Rugby Union: Armstrong in the driver's seat

Newcastle's captain for today's final says professionalism has made the union world a better place to work.
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The Independent Online
UNDER THE terms of the new contract to which he has just applied his thumbprint, Gary Armstrong will perform his final Scottish fling for Newcastle at the ripe old age of 36. Such longevity is not entirely unheard of - Armstrong's half-back partner, Rob Andrew, is still going strong in his 37th year and, had Jeff Probyn lasted one more season with Bedford, he would have received a telegram from the Queen. Rumour has it that dear old Charlie Faulkner, one legendary third of Pontypool's "Viet Gwent", was so late a developer that he did not start playing mini-rugby until he was 29.

Yet Armstrong was never an obvious candidate for the gold watch award - indeed, there were times during the early and middle years of this decade when he seemed unlikely to reach his prime, let alone his dotage. There was no doubting his physical resilience - his close-quarter aggression earned him serious injuries to the knee, the ankle and the elbow, but he happily came back for more. There were, however, question marks over his appetite for amateur rugby. Barely a season would go by without some "I quit" story hitting the news wires.

Looking back down the slope from the high plateau of professionalism, it is easy to understand Armstrong's frustration. He was not one of the silver-spoon brigade, but a lorry driver from the Scottish borders who constantly struggled to make ends meet. The fact that he was also an outstanding scrum-half who had experienced a Lions tour, a Five Nations Grand Slam and a World Cup semi-final before his 24th birthday served only to emphasise the irony of his situation.

Torn knee ligaments not only kept him out of the 1992 Five Nations, but also prevented him working. He was reduced to asking the Scottish Rugby Union for financial support and, while they duly coughed up, the embarrassment of going cap in hand to Murrayfield made him cringe. "A player should not have to go asking for everything," he said a year later. "We've got things the wrong way round. He should be approached." It seems obvious now, but it was rank heresy then.

For Armstrong and dozens like him, professionalism has made the union world an infinitely better place in which to live. "I couldn't be happier," he said in Newcastle this week, his body still aching from the previous night's Premiership victory over Harlequins but his mind firmly tuned into today's Tetley's Bitter Cup final with Wasps. "I'm getting a tremendous amount of enjoyment from my rugby these days. In fact, I'd say I'm getting more out of my rugby now than at any point in my career. I sometimes sit down with Doddie Weir and say: `We should consider ourselves very fortunate to be doing this.' We've won a Premiership and now we're in a cup final. You can't ask for much more.

"There is no doubt in my mind that professionalism has put years on my career. Back in the early 90s, I was bogged down with it all. I was trying to hold down a job and look after my family and I found it very difficult. Nowadays, I can work on fitness, make every training session and still be back home in Jedburgh with my wife and children in the evening. I don't mind admitting that I'm a home bird. Crikey, I didn't even have to take the kids out of school when I signed for Newcastle!"

The 120-mile round trip to and from Kingston Park has recently been made all the easier by five months of non-stop success. Having regained the Scottish No 9 shirt, not to mention the captaincy - from the injured Bryan Redpath - Armstrong led his country to the most unexpected of Five Nations titles. He has also fronted Newcastle's emergence from the desperate financial trauma instigated by Sir John Hall's sudden withdrawal as financier-in- chief, to the extent that he may well become the first non-Englishman to lift the national knockout trophy at Twickenham this afternoon.

"One of the most rewarding aspects of this season is the way the Newcastle style has developed," he said. "I'm the first to admit that we played a lot of route-one stuff last year and, while that won us the Premiership, there was a feeling that we weren't using all 15 players as much as we might. The way we play now, everyone gets involved. We have a very strong development team full of exciting youngsters and we're encouraging them to express themselves when they break into the first team. When I look around and see the Tom Mays and Ross Beatties making an impact, I know the future is in good hands.

"As for the captaincy, well, I just do what I do. I don't mind taking on the responsibility, in fact, I'm thriving on what is happening at the moment, both at club and international level, but I'm not one to make a big deal out of leading the team. To be honest with you, it's a pretty easy job when the guys are firing and you're winning games. I lead from the front, try to set some sort of example and then let things unfold. If I need some help, there are plenty of experienced players I can turn to."

Whether Armstrong stays in the game when he calls it a day in the early summer of 2002 is anyone's guess, though. He is not remotely tempted by a return to the lorry cabs and endless motorways of his youth, but he is not at all sure that he has what it takes to coach at a professional level. "I'd like to put something back into the game, but I haven't made any plans," he admitted. "I'd have to take a few courses if I wanted to coach seriously and that takes time, so I'll step aside from the game for a couple of years at least."

Or, just maybe, he will suddenly reappear at the heels of the Jed- Forest pack; there is a strong Armstrong tradition at Riverside Park, where Gary's father, Lawrence, and brother, Kevin, played their rugby, and, given the current state of the Scottish club game, a half-decent thirtysomething could get through a league game without breaking sweat. "Let's just wait and see," grinned Jedburgh's favourite son. "It might be fun to get involved there. I love the place and, as long as I've enough to live on, I'm not a great one for money."

A living wage and a spot of rugby. In Gary Armstrong's world, it adds up to perfection.