Gus Black recalls his 1950 Lions experience

Gus Black is Scotland's oldest surviving British Lion. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Gus Black is Scotland's oldest surviving British Lion. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THEY set sail out of Liverpool on 1 April and, for 31 days and nights, they bonded aboard the Ceramic.

A ship normally reserved for sheep and lambs was now carrying a different type of beast. The Lions of 1950 arrived into Wellington Harbour in early May. They were the first team from these shores to visit New Zealand in 20 years – and they were feted. Fourteen Welshmen, nine Irishmen, three English and five Scots, four of the five now dead, the last being Gus Black, 87 years young and 88 tomorrow. He is sitting in the front room of his home in Lundin Links, overlooking the water and surrounded by books, some of them holding pictures of Black in his pomp, rifling a pass away from his position at scrum-half or sniping in attack, as was his wont, the Lions jersey on his back all the while. He has shirts from the first two Tests in 1950, a 9-9 draw in Dunedin and an 8-0 loss in Christchurch. One hangs on the wall of Edinburgh University, his club of old. The other is with his granddaughter in Cheltenham, a lawyer at GCHQ, government intelligence. The jersey, says Black, is in safe hands.

On Tuesday, Stuart Hogg became the youngest Lion in the 2013 party to Australia and Black sits here at the opposite end of his life as the oldest surviving Scottish Lion. “All ahead of him,” he says of Hogg. “All ahead of him.” With Black, it’s all 60 years and more in the past but time has not dimmed the memory. His recollection is as sharp as could be, his story beginning not in 1950 but 1946 and a game in Murrayfield against the foes he would later face in New Zealand.

The men in black who came to Scotland that January were not the All Blacks, but they weren’t far off. They went by the name of the New Zealand Army touring team but they had greatness in their ranks, no question. Many of them had either played or would soon play for their country in an official Test and standing as their colossus was Fred Allen – or The Needle as he came to be known in his storied years as coach of the All Blacks – who played 14 matches during his reign and won all 14.

In 1946, Allen was a mere stand-off and a beaten stand-off at that. Black is now thumbing his way through an old programme of the day, calling out the teams and recalling a story. “A chap called George Dryden was secretary or administrator of the team in ’46. After we beat the New Zealanders he came bursting into the changing room and started lavishing praise on the service I’d given to my outside-half, Ian Lumsden. Immediately he was hushed by two or three gentlemen from the Scottish Rugby Union and I never understood why there was a need to diminish this praise that Dryden was dishing out. I suppose that was the psyche of the time. Certainly the psyche of the SRU. Maybe they thought I would get big-headed or have ideas above my station. Well, it was a little bit late for that.”

Up until 1947, Black’s appearances for Scotland didn’t go down in the history books. These were not official Test matches, rather they were called Victory internationals, played out of respect for the fallen in the Second World War, some of whom were rugby players, some of them great ones. That changed for Black in 1947 when he made his “debut” for his country on New Year’s Day in Paris. Even now it makes him wince and there are good reasons for the pain.

The France team of the late ’40s was a ferocious band of men, a pack that was monstrous and that had no compunction about kicking merry hell out of an opponent, particularly an opponent like Black who was quick, whose passing was slick and who needed to be sorted out in a certain fashion. We are talking here about the two lock forwards, Alban Moga and Robert Soro. Moga was known as Bambi. Irony was alive and well in 1940s France.

“Moga and Soro, they didn’t nearly kill me but they gave it a good ol’ try. At one point of the match [lost 8-3] I was held and then severely kicked in the crotch and had to go and see the doctor when I got home. I had a testicle about the size of a tennis ball thanks to those two. A couple of big sods.”

He escaped, but only just, not once but twice that day. “We were staying in a hotel that had been the headquarters of the SS during the war, so that lent a certain thrill to the whole thing. After the match we had dinner in the Eiffel Tower. The French told us that they had hidden all this good wine from the Germans and they wanted to share it with us now and that was fine but none of us were wine drinkers. We drank it like it was beer. Well, you can guess the rest.”

With a stomach full of claret Black was overcome when his dinner was placed in front of him, the aroma of whatever was on the plate forcing him to dive under the table in sickness. “I was carried outside on whatever level the restaurant is on, maybe 120ft above Paris on the first of bloody January. I was completely out for the count. I was lucky I didn’t die out there. I only came around when my team-mate Ian Henderson got himself into a similar state and he was put outside as well. Ian had brought his pipes with him and thought that it was only right and proper, after all the free wine, to give them a wee blaw but very soon he went the same way as me. He lost consciousness and was dumped outside too. There we lay. The Lions seemed a long way off at that point.”

