Obituary: James McMillan Maxwell, amateur era attacking stand-off, Langholm stalwart and ‘one-cap wonder’ for Scotland

James McMillan Maxwell, Jan 1960
James McMillan Maxwell, Jan 1960
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James McMillan Maxwell, former Scotland rugby internationalist. Born: 30 April, 1931 in Langholm. Died: 28 August, 2017 in Longtown, aged 86.

JIMMY Maxwell, who has died aged 86 after a lengthy battle against Alzheimer’s, belongs to that large group of Scottish rugby players from the amateur era – the “One-Cap Wonders”.

It was Jimmy’s lot to be a brilliant attacking stand-off, but playing for an unfashionable club and at a time when attractive rugby ambition for the Scotland team meant the stand-off kicked the ball away, rather than the scrum-half.

He was blooded in the Langholm team in 1946, shortly after leaving school, going on to be a lynchpin of the side for 16 seasons, including the most successful in the history of the red-shirted men from the “Muckle Toon”.

This was in 1958-59, that miraculous season when Langholm stormed unbeaten through the Border League, remained unbeaten to clinch the then unofficial Scottish Championship, then crowned it all by winning their own “Sports” – Langholm Sevens, beating a star-studded Heriot’s in the final.

They did not concede a try between December and the end of the season in April and, if their defence was watertight, it was the sparkling inventiveness of Maxwell’s game in the play-making stand-off role, allied to his fiercely competitive nature, which made a lot of the difference.

“We got into the habit of winning,” was his simple explanation of that great season.

He was a running stand-off, of the Finn Russell/Gregor Townsend variety, a tough game to master back then when wing forwards were not kept well back by the constraints of the law. When Maxwell began to play for The South, he wore the famous red and white hoops 21 times, he was maybe seen as a bit exotic, but, eventually, for the Irish match of 1957, the Scottish selectors decided to give him his chance in the national side.

Scotland had already beaten France, in “Ken Scotland’s Match”, and Wales, so, for the Irish, they decided, having not been impressed by Tom McClung’s kicking game in the win over the Welsh, to see if Maxwell could bring his running game to the international arena against an Irish side who, with Jackie Kyle at stand-off and Noel Henderson and Tony O’Reilly in the centre, would be ready to run everything as well.

But, the best-laid plans of selectors were thwarted by the weather. The game was played in terrible conditions of non-stop driving snow, the ball was like a bar of soap and, after 20 minutes, it was decided to ditch the Maxwell running game, switch him to centre and allow McClung to move to stand-off and kick everything.

Ireland won 5-3 and, on the final whistle, Jimmy Maxwell was a former international, as he was dropped for the Calcutta Cup game, with the young Gordon Waddell coming in to win the first of his eventual 18 caps.

Jimmy Maxwell soldiered on for his club. That marvellous season was still to come, as was selection for the Barbarians in 1960-61, the season before he hung-up his boots, for the annual South Wales tour.

But, that one international, and the glory of 1958-59 does not his whole story tell. Jimmy left school at 14 to start his plastering apprenticeship with the firm his father had founded. In time, he took over and greatly expanded the business till today, run by Jimmy’s sons, James Maxwell Building Contractors does more than plastering.

During his National Service with the Royal Air Force, Jimmy captained the RAF team, while, posted to Dalcross near Inverness, he was able to hitch a flight on a Friday, be dropped-off at RAF Carlisle and available to Langholm on the Saturday. His 21 outings in the red and white hoops of the South included outings against the All Blacks in 1953 and the Wallabies in 1957.

In retirement, he wisely took a break from rugby. For several years he got his Saturday sporting fix on the terraces of Brunton Park, Carlisle, watching Carlisle United, and at Palmerston Park, Dumfries, following Queen of the South.

But rugby union called him back, to become a Langholm club official, also putting something back into the South as a selector in the 1970s.

The family connection with Langholm was continued by his sons Roger and Geoff, who followed him into the XV, with Geoff emulating his father in being voted in as Langholm captain.

In later life he golfed, to a handicap of six, as upset by losing as he had been on the rugby field, whilst in retirement, he and Audrey, his wife, travelled widely.

Jimmy Maxwell is survived by Audrey, who he married in 1959 – their marriage, rather than the legendary rugby season, was his highlight of 1959; Roger, Geoff, daughter Deborah and his seven grand-children and one great-grand-daughter.

MATT VALLANCE