What quickly became clear yesterday following news of the death of Norman Mair is that his loss is as profoundly felt by the game of rugby as when Bill McLaren passed away, four years ago.
Mair, who covered sports for The Scotsman from the early 1960s to 1998, has died at the age of 86. He was mourned yesterday, his passing representing another break from a golden age not only of sport, but also sports reporting.
Both McLaren and Mair were distinguished by their ability to turn a phrase, the former while on air and the latter in newspapers, with this title remaining his home for the majority of a distinguished reporting career.
Even the players themselves waited with great anticipation following Scotland rugby internationals for Monday morning’s copy of The Scotsman, where Mair had delivered his beautifully-crafted verdict. Few pretended they hadn’t seen it. Few claimed: “I don’t read newspapers.” Instead, players rushed to consult the oracle.
“When Norman put his copy in, he was so particular, so precise,” recalled former Scotland full-back Andy Irvine yesterday. “That is why we had so much admiration for him. If Norman put down that you were not at your best, you had to swallow deeply and accept you had a poor game. There was no one else like that. Bill McLaren was also revered and although Bill also wrote columns, Norman was very much the writer the players respected, Bill the commentator.
“Most players didn’t like to acknowledge if they had a poor game or were off form. I used to take the view that if you really wanted to know how you played, read Norman. If Norman had you down for a bad game then you knew yourself it wasn’t the best.”
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Mair, however, would never resort to gratuitous criticism. He would let the players down gently. “He would say well, perhaps he could be forgiven because it was a terribly windy day or it was a poor pass he had to receive,” recalled Irvine, who presented Mair’s Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame award last year to Logan, one of his two sons. “He sometimes let you off the hook a little bit. But the great thing about him was he was always honest.”
It was in these pages, often on a Monday morning like today, where long, elegant paragraphs Irvine described as “the gospel” could be found.
That “gospel” was an inevitably thoughtful, incisive piece of rugby commentary that many of today’s sports writers regard as the gold standard. Stephen Jones, rugby correspondent of the Sunday Times, yesterday described Mair as his “favourite rugby writer of all time”.
Mair’s well-chosen words contained a special authority because he knew what it took to play international rugby. He earned four Scotland caps as a hooker in 1951, before joining the exclusive band of double internationals by winning a Scotland cricket cap against Worcestershire the following year.
“You could be a good player then and not get many caps,” said former Scotland and British Lions coach Jim Telfer yesterday. “He was a better rugby player than his caps suggested.” Mair also played for Edinburgh University and Edinburgh Wanderers, then one of Scotland’s leading clubs.
It was not only rugby that was blessed by having such a talented chronicler – the mysteries of golf and tennis were made easier to understand via Mair’s pen. “He could weave stories about golf into rugby, rugby into golf,” recalled former Scotland and British Lions prop Ian McLauchlan yesterday.
Few writers before or since have displayed such a conscientious regard for the written word. Lewine, his wife of more than 47 years and herself a well-regarded golf writer, yesterday recalled how Norman, in the days of the old printing presses, would rush back from Open golf championships to The Scotsman offices in Edinburgh almost on a nightly basis. “Let’s say it was Turnberry or Troon, he would drive back at night to check his copy and then drive back again that same evening,” she recalled. “He was unbelievably conscientious.”
Helped by his own sporting background, particularly in rugby, Mair could count on a hotline to the great and the good. This, however, did not mean he enjoyed a cosy relationship with those in authority, far from it. Writing in his 1991 autobiography, Talking of Rugby, Bill McLaren writes that “Norman never was persona grata with all members of the Scottish Rugby Union because he wrote what he felt and had the ear of some very influential people in the game.”
McLauchlan yesterday backed this up: “We were told as a team not to speak to Norman Mair – he was singled out: ‘Norman Mair is not to be spoken to’. We were in the Braid Hills Hotel one night playing cards and Norman and his wife, Lewine, and another couple were in having dinner. Norman said: ‘Excuse me lads, have you seen a waiter?’ We replied in unison: ‘No comment!’ ”
Telfer was among those on whom Mair could rely, but then the relationship was a two-way one – Telfer leaned on Mair for advice on occasion. “Norman was always ahead of the game, never mind up with it – he was coming into my office at Murrayfield in his 70s for a blether and he always had something new to tell you,” said Telfer. “If I wanted advice I would turn to him because you knew it would not go any further.”
This was illustrated, much to Irvine’s amusement, on Scotland’s tour to New Zealand in 1981. “Jim Telfer used to have meetings with Norman. He was like his assistant coach!” Irvine recalled. “He respected Norman so much. I was the captain on that tour and Jim would say, ‘I had a chat with Norman and he thinks we should be doing this and this’. And I would say: ‘Jim, is Norman assistant coach?’ He would reply: ‘Not officially’.
Irvine was particularly impressed with Mair’s ability to understand how a back should operate, given that his playing experience was spent largely among the forwards as a hooker, although he also kicked goals – “A frustrated stand-off”, mused Telfer.
“Norman would ask you questions that would knock you back, you had to really think hard,” said Irvine. “He would sometimes see things that not even we players could see. No disrespect to front-row forwards, but Norman was a hooker and yet his ability to analyse and understand back play having played in the front row himself was something I found quite amazing.
“He was really very special, one of a kind.”
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