Norman Mair had no equals in Scottish rugby writing

SRU Hall of Famers John Beattie, John Jeffrey, Ian McGeechan, Chris Rea and Norman Mair. Picture: PA

SRU Hall of Famers John Beattie, John Jeffrey, Ian McGeechan, Chris Rea and Norman Mair. Picture: PA

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Norman Mair was the best Scottish rugby writer of his time, probably the best of all time. He was most closely associated with this newspaper, for which he was the chief rugby correspondent for more than 20 years until he left to join the sadly short-lived Sunday Standard in 1982.

His reports of international matches were always authoritative, remarkably detailed at a time when journalists had no, or very little, access to television replays. If Bill McLaren, almost an exact contemporary, was recognised worldwide as “the Voice of Rugby”, Norman was unquestionably rugby’s Scottish scribe. Like Bill, he took enormous trouble to prepare himself, and was in the habit of talking to players whenever possible before writing his match reports.

Norman became so famous and admired a writer that many of his younger readers probably didn’t realise that he had played international rugby for Scotland himself. In truth his international career was short, lasting only for the Five Nations season of 1951. A hooker, he was capped out of Edinburgh University, and though he was only once on the winning side in his four internationals, that match was the famous 19-0 defeat of Wales at Murrayfield. Sadly, his death comes only a couple of weeks after the death of the Heriot’s full-back Ian Thomson, who was called into the Scotland team on the morning of that remarkable game in which a young and unheralded Scotland XV so comprehensively defeated a star-studded Welsh side featuring 11 members of the previous summer’s Lions XV.

The following autumn, Norman was omitted from the Scotland team picked to play South Africa, and if he might be considered fortunate to have been absent on that day of humiliation when Scotland lost 44-0 – and, in the opinion of some, were lucky to have got nothing – it never ceased to rile him that the selectors, in their infinite wisdom, had chosen to bulk up the pack by picking a prop as hooker. He later played for Melrose during a brief spell as a schoolmaster at St Mary’s in Melrose, just across the fence from The Greenyards.

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As a devoted Merchistonian and quintessentially Edinburgh man, Norman was often seen as a member of the Scottish Rugby Establishment. To some extent he was that. There can scarcely have been any member of the SRU committee whom he did not know and, at a time when Murrayfield tended to be suspicious of the Press and to keep journalists at as long an arm’s length as possible, he treated them as equals.

Nevertheless, he was by no means always a popular figure at Murrayfield. He was far too strong-minded and independent for that, never afraid to criticise authority. It wasn’t by any means only his own experience of the vagaries of selection which led him to observe that there was a time – the early Fifties especially – when the inhabitants of lunatic asylums (as mental hospitals were usually called in the days before political correctness) had a justifiable grievance while SRU selectors walked as free men outside. This was not an opinion to endear him to the men in blazers, but it was undoubtedly fair comment.

Nor, it has to be said, was he always popular with this paper’s sub-editors. A craftsman who sometimes filed his copy at the last moment, his standards were high and he could be demanding. If he had put a semi-colon in a certain place, it was because the balance of his sentences demanded a semi-colon there. Charlie Wilson, the editor of the Sunday Standard whom many found intimidating, once told me that Norman was the only person on the paper of whom he stood in awe and would not tangle with.

Norman was a stylist, his prose, sometimes involved, demanding careful reading. There were echoes of P G Wodehouse. He wrote, for instance, that while one Borders prop might have toned down his act somewhat, he still gave his immediate opponents the impression that he ought to be kept in a cage. When Scotland thumped England in the 1971 Centenary match at Murrayfield, he remarked that one of the tries was the kind that we normally scored only at unopposed practice on the Friday afternoon before the match.

His style was so distinctive that when he ghosted the joint-autobiography of two of his favourite players, John Rutherford and Roy Laidlaw, they spoke in his voice rather than their own. Nevertheless, it was a very good book. He was a very acute critic, observing, for instance, that Andy Irvine’s mere presence on the field might create opportunities for others simply because the opposition were so busy keeping a eye on Irvine that they might neglect to watch his team-mates. At the same time, though, his admiration for Irvine was unbounded. He noticed that – like Stuart Hogg today – Irvine was so alert to the opportunity to create something from an opposition kick that he occasionally took his eye off the ball as he was about to field it.

Norman wrote very well about other sports, too, especially golf, analysing the technique of a swing as expertly as he analysed the technique of a rugby scrum. A particular hero was the Australian, five-times Open champion Peter Thomson. He shared his love of golf with his wife, Lewine, herself a distinguished golf writer, indeed the first woman to be the golf correspondent of a national newspaper. He was also a keen cricketer, good enough to have played for Scotland; in his only first-class innings he scored 4 not out, and therefore has no first-class average.

Norman was almost 70 when rugby went professional, and, though I think that, like Bill McLaren, he never really approved of the change and regretted what was lost when rugby became a full-time job rather than a recreation, he remained the most intelligent and enthusiastic critic. Talking about rugby with Norman was always a pleasure; you invariably learned much and were also entertained.

Last year he was inducted into the Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame, following Bill McLaren as the only former player to have been admitted to that select body for his achievement and immense contribution off the field rather than on it. Nobody has written with more authority, imagination, understanding and wit about Scottish rugby; he leaves successors but no equal.

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