Borders rugby greats get the Lions’ share of recognition

From left, as posed in the painting by Jimmy Fleming - Ken Smith, Roger Baird, John Jeffrey, Alan Tait and Ross Ford (picture by Gavin Horsburgh).
From left, as posed in the painting by Jimmy Fleming - Ken Smith, Roger Baird, John Jeffrey, Alan Tait and Ross Ford (picture by Gavin Horsburgh).

Some of the top Borders rugby players of the last half-century and more, who had the privilege of being selected for the British and Irish Lions, have received a ceremonial cap.

As members of the 1888 Club, the ex-Lions were given a one-off, hand-stitched cap, bearing the unique playing number awarded only to players who have played competitively in the famous jersey.

The gesture also coincided with the 130th anniversary of the first British and Irish Lions game, against Otago in Dunedin, in April 1888.

Local festivities included a special evening at Kelso RFC clubrooms, where five former players were honoured.

However, one of them, John Jeffrey, reckoned playing for Scotland was still a greater honour than donning a British and Irish Lions kit.

Jeffrey was joined by Ken Smith, who played for the Lions in the 1950s, plus Roger Baird, Alan Tait and, from the present day, Ross Ford.

The celebration was organised by Kelso committee member Scott Forbes and the players took part in a Q and A session with the audience of over 200.

Asked which meant the most to them – Scottish or Lions recognition – Jeffrey said: “This means a lot to everybody who has been part of the Lions and there is no doubt it was a great privilege to represent the Lions. However, when you ask me if this is more important than my first Scotland cap, I have to say it is not. Pulling on a Scotland jersey for the first time is still the greatest memory in my career – but that takes nothing away from how special it is to join the Lions family.”

The others agreed and provided some fine anecdotes of their time in the red jersey, as well as playing for Scotland.

Ex-Lions captain and coach, Jim Telfer, as guest speaker, gave a passionate and humorous address, looking back on the history of the Lions and ahead to the future.

A portrait of Kelso’s five Lions, by Jimmy Fleming, was also unveiled, while the evening raised over £3000 for youth rugby in Kelso.

Another recipient, Selkirk’s John Rutherford, said he was “thrilled” to receive his cap. “I’d heard a whisper it was happening but, when that package arrives at your door and you open it up – it’s a lovely thing to have,” he added. “It’s beautifully made and presented.

“I am not on Twitter but I’ve seen a lot of tweets from the newer Lions. They come from a professional era and to see what it means to them is fantastic. It means the same to them as it it did to us playing 30-odd years ago.”

John shared memories too with ex-Selkirk team-mate Iain Paxton and ex-Jed-Forest ace Roy Laidlaw, who were on the same Lions tour of New Zealand with John in 1983.

They were long tours, but players came back incredibly fit and more knowledgeable, having learned a lot from other countries, said John. It was a great honour to be considered one of the best in Britain as well as Scotland, and a big thing for families as well.