Scotland scrum-half Gary Armstrong epitomised everything that was great about amateurism in rugby. Fitting then, that he also stands out as one of the greatest to wear the No 9 jersey
Major teams: Jed-Forest, Newcastle, Borders
Test span: 1988-99
Scotland caps: 51 (49 starts)
Test points: 21 (5T)
“Inside me at scrum-half I have one of the toughest players in the world. We call Gary Armstrong the Junkyard Dog.”
Those were the words of Jonny Wilkinson on his former Newcastle Falcons team-mate, Armstrong. They sound special, but Wilkinson was not the only man to praise the Jeddart great’s ticker. Jim Telfer, no stranger to hurt himself, once said Armstrong had an inhuman tolerance of pain. Ask many a Borderer who their childhood hero was and Armstrong’s name lashes out, closely followed by the word “mental”.
He was a long-haul lorry driver as well as a snapping terrier of a scrum-half who took contact unflinchingly. He was a Lion in 1989 and was regarded as one of the best No 9s in the world in the mid-90s while still working gruelling hours. He eventually answered the siren’s call of professionalism, leaving Scotland to play seven seasons in Newcastle from 1997, winning the Premiership title in his first term. However, he jokes that he only learned to pass off his left hand once he was paid to play.
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Longevity twinned with a willingness to grit his teeth and get on with it endeared him to fans. The great shame was that he missed the 1995 World Cup due to a knee injury, but Armstrong still managed to play in two World Cups in 1991 and 1999, star in the famous Grand Slam team of 1990 and nine years later captained Scotland to a Five Nations triumph. He returned to his homeland in 2002 to play for the Borders professional side for two years, before calling it a day.
Scotland have developed a long line of sensational scrum-halves, but in Armstrong they have produced one of the most dedicated and most respected.