Three years later, though, the offer came – and Black didn’t know what to do with it. He was not long married and not long a father, he was still at Edinburgh University studying medicine – he was a psychiatrist for 34 years before his retirement in the mid 1980s – and was torn by his family and his books on one hand and this great mystery tour on the other. He was advised to consult, so he went to see the professor of anatomy at Edinburgh who told him “Dear boy, you must go with the Lions”, the professor of bacteriology who said the opposite and another anatomist who could see pros and cons on both sides.

“Something else was stuck in my mind. In 1949 a Wallabies team toured Britain and I got talking to Doug Keller, who was then playing for Australia but who later played for Scotland. It was after the match and all 30 of us were sitting in this old concrete bath fully of scummy water, as you did in those days. A certain amount of bonding went on in there, but you had to be careful where you put your feet. Anyway, Keller told me that the Aussies had been on tour for what seemed like forever. I think they were away from home for something like 11 months and he said that touring can be very hard. I thought of that, but I went all the same. My wife was very supportive.”

For company, he had his Edinburgh University half-back partner, Ranald Macdonald. The pair had an instinctive understanding of each other’s game, forged on the training fields of Craiglockhart under the tutelage of Charlie Usher. There were times when Black and Macdonald trained blindfolded, Black launching passes into the darkness for Macdonald to run on to and catch even though he couldn’t see where he was going. They were of the same mind, these two. This is where the regrets of 1950 begin. Macdonald was selected as a three-quarter, not a half-back. Black’s partner for the first two Tests would be Jack Kyle, the icon of Irish rugby.

“Jack was a fantastic player and we should have hit it off better than we did. The problem was that I was used to passing to a point in space ahead of the fly-half so he could run on to it but Jack wanted to get the ball standing still. He was quick and agile but he still lost a second by playing that way. We never really gelled as a partnership.”

The first Test was played in Dunedin and ended in a draw. Even now, Black thinks back to what might have been had he seen the great Ken Jones on his shoulder midway through the second half. Jones was in his blind spot. Had he looked right the Welsh flyer was over for a try under the posts and victory was almost certain. Instead Black turned left and the chance was lost. “I can still hear him yelling for the ball, but I couldn’t see him. The awfulness of it didn’t dawn on me at the time but it did later.”

Black kept his place for the second Test but that was when things really started to go wrong. The New Zealanders had a force of nature in their back-row, a destructive flanker called Pat Crowley who had no intention of letting a little Scottish scrum-half make the kind of break that almost did for the hosts in Dunedin. “To some extent I was always targeted in my career. I don’t think the average wing forward would think his day had been well spent had he not tried to take a chunk out of my thigh or ripped my ear off. But Crowley was very good. I spent most of my day getting tackled hard. I was up in the air more often than I was on the ground. Crowley sorted us all out.

“I think a form of nostalgia hit me after that and I just got fed up with where I was and I wanted to be back home again. I gradually lost interest. We lost the next two Tests in New Zealand but I didn’t play in them. I played a few more games but not the big ones. We went onwards to Australia for six games and then we stopped off in Ceylon on the way home for another game. We stopped in a few places. I remember being in Port Said in Egypt and walking through the back streets with Vic Roberts and Ivor Preece, the two England players, and we were looking at the street names and how so many of them were Scottish. Then a fellow in full Arab dress came up to us with a tray of sunglasses around his neck. We didn’t want to buy any and eventually we had to kind of tell him to bugger off. We were a few paces away from him when he called out in the broadest Glasgow accent you could possibly hear. ‘You’re a bloody hard case, Jock!’ I remember that like it was yesterday.”

Black says he didn’t bring his best form to New Zealand and that, unlike many Lions, he doesn’t hold it up as the pinnacle of his career, but he’s proud none the less. Very proud. To be a Lion? Aye, there’s a quiet satisfaction there all right. “Over the years there’s been talk of reunions but I’ve never been keen. Reunions and anniversaries, I don’t like them. It’s never the same, is it? Everybody’s changed. You can’t go back. Well, you can. But only in your own head.”

And what memories he has in his mind’s eye.