THERE is a famous story in New Zealand rugby about retired All Blacks captain Brian Lochore answering the phone at his Wairarapa farm the day before the third Test of the 1971 Lions tour. A chain of injuries had robbed the home side of a number of key forwards, and new skipper Colin Meads was a major doubt, so the selectors sent out an SOS call, telling the great man that his country needed him.
Lochore knew what he had to do. He packed his gear and left a note on the kitchen table for his wife. It simply read: “Gone to Wellington. Playing test tomorrow. Will call later.”
It wasn’t quite as dramatic for Peter Eccles last Monday morning when Melrose head coach Rob Chrystie enquired about his availability for a comeback against Stirling County at the weekend, but the tale definitely does have similarities.
With Ruaridh Knott picking up a serious knee injury the previous week against Ayr, Neil Irvine-Hess still not quite fit again after his own knee operation, Rory Darge resting a ‘stinger’ to his shoulder and Calum Wilde also getting hurt against Ayr, last season’s champions were facing something of a crisis at blindside flanker – but Chrystie knew of just the man to plug the gap.
“Peccles, as we call him, is a great boy,” says the coach. “It can be a bit tricky bringing a player straight into the team like that – there can be a bit of resentment – but all the boys really like him, and more importantly they respect him because of the way he plays the game. You know that you are going to get 100 per cent commitment from him every time he pulls on the jersey.”
Eccles played a bounce charity match for Edinburgh Agricultural College Graduates against the current students last Spring – which was “a laugh” – and that had been the sum total of his active rugby involvement since hanging up his boots at the end of the 2016-17 season. However, he has kept himself fit by attending cross-fit sessions four or five mornings a week, while his day job as farm manager on Saughland Farm near Pathhead in Midothian also keeps him in pretty good shape.
Bowing out on a high
“I retired after winning the Cup Final against Ayr because I had taken on this job back in 2014 and after that it was a real a struggle to manage rugby, work and family,” he explains. “Before that I had been an agricultural advisor in St Boswells, which was a 9am to 5pm desk job, so I could give my all to rugby most nights of the week – it all tied in really nicely. Then I came to work here and the demands of the job are very different – lots of animals so you never really know what is around the corner.
“It just got to the stage where it was unsustainable. You had pre-season when you were harvesting and the start of the league always came before you could free yourself up, and then when you got to the exciting end of the season in March and April you had lambing and calving.
“I remember coming back from the Cup Final the year before and having 30 days on the bounce of working 18-hour days with five or six hours sleep, and then I was straight into pre-season and was expected to go and give my all to rugby. It was hard to enjoy it – you are just absolutely knackered, and you can feel that your body is not coping, either.
“That last season I had told Melrose that I would train and play when I could, so I had been in and out of the team – just going when I could. But before that, I had been a full member of the squad for five seasons, won the league twice and been to the Cup Final twice. I had been with Heriot’s as well and always lost, so that was the thing I really wanted – and when we beat Ayr, who we had lost to in injury time a few years before, I was quite happy to let it go then.
“I had played Scotland Club XV a few years earlier as well, which was another tick. So, it had got to a point where we had a young daughter – Matilda – and the farming was demanding a lot, and I was just rugby-d out.”
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Eccles, however, was still only 32 – no spring chicken, but not over the hill either, especially for a player whose game is all about abrasiveness and hard work as opposed to lightening pace – and Chrystie is far too canny an operator to let a rough diamond like that just disappear without trace.
“I’ve built up a relationship with Rob over the years where he knows what I can do, and I kind of know what he expects, so there was an understanding there that if there is a big injury issue – which they are having – then I could step up and fill in,” Eccles explains.
Answering the SOS call
Sure enough, on the Monday morning after Knott and Wilde were injured against Ayr, a casual enquiry via text message arrived from Chrystie, and the question of whether wife Eilidh – who is due to give birth to their second child in mid-November – would give her blessing was quickly answered.
“I think she just saw the smile on my face when I mentioned the prospect and she was always going to say yes,” chuckles the 34-year-old.
“I trained Tuesday and Thursday, and although I was sore all week it felt really good – I felt fresh. Then I went straight in at blindside flanker and played the full 80 minutes against Stirling.
“That wasn’t really how Rob had sold it to me. He said that they could really do with me giving them a hand, so I thought I’d be on the bench, to be honest! It’s obviously been a while since I played so the knocks take getting used to – but I knew the fitness would be okay, and it was.
