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Bishop's Stortford stalwart Ian Cairns overcomes heart attack and broken bones to rack up 50 consecutive years playing rugby

Ian Cairns has tackled opponents, suffered a plethora of broken bones and survived having a heart attack on the pitch to reach the incredible milestone of 50 consecutive years playing rugby.

The forward has called Bishop’s Stortford Rugby Football Club home for the last 32 seasons, representing all six sides from the firsts through to the veterans.

Last weekend he played his first match as a 60-year-old, helping the club’s fifth string, the Abbots, beat Cheshunt III 27-15.

And the London-based export manager nicknamed ‘The Hitman’ – his team-mates believe his job, which involves travelling around the world, is a cover for being a secret agent – is only getting stronger as the years roll on.

“I hadn’t really thought about it until it came to 2019. Somebody asked how long I’d been playing and I realised it was 50 years,” said Cairns.

Ian Cairns. Credit: Andy Todd (8104351)
Ian Cairns. Credit: Andy Todd (8104351)

“I’m hoping I can carry on for a few more years yet. I’m very pleased to get to this milestone, I’ve got to say.

“A lot of it’s in the mind. I don’t have a target – if I can get out of bed and get onto the pitch then I’ll play.

“I think your body tells you when it’s time to give up. The game’s a lot faster now and there are fewer breaks in play.”

Cairns, who was born in Thetford, Norfolk, moved around a lot as a child as a result of his father being in the RAF, living in Belgium and Germany as well as this country.

He began his rugby career at the age of ten when he was boarding at Wymondham College, and he has not missed a season since, including playing in Spain, France and America.

His exploits have even included helping Cairo win an international veterans competition during a hectic business trip to Dubai in 1997. He answered an SOS call when the team captain asked if anyone in the stands could play as some of his players were stuck in immigration.

But suffering a heart attack when playing for Stortford’s third team, the Mitres, in late 2007 could have made the 50-year milestone unachievable.

“The funny thing was I didn’t even know I was having a heart attack,” said Cairns. “It wasn’t like you see on the TV where people just fall down holding their chest.

“Towards the end of the game I just felt really, really tired. I just thought I was getting too old to play rugby.

“I played on until the end of the game. I was sitting in the dressing room afterwards not wanting to drink beer, so that was a bit of an indication.

“They got the physio [Julie Wright] and she called the ambulance. I was in hospital within the hour and getting fixed.”

Ian Cairns. Credit: Andy Todd (8104357)
Ian Cairns. Credit: Andy Todd (8104357)

After having one stent inserted, he was soon on the mend and returned to the rugby field at the end of the following season to keep his run going, and is still turning out for Stortford 12 years later.

And Cairns has learned to see injuries as part and parcel of a
long career.

He has broken 14 bones, excluding fingers, over the last five decades, including nose, cheekbone, arm, ribs, elbow, ankle and foot.

If anything, Cairns, who generally plays in the second row but can also operate at flanker and No 8, is now getting sharper thanks to recently taking up another sport.

“One of the reasons I’m still playing now is I took up triathlons about five years ago,” said Cairns, who has also been hospitalised on a couple of occasions by cycling accidents.

Ian Cairns in his school days, back row, fourth from the left.
Ian Cairns in his school days, back row, fourth from the left.

“The seasons mesh very well and I’ve found I’m fitter now than I was three or four years ago. It would normally take me until Christmas to get fit again, but now I’m starting the rugby seasons pretty fit.”

Cairns, who joined Stortford in the 1986-87 season after getting a job at Athena Posters in Raynham Road, even did an Ironman two-and-a-half years ago – fittingly in Australian city Cairns – and will be doing one in Kentucky this October despite swearing he would not do another.

He celebrated his birthday in November and would have played his first rugby game as a 60-year-old sooner had he not been recovering from a broken nose suffered in an Abbots match.

He has been with his partner Judy for almost 20 years and is used to her threatening to burn his boots every time he comes home with yet another injury.

But he is planning on donning the Stortford kit for a little while longer and the club will always have a special place in his heart.

“I’ve seen the club grow from a time when the duty team had to clean out the changing rooms and man the bar on matchday, to today when we’re seating up to 500 people for a pre-match lunch at a first XV home game,” said Cairns.

Ian Cairns. Credit: Andy Todd (8104360)
Ian Cairns. Credit: Andy Todd (8104360)

“I wouldn’t dream of playing for anyone else. Some of the happiest times of my life have been playing for the club.

“Rugby’s a fantastic way to meet more people in the community. If you’re on your own then you can go along to the rugby club and play, and straight away you’ve got a group of mates.”

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