'Since I've been at this club, I've never laid eyes on Colin Goldring'
Murray McCallum erupts in a flurry of bombastic self-deprecation.
“If Wasps go bust as well as us, that’s Vincent Koch back on the market, for God’s sake! Christ, I don’t want to be competing with that bugger, he’s got a World Cup medal!”
These are the streaks of levity that have steered the Scotland prop through the most wicked months of his life. Since the turn of the year, McCallum has moved house twice, uprooted his little clan from Edinburgh to Worcester, lost his father to brain cancer, become a dad himself, won the Premiership Cup and got engaged, before being left swinging in the breeze by the scandalous demise of the Warriors. Trauma, grief and anxiety have been constant companions.
As he sits at home, finally unshackled from the legal chains yoking players to the sinking Worcester ship, he waits for the phone to ring, for a concrete offer of employment to materialise. So far, there have been notes of interest for the 26-year-old, but no deal on the table. In the most brutal market the game has ever seen, there are no guarantees.
McCallum chooses to shield his loved ones from the turmoil by the sheer force of his character. He is known fondly in Scottish rugby circles, where he played for both Edinburgh and Glasgow, as a magnetic personality, a willing source of cheer and lightness and laughter. He lets the pain seep out of him when he’s alone in the house, away from fiancée Lorna and two-month-old baby Marnie, or in the car, driving to training.
But he has found, more recently, cracks emerging in his jovial core. He is quicker to lash out at Lorna, to bite at little things he knows shouldn’t bother him. He has spent more time refreshing Twitter than Donald Trump, a relentless and torturous quest for information.
“It’s been great,” he says, deadpan. “Class. Would recommend.
“I try and shove my feelings away and deal with them myself. I put on a brave face, particularly in front of my partner, friends, family. Whenever I’m myself, in the car, that’s when I’ll process my emotions, have a think, have a cry, reset and come back in.
“Since we’re now away from the club, it’s much tougher to stay positive. With everyone in limbo, it’s a sombre time. I pride myself on bringing positivity, no matter how fake that positivity might be. It’s going to bring me up and it’s going to bring others up. I’ll do it. I’ll bring the energy. It has been tough.
“I’ve already gone a month with no pay. I don’t know how much longer it’ll be. Training, running on your own is grim. God, I’m one of the fat boys, I hate running but I know I need to do it because if I don’t, it’ll be very tough going back in.
“The motivation is to get a contract, but finding the motivation to do it consistently when you don’t know what’s happening is tough. Things were changing every week, then every day, then almost hourly. I’d just love something sorted.”
The catastrophic implosion of Worcester, under the stewardship of co-owners Colin Goldring and Jason Whittingham, is a parable the English game should heed. Wasps are perilously close to joining the Warriors on the road to oblivion.
The first alarm bells sounded, says McCallum, when July’s pay arrived late. Eventually, wages did not arrive at all. Promises were made and swiftly shattered. Deadlines were set and missed. Contact training was halted and a pre-season fixture scrapped over insurance concerns. A labyrinthine mesh of companies and subsidiaries tied the players and their representatives in legal knots.
It is astonishing that Worcester played any rugby at all this season. Thanks to the trojan-like efforts of staff who had not been paid, and a squad which continued to put bodies on the line, three Premiership matches went ahead.
The rousing Sixways scalping of Newcastle Falcons was the final hurrah on a bleak death march. Eleven days later, the Warriors were expunged from the top-flight. A club vandalised and cannibalised from within, while English rugby’s powerbrokers offered meagre assistance.
“For the Newcastle game, with a lot of toing and froing, we basically said, ‘f*** it, we’ll play’,” McCallum says.
“The day before the game, we had a meeting with the RFU and RPA and lawyers, and all the staff who were affected as well. We literally had a vote: do we play or not? About 70 per cent said we should play, so we played and did really well.
“We were then suspended. A week-and-a-half later we were liquidated. And we’ve now been sent some lovely government forms – God knows how to fill them in – about redundancy pay to be claimed from the National Insurance fund.
“We won’t get our full wages back because it’s capped at £571 a week. Because our contracts are dust, even if the club is bought, which will take ages, the new owners won’t be liable for any wages. So we won’t see any money.”
Only liquidation annulled contracts and allowed players to formally seek new employment.
“There were people with options, people working hard to try and get them,” McCallum goes on. “With almost certain death looming, the owners wouldn’t say, ‘look, we’ll release you’.
“They didn’t want to release us because we’re assets, and they wouldn’t want to lessen the value of the club any more than they already had with their terrific management.
“It felt like Premiership Rugby almost turned a blind eye to it. No-one in a high position would really stick their neck out for Worcester. No-one wanted to take responsibility. That was the most frustrating and heartbreaking thing for boys.”
Communication has been a recurring sore. Lamentably, players and staff were often kept in the dark, relying on social media, rumour and journalists for news, their hopes rising and falling with each report. McCallum says Goldring and Whittingham remained elusive figures.
“We were getting these daily updates at some point from Pete Kelly, our managing director, another one I barely laid eyes on.
“He was almost joking at one point, saying something like, ‘I’ll tell you when I know, if Marcello Cossaili-Francis [the dogged local sports reporter covering the story] doesn’t get there first’.
“Why are you taking the piss? The people here are waiting to get paid and wondering if they’ve got a job next week. It’s not a time for jokes. We can laugh at it – you can’t, because you’re working with them.
“Most recently, I’ve been f***ing glued to this phone. Twitter, Christ, my screen time on that will be ludicrous. It’s constant refreshing, particularly if something did come out. You’d think Twitter would be how fans and the general public find things out, but it was literally playing with our lives. It’s been agonising.”