“The physio thought I was crazy for playing, but the one thing I was told to do was spend 20-minutes in the ice bath after the match, and I did that. I actually felt pretty good – my thumb is a bit swollen and my foot is a bit sore – but apart from that, I’m quite chuffed. I wasn’t phoning home from the BGH asking the wife to come and pick me up.
“They tailored the line-out down for me and I think it worked pretty well. It was a good win. My biggest fear was letting someone down or doing a disservice to the jersey, so I was pleased that didn’t happen. There was a couple of fumbles, a couple of missed tackles which I think came down to timing, and I was definitely counting down the last ten minutes – it felt like a fast game, each team seemed to hold onto the ball for long periods of time, but I don’t know if that was usual by modern standards.
A different ball game
“The game has definitely changed – even in the short time I’ve been away from it,” he continues. “There’s not the rucking that there used to be. There is less emphasis on getting players competing at the breakdown – if you’ve got a sniff at the ball then get in and do it, but if not then fill the line. It is basically: tackler versus carrier plus one, and that’s it. There’s a lot of side-to-side now.
“So, we spoke at half-time about me committing to too many rucks, and not being effective by being knocked off my feet too easily which meant I was a wasted body – you are better just getting in the line and communicating to build the – and I think I improved that during the second half on Saturday, and the chat will be to do more of that against Heriot’s this week.”
Eccles is in Croatia from Monday to Friday this week at a farming conference but is not the sort of guy to let an irregular build-up rule him out of a return to his old stomping ground on Saturday.
“I went to school at Heriot’s so joined the club when I was 18 and did about seven seasons there – with one year out to go travelling – before I got the job in the Borders and it was the obvious opportunity to move because I was ready for a change,” he explains.
“My grandparents retired to Melrose so it was where I grew up watching rugby, and playing for a Borders club definitely helped my work at the time because my area was Lauderdale and whenever I visited farms we always talked about rugby first, before the weather and the crops and the livestock. The two things went hand-in-hand, and it really helped me in my career.
“I always assumed that I would finish up back at Heriot’s, but I just felt so at home at Melrose – it is such a good club environment and such a good fit for me – that I never got around to leaving.
“I found it quite funny that at the end of the game last week there was Pumba [Grant Runciman], Goose [Angus Runciman] and myself – numbers five, six and seven – sitting in a corner of the changing room together talking away about sheep and cows – you don’t get that at Heriot’s.”
Return of the prodigal son
“But I’m looking forward to heading back to Goldenacre on Saturday. Phil Smith was in his first stint as coach there when I started out but I’m not sure how many other familiar faces there will be involved in the game.
“When I left school, I played age-grade rugby with guys like Neil Cochrane, Stevie Lawrie, Richard Snedden and Ross Weston, who have all hung up their boots now. Sam Johnson is still going at Edinburgh Accies but there isn’t many more of that generation left in the Premiership – so I suppose I’ve somehow ended up one of the last men standing.”
The following week, Melrose are at Malleny Park to take on Currie Chieftains, which offers an opportunity to lock horns with New Zealander Joe Reynolds, who is due to marry his sister-in-law in the summer.
“That should be a good family day out, and then we’ll see what happens after that,” says Eccles, who seems to be thinking that his initial undertaking to play three weeks is more of a starting offer rather than a hard-and-fast commitment.
So, what are the chances of him still being involved come the business end of the season in April?
“I’d love it – I think that is the ultimate – if I can keep myself fit,” he replies, without missing a beat. “I don’t wish there to be injuries at Melrose, but they know they can always call on me. Even next season, or the season after that, I’m happy to give something back.”
And what does he think Eilidh will have to say about all this?
“She’ll come around to the idea,” he speculates. “I think she’s a bit concerned that if I go back to Monday, Tuesday, Thursday like I used to, then she’ll never see me – but it’s not going to be like that.
“I can’t give a lot, I’m not really interested in coaching, but if I can be involved in some games with some young players and help them out a little bit then I’d be delighted to do that. I’d love to think that if I can keep myself fit and fresh over the next few years then I can still play now and again.
“You’ve got to enjoy it. Rugby has always been about enjoyment for me. I’m not a massive fan of the dark nights in the snow and the rain, training in the mud, but I’ve got the perfect excuse not to have to do that now!”