Win Ian Robertson’s autobiography – one of the best rugby books of 2018

What a man, what a life. After nearly 50 years working for BBC radio, rugby correspondent Ian Robertson this year put down his mic for the last time. At 73, he can now enjoy a retirement in which his holy sporting trinity of rugby, racing and golf are sure to remain prominent features.

Robertson’s own rugby career was ended by injury in his mid-twenties, although not before the fly-half had won eight Scotland caps, the high point being the 14-5 Calcutta Cup win of 1970 when he broke the English line to make a try for Alastair Biggar.

He was teaching at Fettes College at the time but in March 1972 joined the BBC after being recommended by legendary commentator Bill McLaren. Robertson initially read out the racing results but his gift of the gab meant he was always destined for a higher calling.

Rubstic, winner of the 1979 Grand National

Aintree glory: Robertson had a share in Rubstic, pictured on his way to winning the 1979 Grand National

The two most appealing aspects to Robertson’s autobiography Rugby: Talking a Good Game, expertly ghosted by Chris Hewett, are his rich supply of anecdotes and the insights he offers into many of the great broadcasters and sports personalities whose orbit he crossed.

In the world of media, this means men like Des Lynam, Peter Bromley and the aforementioned McLaren, who averaged around 18 hours of prep per game and who taught Robertson the value of being kind in commentaries. “If a full-back drops a high ball, you don’t destroy his life – you don’t say things that will hurt his mother or his granny or his wee bairn,” McLaren advised.

Robertson is equally fascinating on great rugby coaches such as Ian McGeechan, Jim Telfer, Jack Rowell and Clive Woodward, and his smooth talking, allied to his top-level playing experience, meant he was often privy to the innermost thoughts of such figures and able to inform radio listeners in a tactful but enlightened way.

Ian Robertson, special merit award from RPA, May 2018

Tokens of gratitude: the Scot collects a Special Merit award from the RPA at Battersea last May (Getty)

He has attended nearly every Rugby World Cup and British & Irish Lions tour in the last five decades, his favourite Lions tours being 1974 and 1997, and achieved wider renown for his commentary on Jonny Wilkinson’s winning drop-goal in 2003.

Robertson had bet £100 on England winning that tournament and, time and time again in the book, we learn of a wager by the shrewd Scotsman that paid handsome dividends.

These include talking a New Zealand bookmaker into giving him odds of 20-1 for the 2005 Lions to win all their midweek games and cashing in on the New Zealand-Japan match at RWC 1995. The bookies had the All Blacks to win by 42-45 points and Robertson bought at £50 a point; New Zealand’s 145-17 romp meant he made a fortune.

New Zealand 145-17 Japan at RWC 1995

Shrewd punter: New Zealand’s rout of Japan at RWC 1995 made Robertson a packet at the bookies (Getty)

He had been fortunate in his youth to get tips from the racing legend Harry Wragg – whose grandson went to Fettes – but people like Robertson make their own luck through their quick-witted charm.

Which is why he got invited to lunch by Nelson Mandela and was sent Christmas cards by Elizabeth Taylor and had George Best pulling up a chair to chat to him in a Canberra hotel.

Robertson knew Best from the after-dinner speaking circuit, which touches on the whole world of charity fund-raising. Robbo has helped raise uncountable sums through his role as speaker, auctioneer or master of ceremonies, and the book contains an excellent potted history of the Wooden Spoon charity that holds a special place in his heart.

The same chapter branches into a marvellous tribute to his great friend and MS sufferer Alastair Hignell, who decades earlier Robertson, as coach of the Cambridge University rugby team, had convinced to play at full-back instead of scrum-half for the Light Blues. Hignell went on to play in the position for England.

Ian Robertson at a Lions Legends dinner, 2009

Fund-raiser: Robertson has done wonders for charity, here taking bids at a Lions Legends dinner (Inpho)

As for the brilliant stories, here’s just one and it concerns golf. At Turnberry in 1986, Robertson was watching the great Seve Ballesteros during a practice round. “How far to the pin?” Seve asked his caddy midway through the round. It wasn’t his regular caddy but a local called Willie, who said: “For you, it’s a six-iron.”

Seve’s face darkened. “That’s not what I asked,” he said. “You think I can’t choose my own club? How far to the pin?”

Brave chap that he was, Willie stuck to his guns. “I’m telling you, it’s a six-iron.”

Seve’s response was interesting, to say the least. He took the bag and tipped out every club. “Put down 14 balls and space them out. Six inches apart. Now give me the driver.” Bang. Seve sent the first of the balls sailing onto the green, no more than ten feet from the pin.

“Right, give me the three-wood.” Bang. Centre of the green. “Other wood.” Bang. On the green. Four-iron, five-iron, six-iron… he went through them with similar results. By now he was down to the short stuff. “Pitching wedge,” he said, hand outstretched. Down on one knee, with the face of the wedge angled so the bottom of the club was clearly visible, he hit another ball towards the heart of the green.

Seve Ballesteros at the British Open, 1986

Golfing genius: Seve Ballesteros gets out of trouble during the 1986 British Open at Turnberry (Getty)

“Okay, sand wedge.” The ball soared through the air and trickled onto the front. He then reached for his putter and smashed the remaining ball as hard as he could. Somehow, he got it airborne and it too reached the front of the green.

“Right,” said Seve, “I’ve used every club and put every ball on the green, so I’ll try once more. What is the distance from here to the pin?”

Willie’s answer was a 24-carat classic. “Aye, it’s 160 yards,” he said. “And I think you’ll find the one nearest the pin is your six-iron.”

Rugby: Talking a Good Game by Ian Robertson is published by Hodder & Stoughton, RRP £20, and you can buy it here.


The publishers have kindly provided us with six copies to give away in a competition. For a chance to win one, look at the photo below and answer the simple question beneath it, filling in your details. The competition closes on Thursday 31 January.

Ian Robertson interview, November 2018

The master’s voice: Robertson in one of his final interviews for the BBC – but who is he talking to? (Getty)

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Terms and conditions

The competition closes at 23.59pm on Thursday 31 January 2019.

Six winners will be selected at random, each winning a copy of the book, Rugby: Talking a Good Game by Ian Robertson.

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