Six Nations: When Arthur was king of Murrayfield

Ernie Michie with a picture of Scotland's win over Wales in 1955. Picture: Ken Macpherson

Ernie Michie with a picture of Scotland's win over Wales in 1955. Picture: Ken Macpherson

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SIXTY years ago, Scotland’s rugby team marked one of the most significant victories of what is now a 132-match series with Wales. On 5 February, 1955, Scotland beat the Welsh 14-8, at Murrayfield. Many tears of happiness were shed that afternoon as the victory, so unlikely it almost merited a stewards’ enquiry, ended a horrendous run of 17 straight losses.

Four years and two days had elapsed since the last Scottish victory, by 19-0, again over the Welsh. In the interim, in the 1951 Five Nations, Ireland won 6-5, and England 5-3. The pain continued in 1952 as South Africa thrashed the Scots by a monumental 44-0, France won 13-11, Wales 11-0, Ireland 12-8 and England 19-3. Coronation year, 1953 brought more defeats, France winning 11-5. Wales 12-0, Ireland 26-8 and England by the same score. The losses continued in 1954 as France and the All Blacks each beat Scotland 3-0, Ireland won 6-0, England 13-3 and Wales 15-3. The start to 1955 was no better, as France won 15-0 in Paris.

The report in The Scotsman. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The report in The Scotsman. Picture: Ian Rutherford

That French win was a watershed. Beaten by four tries to nil, Scotland had been embarrassed. The SRU president, the great (Lord) John M Bannerman, then still the most-capped Scot, put his foot down. He decreed that, henceforth, the pack at least had to be selected from home-based or London Scottish players, while, he persuaded the SRU committee to hold an additional Trial, between the French and Welsh games.

After this game, four new caps were chosen to face the Welsh – scrum-half Jimmy Nichol of Royal HSFP, prop Tom Elliot of Gala, wing forward Bill Glen of Edinburgh Wanderers and right winger Arthur Smith of Cambridge University.

Smith owed his selection in part to injury to Grant Weatherstone of Stewart’s College FP, who was considered Scotland’s leading winger of the time. The Cambridge University man, from Kirkcudbright would write his name all over the match, his magnificent second-half solo try causing the win over Wales to be dubbed: “Arthur Smith’s Match”.

“He was a wonderful winger,” recalls his centre partner, Kim Elgie, speaking from his home in Kloof, in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. “Arthur had such a long stride, he didn’t seem to be moving but he covered the ground – never better in that 80-yard run for his try. He got the ball just outside our 25 as it was then, from Adam Robson I think, there was a gap on the outside and he went through it, chipped over the full-back and gathered to touch down.”

Elgie added: “I couldn’t kick that conversion but, I got a penalty goal and kicked a late conversion after Jimmy Nichol pounced on a Cliff Morgan mistake for our second try, while Jimmy Docherty dropped a goal.

“It was very emotional in the dressing room afterwards. Those of us who had been in losing teams were so happy to finally have won a game, one which Arthur’s try certainly turned in our favour as it pulled us level and gave us a bit of impetus.”

Elgie, then training to be an optomerist at a college in London, would not have played had the views of one SRU “blazer” prevailed, as he recalled.

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“When I was a student at St Andrews University, I was chosen for the North to play the South and afterwards, knowing I was South African, one of the SRU officials asked me if I had any Scottish ancestors. I admitted to a Scots grannie, but, I was told this wasn’t good enough and I thought I would never play for Scotland. Then, when I moved to London and joined London Scottish, I was picked for the National Trial and when I asked: ‘What about my lack of Scottish blood?’ I was told, not everyone at Murrayfield felt like that, and I got my first cap against the All Blacks in 1954.

“I got a letter from the SRU, which included a return rail ticket to Edinburgh, with instructions to meet up with the Scotland team at the North British Hotel in Edinburgh for lunch on the Friday, the day before the game. There, I was introduced to Donald Cameron of Glasgow HSFP, my co-centre. We had never met, so went off down to Goldenacre I think it was, and passed a ball around between us for a spell – that was our warm-up to face the All Blacks.

“I won four straight caps, but was injured and missed the beating in Paris, but, I had a good game in the extra trial and got back in against Wales, with another new centre, Robin Charters from Hawick, who got a late call-up for his first cap.”

