Memories Group – Gordon Bulloch

Memories Group – Gordon Bulloch

Monday 25 November 2019

Gordon Bulloch was the guest speaker at the Memories Section of Linlithgow Rugby Club. There were 49 members in the audience.

He was born in Glasgow in March 1975, is a former rugby union player who gained 75 caps as hooker for Scotland, and he played for West of Scotland, Glasgow and Leeds Tykes. In June 2014 he lost the accolade of Scotland’s most capped hooker to Ross Ford.

Gerry Keating introduced Gordon to the large audience. Gordon set out the highlights of his career where rugby was always a priority from an early age, and promised to give some ideas on where rugby is going, what is different and which way it should go. On Saturday mornings he would play school rugby, and as his father was a referee he would join him where ever he was officiating, so he gained a great knowledge of rugby grounds and players, at places such as Langholm, Corstorphine, and Haddington. One aspect that he did not enjoy was listening to the abuse hurled at his father. This was a great education for a nine year old!

He obviously had dreams and ambitions of playing rugby at a high level, as he stood on the terrace at Murrayfield at the red end, where he watched the draw against New Zealand in 1983, and the Grand Slam Victories in 1984 and 1990.

His first real taste of rugby was with his teacher Magnus Brown, who taught him at Huchesons Grammar School, where he played back row for most of his days at school, but was told ‘you are probably not big enough for that, so come and have a shot at hooker’. During the lunch time he trained against a bench in the gym hall – get your hips across etc – he hadn’t a clue what he was doing. Hooking is fine, so he got into the team against Wales and France, but could not throw for toffee. He was dropped from the team and missed out on a tour to Australia. An important lesson was learned – how do you learn to throw – you have to spend more time in practice and seek advice from those who have the experience, so he worked it out – two hands – two feet on the line – if everything moves then the ball moves – if nothing moves apart from your arms then the ball goes straight.

At this time the game was still amateur and this led to some opportunities, and he got a trial in 1994, which led to an option to play in Toronto, where he had the time of his life for four months. This gave him a great experience of rugby life, and he questioned whether today’s young players have the same opportunities to do what they want as they are told – do this do that – don’t do this don’t do that – what they need are communication and leadership skills, but are they being a bit too spoon fed both on and off the field.

Joining West of Scotland was a significant event. He has fond memories when he went with two other players from Burnbrae to Vail Colorado, to play rugby. ‘It was a fabulous experience and one I will always remember’. Gordon was then promoted into the first team, where he was playing with Dave Barrett and Peter Wright, and this proved to be an excellent period of learning for him in terms of long-term experience, as he honed his communication and leadership skills.

His career spanned the period of the amateur and professional games, and when a three year contract with Glasgow popped through the door with a salary of £8k he said – let’s jump at that, although it does not compare with FInn Russell on £600K a year – but enough of that. They then got an Edinburgh lawyer to negotiate their contract, some of the younger guys got £20K, the journeymen got £30K and the top players £50K, but the lawyer forgot to include an annual increase clause – some lawyer! The older players said ‘yea that’s it sorted so now you can go and sign on’.

At the beginning of the professional game there was a lot of making up as you go along, so starting from scratch – what do the players do all day, what do the coaches do with the players all day, and what do the administrators do all day? We were not in any leagues, the District teams became the professioinal teams, they played one another in the District Championship once or twice a year, so we ended up playing in Europe, and we also ended up playing in Wales. 

That meant ten trips to Wales and we did not fly. The Glasgow players met the bus at Abington and travelled to Newport, had a large carvery, played the next day – probably got stuffed – and returned home at two in the morning. These were the highlights of professional rugby. In Scotland, rugby was dragged screaming and kicking into the professional game, Gordon trained in Glasgow, but the team did not have a home – they played matches at Hughenden, Inverness, Perth and Scotstoun. There was very little continuity of team spirit as the team just led a nomadic existance. When you think about what happens now – Glasgow has everything now in one place – administrators, an excellent medical team, as well as training facilities both grass and astro turf, and the main pitch.

In comparison, Edinburgh finally has planning permission for a new stadium, twenty five years after professional rugby started! Gordon’s breakthrough was probably Scotland’s tour in 1997 to South Africa, which was at the same time as the Lions tour, when they won three games versus Zimbabwe, Port Elizabeth and a fabulous win against the Blue Bulls. His first cap was in 1997 against South Africa, “we were 14 – 3 down at half time, and were stuffed 68 – 10 at full time”. Their rugby was fast and dynamic, and it was plain to all of us that Scotland was well behind the best teams. 

He was lucky enough to play with forwards such as Scott Murray, Stuart Grimes, and Tom Smith. They bonded together to play some excellent rugby, although the backs were not quite as good. In the 1999 Championship Gordon played with Gary Armstrong and Paul Burrell, and this was the era of the Kiwis coming to play in Scotland – everyone of them seemed to have a granny who hailed from Skye, but players such as John Leslie were twenty years ahead of our players. He was a communicator, a talker, and he knew what to do on every occasion, organising the the forwards and the backs to ensure that everyone was made aware of what to do.

