coaches, that he left an indelible mark on the game in this country.

That title-winning Jordanhill team was, arguably, the most-influential in the history of the Scottish game. Ian McLauchlan went on to captain Scotland and become a Lions legend, before becoming President of the SRU. Roxburgh was the SRU’s first Technical Director, Richie Dixon coached Scotland, while others such as international No 8 Gordon Strachan, hooker Ronnie Boid, tight-head prop Struan McCallum, lock John McHarg, back-rower Ian Cosgrove, Roxburgh himself and Andy Dougal went on to coach Glasgow District or various clubs and schools.


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Their strength was in the Bill Dickinson-coached pack – a Mean Machine which pre-dated The Mean Machine. But, they needed a kicking stand-off who could put them in the right part of the field in which to wreak their havoc, and Rocky was just that controlling ten.

Born and raised in Knightswood, the son of oil man William and his wife Barbara, John was educated at Jordanhill College School, where he began to play rugby. He then went on to the Scottish School of Physical Education at Jordanhill College. His time at Jordanhill coincided with the College’s rugby team progressing from a junior team to become a major power in the land. Previous College greats, such as Ron Glasgow, had to go elsewhere to be recognised, Rocky, McLauchlan and co were perhaps the first to play-on after gaining their PE diplomas.

The introduction of the Glasgow Knock-Out Cup was one factor in this, with the College becoming the team to beat in this annual competition. On qualifying as a PE teacher, Rocky became a peripatetic teacher of the subject, across various Glasgow schools, before getting a permanent gig at Barmulloch College.

The Jordanhill College teams in which he played had a real sense of ‘us against the world’ about them. Every year there would be an influx of new blood from the college students, but, the core group: Rocky, McLauchlan, Cosgrove, Dixon, McCallum, Boid grew together, were Best Men to each other and in time their kids began to attend games. “My brother David and I have a lot of honorary uncles from the ranks of Dad’s team mates,” says daughter Joyce.

Rocky’s late wife Irene, who he nursed for 17 years after she suffered a massive stroke, prior to her passing in 2020, was a keen follower. She and Rocky had been teenaged sweethearts, their relationship forged on the tennis courts of Glasgow, such as Broomhill and Woodend, where they formed a fierce mixed doubles partnership.

In 1975, Rocky was recruited as Scottish Rugby’s first Technical Director, with Douglas Arneil as his Assistant. They were pioneers, the first paid servants of Scottish Rugby, and they laid the building blocks of a new way of doing things.

Rocky’s pioneering coaching courses marked a significant change. Just over a decade on from his mentor, Bill Dickinson, being euphemistically described as “Adviser to the Captain”, Rocky was producing coaches for the game. He gave form to Mini-Rugby and laid down the blueprint for youth development, while the SRU Coaching Courses at Heriot Watt University each summer quickly established themselves as world-leading.

Others – Derrick Grant, Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan – might have done the hands-on coaching, but, it must not be forgotten, it was on John Roxburgh’s watch that two Grand Slams were achieved.

 

Retirement from the SRU in 2000 enabled him to spend more time on the golf course at Cawder, but it failed to dampen Rocky’s love of rugby He switched seamlessly back to the club game, joining Brian Simmers, the man he had so often understudied in the Glasgow District XV, in establishing Glasgow Hawks as a power in the land.

Simmers did the politics, Rocky did the coaching as Director of Rugby and with this club, he helped advance the career of a lot of current Scotland players.

He stepped back from Hawks in 2007  but was a regular spectator at Hawks’ games up until his final illness, where his pithy comments on their reports were always welcomed by the gentlemen of the press. He had re-located to Torrance when working in Edinburgh, but, his final days were spent back in the city of his birth. Rocky passed away, surrounded by his family, in the city’s Royal Infirmary.

In recent years, several stalwarts of Scottish Rugby have been honoured via membership, at varying levels, of the Order of the British Empire. Some Scots have been inducted into World Rugby’s Hall of Fame  John Roxburgh is not among that number.

However, posterity might in time recognise that his contribution to the well-being and progress of the game of Rugby Union Football in Scotland exceeds that of some of those otherwise honoured. But, for the moment, he is a prophet without proper honour in his home land.

John Roxburgh was a true giant of our game – he will be sorely missed. His funeral will be held today [Thursday 1st June], at 10.30am, at Torrance Parish Churh, followed by burial at Baldernock Cemetry.

He is survived by son David, daughter Joyce, grand-children Lisa, Howie and Connie, and great-grand-children Taylor, Charlie and Stephen.


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About Matt Vallance 38 Articles
Matt is a former member of Cumnock Rugby Club's 'Mean Machine' - motto: "Well, we won the fight". He has written about some 60 sports in a long career, mainly spent freelancing for, amongst others: The Herald, The Scotsman, The Sunday Times, Scotland on Sunday, the late-lamented Sunday Standard and just about every national paper. He survived a spell at the Paisley Daily Express, covering St Mirren and the Paisley Pirates every week. He now writes a lot of sporting obituaries, since he saw many of his subjects play. Opinionated, passionate and, as one Bill McMurtire once said: "The only Cumnock member (other than Mark Bennett) who can be let out without an escort". In his 70th year, Matt, known to many as: 'Snuff', still has a few noses to get up. Unfulfilled ambition - to live long enough to see Scotland beat the All Blacks.

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