Sixty years on, Elgie’s memories of the actual game are few, but he remains tremendously proud of his part in such a historic victory. The Pathe News film of the game shows one incident, involving Elgie, which underlines the difference between rugby then and now.

In the clip, he is clearly seen, being thrown over Cliff Morgan’s back by the great Welsh stand-off. Feet uppermost, Elgie lands on his head and shoulders, but, got up and played on. In 2015 that “tackle” would earn Morgan an immediate and undisputed red card. Back then, it was hardly mentioned, and, Elgie has no recollection of it.

A bad knee ligament injury, picked up playing for Scottish in the Middlesex Sevens ended his rugby career. He qualified as an optometrist and returned to his native Natal, where he played cricket, winning three caps for the Springboks against New Zealand in the 1961-62 series in South Africa. He might have played cricket for Scotland, too, but, university commitments at St Andrews meant he had to turn down a trial.

Later in 1962, Elgie had a welcome reunion with Smith, who captained that year’s Lions tourists in South Africa.

“It was such a tragedy that Arthur died so-young, he was a wonderful man, a true gentleman.”

Elgie’s great memories of the win are shared by second-row Ernie Michie, the only other survivor of the Scotland team. Living in retirement in Inverness, and recovering from a hip replacement operation, Michie believes SRU president Bannerman deserves great credit for the Scotland win.

“Bannerman insisted, since our pack was quite small – I was the heaviest at just over 14 stones, today I’d be a centre I suppose, we pack 3-2-3, while everyone else packed 3-4-1. He wanted us to wheel then charge away in an old-fashioned Scottish foot rush. This meant Hughie McLeod and I would be pushing forward, Tom Elliot and Hamish Kemp pulling back, then I had to move the ball across so Jimmy Greenwood and either Adam Robson or Bill Glen would be charging at the opposing backs.

“It seemed to work but I was shattered at the end, we covered so much ground. It was very emotional, too, to finally win a game after so long. There was a tear or two in the dressing room.

“Arthur’s try set the match alight. He seemed to be hemmed in when he got the ball, next thing we knew, he was away and clear and we never looked back. It really was a great win when you see the quality of the Welsh side. I was picked for the 1955 Lions tour to South Africa and eight of the Welsh team were on that tour. They had some fantastic players, which made our win all the sweeter.”

Warm though Michie’s memories are, he still considers the 1955 Five Nations to have been incomplete.

“We went on to beat the Irish well, then went to Twickenham looking to win the Triple Crown. We were robbed blind. We lost 9-6 but, Tom Elliot dropped on a loose ball over the line, right between the English posts and the referee disallowed the try.

“It was a clear try, I was the closest player to Tom, so I know he scored. We would surely have converted the try, had it been given, and won the Triple Crown.”

Michie owed his place in the Welsh game to a storming game in the Extra Trial, after missing the rout in Paris. He, like Elgie, recalls the vagaries of selection in the 1950s.

“Bannerman’s insistence on forwards playing in Scotland made for some anomalies. After I graduated from Aberdeen University, I joined the Forestry Commission and moved south. At first, posted near London, I played for London Scottish.

“Then, when I was relocated to the Midlands, Ian Swan [Scotland’s left winger against Wales] persuaded me to join Leicester Tigers so, by joining them, I disqualified myself from Scottish selection. Then, I was posted back to Scotland, joined Langholm and, within a couple of weeks, I was back in the Scotland set-up, although playing no better than I had been with Tigers.”

Both Elgie and Michie are convinced of one thing, the players of their generation had a lot more fun that today’s do.

“In 40 years or so’s time, I don’t think they will have the great memories my generation has of their playing days,” says Elgie.

That view is shared by Michie, who recalls how, as the second-youngest tourist and one of the “dirt trackers”, the team which played in the midweek matches, he took his bagpipes with him to South Africa in 1955, and, kilted, he would pipe the Test team onto the park.

“Why shouldn’t I have taken my pipes, it made sense to me”, he says.

You get the impression, had he not been too tired to blow, Ernie Michie might well have piped Arthur Smith off the park at Murrayfield, 60-years ago.

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