There were many good times on and off the pitch, where there were one or two tricksters – Garry Armstrong was one of the best. Garry who was a lorry driver, moved the team bus from in front of the hotel on one occasion, and there was some consternation on the part of the driver who thought that his bus had been stolen! It was recovered later.

One thing that sticks in his mind from that time was the game against England, where we didn’t manage to win the Grand Slam and Martin Johnson stepping on John Leslie’s neck, which got him a yellow card, in those days yellow meant ‘don’t do it again’, not ten minutes in the sin bin.

Some of the highlights in his career were we scored four tries in the first half in France, and the next day Wales overturned England, when Scott Gibb jigged over for a try in the closing minutes, which Jenkins converted, to give Scotland the final Five Nations’ Championship, and beating South Africa in 2002 which was a big event.

In 2002 Gordon scored two tries against Wales, both from line out pushovers, so no pics to show the grand kids. This was the last time we beat Wales in the principality, and it was also Bill McLaren’s last commentary. It was an honour to captain Scotland on eleven occasions, but there were not easy times, we had a coach, Matt Williams who was well intentioned but wanted to bring in new ideas, some of which were not well received. It was change this and change that and many people said – hang on, slow down!

This was also the time when there was a renaissance in Welsh and Irish rugby, which made it more difficult for Scotland to win. Most games revolve round a ‘game breaker’. O’Driscoll and Wilkinson were game breakers, and we did not have players like that. Gordon’s brother Alan with five caps for Scotland was a very talented player, he would tuck the ball under one arm and score tries, but he never learned to pass or catch the ball (as he didn’t need to in club rugby in Scotland), and this was his undoing when the players who can do everything come along.

In those days there was a concussion protocol, and after getting a knock he passed the questions test and went back on the pitch, where he really did not know what he was doing, dropped the ball and left the field. Today concussion means out of the game for three weeks. 

He was not picked for the Lions side, which was quite disappointing, but Graham Henry was picking the side and he was chosing all the Welsh guys. He had an option to go back to Vail where he had been some years before, so he went. He got a phone call when he was in Vail – it would either be ‘you are playing for the Lions’ or ‘your grandad is dead’ – It was the Lions.

So a plane to Denver and three planes to Townsville in Australia – nobody in Townsville had heard of the Lions. Eventually his kit arrived and two taxis later someone said ‘they are staying at the Royal’. Twenty four hours later he was making his debut for the Lions, with his family watching in Scotland. To be a Lion was the dream of his life, and playing in Austalia and New Zealand was a very special occasion, with thousands of Brits cheering on their team in every outback town the Lions played.

One of his most memorable moments of that tour came when he was on the bench, he got the call, Keith Woods had cut his head and Gordon got twelve minutes of stardom in a Lions test match. Brisbane was red that night, but very quickly the Aussies made it yellow.  After that the Lions lost to Australia A and he was dropped to the bench, but then John Hayes one of Martin Johnson’s pals came over and took Gordon’s place on the bench.

Gordon was selected for the New Zealand tour of 2005, and he knew that this was his last international tour, so he decided that he was going to enjoy himself if nothing else. In the early part of the tour he made headlines for a bust up with Sean Hayes, but although it reached the realms of Radio 5 Live, it was a bust up that did not happen, as it was a slow news day. Clive Woodward phoned him to ask what had happened and Gordon replied ‘do you think I would take on a twenty stone Irish potato farmer!’ Woodward then said ‘I want you to take on the captaincy on Saturday’. Running out leading the Lions in the House of Pain was fabulous. He ended up captaining the mid week side on three occasions, with a memorable win against the Blues, he enjoyed the tour.

Near the end of the Tour he got a knock on the door, it was James Robson the team doctor Steve Thompson the hooker was ill – Clive Woodward wants to speak to you- Clive said ‘are you OK? Gordon said Yep. Clive said you are in. And he got his twelve minutes of fame. The press box broke into a chorus of Flower of Scotland as Gordon was the only Scot in the team. Quite an end to his international carreer.!

He then spent an unsuccessful year at Leeds, came back to Glasgow, had a few training sessions with West and stayed for four years as an amateur with John Beattie as coach. West went from Premier 3 to Premier 2 then to Premier 1, and almost beat Hawks who were three divisions above them.

After rugby life was quite difficult, he wanted to go into property, so joined Colliers as a surveyor. It was not quite what he wanted, so joined the family business galvanising, and has been there eleven years. He is also building two houses on the west coast, so laying slates etc is going well. He was pressurised by his father in law to do an MBA and really enjoyed it, but his advice is don’t do it unless you really want to.

Watching Scotland as a fan is not easy, a bit of envy perhaps, or do you just think you are a spare part which is no longer needed, but it gets easier with time. Gordon spoke about Doddie Weir and Tom Smith, he has done an Everest challenge for Doddie – 26 time up Dumgoyne hill, which is 10.000 metres.

Gerry thanked Gordon for a very informative and entertaining talk. After coffee and cakes, provided by the ladies, Gordon hosted a question and answer session.