Hawick's forgotten son Sutherland a hero on rugby field and in battle

WALTER Sutherland of Hawick won 13 Scottish caps between 1910 and 1914 and was regarded as the outstanding Scottish three-quarter of his time. He enlisted in the Lothians & Border Horse in August 1914, served later in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, and as a Second Lieutenant in the Seaforth Highlanders was killed on 4 October, 1918, just five weeks before the Armistice. He was one of 30 Scottish rugby internationalists killed in that war. No other country lost so many.

In comparison with cricket, rugby's literature is sparse, partly no doubt because there never has been, and never could be, a rugby equivalent of Wisden. That is of course primarily a statistical record - and rugby statistics are fewer and matter less - but one of the best and most useful sections of Wisden has always been its obituaries which preserve the memory of players long after they have retired from the game. In comparison even great rugby players may soon be forgotten, and I wonder how many even in Hawick could say who Walter Sutherland was.

There will be no excuse for such ignorance now. Kenneth Bogle has written a full and fascinating biography of a man whom a contemporary versifier described as "the finest wing-three-quarter that ever wore the green". Sutherland was slightly-built, pale-faced and fair-haired; his greatest asset was his speed and he represented Scotland at athletics too - but he was also a notably good tackler. His two greatest matches were probably the Calcutta Cup games of 1912 and 1913.

In the first, which Scotland won 8-3, he scored a brilliant try and was named as the best back on the field. In the second, when Scotland were effectively reduced to 14 men, he performed miracles in defence. "Sutherland," this newspaper's reporter wrote, "took it upon himself the burden of marking both Poulton and Coates, and he was so successful that he had the winger at the close of the game almost hypnotised into impotence."

Bogle makes the point that forwards in those days did not do much defending, in open play at least, the concept of the mobile wing-forward dating only from the 1920s, so that "back play was mostly lone combat, one against one."

Bogle succeeds in conveying an impression of how his hero played. I suppose Billy Steele, the Langholm and Scotland wing of the late 60s and 70s, resembled him somewhat, and that of contemporary players, Chris Paterson is most like him.

Rugby was very different then of course, both on and off the field. There was far less handling than there is now, and scoring was generally low. A feature of the Scottish game was the foot-rush, scarcely seen at Murrayfield for more than 40 years now.

The game was strictly amateur and dominated by the FP and Academical clubs of Edinburgh and Glasgow. It was reckoned hard for a player from one of the Borders clubs to get a Scottish cap - partly because the authorities viewed the Borders with some suspicion, especially since the formation of the Border League. On the other hand Oxford and Cambridge Blues were always welcome. This makes Sutherland's achievement in establishing himself as a regular in the Scotland team the more remarkable.

Some recent complaints echo others made before 1914. Bogle points out that there is nothing new in the practice of selecting players whose Scottish connections are slight. "Before the First World War the selection committee was unabashed about bringing in players from around the globe . . ." such as "colonial students at British universities . . ." The rules of eligibility were a running joke. As one music hall comedian said: "The qualification for Scotland is very strict. I knew a man that got his place owing to the fact that his grandfather, who was a South Sea cannibal, once lunched off a Scotch missionary." The day of political correctness had not yet arrived.

Bogle's account of the social world of rugby is interesting and acute, while the narrative of Sutherland's wartime experiences and death is moving. He was an admirable young man, worthy of the admiration and love he inspired.

• Walter Sutherland, Scottish Rugby Legend 1890-1918 by Kenneth R Bogle (Tempus Publishing, 14.99)

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