And what about the final statement? The co-owners’ cowardly parting shot in which Goldring and Whittingham shamelessly heaped blame upon the players and then rounded on the club’s fans.
“Fizzing, mate. Fizzing. Disbelief as well. Could they stoop any lower? We didn’t think so. Then that came out and we were like, ‘Wow, you have outdone yourselves here’.
“If you are that f***ing self-indulgent that you are going to think that, think it. Fine. But what are you posting it for?
“Have those thoughts if you want, but actually putting it out there, after all the things the players have done, pitching up when they’ve been treated the way they have, some boys are still owed thousands in image rights, still doing a job? To go for the fans – the fans! – after they had been spending their hard-earned money, providing as much support as anyone could, pitching up to the stadium, an online presence, everything.
“Since I’ve been at this club, I’ve never laid eyes on Colin Goldring. I’ve seen Jason Whittingham once, when I was getting a pre-game massage. Those two have been nowhere to be seen. I didn’t even know if they had an office at Sixways.”
Through all this angst and all this tumult, the stricken tight-head mourns his father. Scott McCallum was a giant of the Fife sporting scene, a former police officer and firefighter who became a vociferous presence on rugby Twitter. He first took his seven-year-old son down to Dunfermline RFC on the advice of a friend, who had noticed Murray’s burgeoning size.
“He had never played rugby before, and he learned at the same rate I did,” McCallum says. “We were learning a new sport together. That’s where our closest bond was – rugby.
“Seeing his joy for everything that I did, and his passionate hatred for things when they didn’t go my way, was great. He couldn’t really see towards the end. When I played Saracens, the last game before he passed, my mum mentioned he was calling her over and asking, ‘How’s he doing? How’s he doing?’.”
McCallum Snr was taken to hospital in March last year complaining of deteriorating vision in his left eye. His son jokes that en route to a dental appointment, he had crashed into a van from the Royal Society of the Blind. His brain was scanned and, desperately, stage four cancer detected.
“He had six months of chemotherapy, then another six weeks of chemo, and an operation to remove 90 per cent of the tumour. In January, he went for a follow-up scan, and my mum phoned me to say the treatment hadn’t worked.
“They had the toss-up of, do we do more treatment, but then his quality of life is in the pan, or do you ride it out? He rode it out for a few months. My mum kept me sheltered from it, which I was frustrated at, but she was acting in my best interests.
“They got a hospital bed in the house for him, and I thought that would make it easier for him to get up and out of bed. My brother phoned me and was like, ‘Mate, f***ing get up here as soon as you can. The hospital bed means it’s a hospice at home. He won’t be leaving that bed.’
“I remember watching a Premiership Cup game at home with him, in the bedroom. I drove back down on the Thursday, did team run on the Friday, played Saracens on the Saturday. Then he died on the Tuesday. The fourth of May – of course he’d get a Star Wars reference in there.”
McCallum was a new face at Worcester when this heinous ordeal unfolded. He had only moved to the city in January, following a half-season stint at Glasgow. Two weeks after Scott’s passing, he came off the bench to help Worcester clinch the Premiership Cup.
“Throughout my old boy being ill, the Worcester boys were absolutely exceptional, as were the coaches and staff, and the way they looked after me. The team wore black armbands for him, a really nice gesture.”
I can see the players taking a pounding as we're directly involved with the club, but to go for the FANS ???. The people that spend their hard earned money at Sixways every other weekend. The people who have kept this club going throughout their shitshow reign. Deplorable
— Murray McCallum (@m4gnet_) September 30, 2022
For the moment, McCallum finds himself in a state of rugby purgatory, wedged in the horribly congested middle tier of the player market; neither a global superstar nor a nascent youngster. With a reduced Premiership salary cap, a whole host of very capable professionals have been spat into unemployment. Clubs have lower budgets, and are less willing to spend. Five games into the season, they have long since completed their recruitment. And as far as the Premiership goes, it doesn’t help that McCallum is not English-qualified.
“I think of what my dad would say to spur me on, however rough things were,” he says. “I think of what he’d say to me every match. I think of him when I’m f***ed.
“He was an old-school dad at times, loved shouting from the sidelines at mini rugby. He is still a massive part of my game, definitely my inspiration and a massive driving force in me getting back into that Scotland team.”
Those Test ambitions continue to burn white-hot. After a long while on the periphery at Edinburgh, McCallum became a starter for Danny Wilson’s Glasgow and Steve Diamond’s Worcester. He can play on both sides of the scrummage, but tends to operate at tight-head these days. He impressed during his brief time at Scotstoun and would certainly be open to a return north. He longs to add to the three caps he won back in 2018, all of them away from home. Though there have been training squad call-ups since, he has yet to taste an international at Murrayfield.
“I’m in no way mentally done with pushing for Scotland. I really want to get back there and particularly to play at Murrayfield. That’s massive for me.
“I’ve not had any financial offers on the table, which is the slightly stressful part. I have had two or three clubs express interest. Hopefully it will start to materialise before the end of the week.
“It’s been every single day hoping for something and manging that expectation myself. It’s trying to weigh up, if I have a couple of options, whether I take a pay packet for my family, or take a lesser one and try and keep pushing for Test honours, or go to a traditionally more prestigious club, or to somewhere I’m going to play more, or to a club that’s winning.
“There’s a lot playing on my mind. Lorna has been incredibly supportive in wherever I feel is the best move for us. But if we did move away, somewhere like France, I’d need a pretty decent pay packet because she wouldn’t be able to work straight away…
“I can’t believe she’s on maternity leave right now and she’s the f***ing breadwinner!”
Murray McCallum: still smiling, still fighting, still bringing the noise.
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