DISBELIEF. That was the overriding emotion on Monday when news spread that Hugh McLeod had died.
Not McLeod. Indestructible Hughie. He was 81, and naturally his frame was not quite what it was when he led the ‘Green Machine’ of the 1950s/1960s, helped to drive the Scottish pack out of its darkest hour or won new admirers on successive British and Irish Lions tours as the quiet, astute, redoubtable ‘Hughie’, on both sides of battles.
But he was still rock-like. In mind as much as in stature. The searching, enquiring, debating mind never shrunk, stepped back from a good argument, a wry laugh or good joke.
Whenever I called him up for a chat, his opening line was always; ‘What are you doing calling me David? You must have run out of people to speak to. I’m no’ one for interviews. Away and speak to someone your readers will remember.’ But age has never mattered to me. McLeod was well aware that he knew more about rugby than many a current player and coach, hence the reason for the call, and after suggesting a handful of alternative interviewees – always including his late friend George Stevenson, who would duly play the same game and send me back to Hughie – it became a self-effacing preamble to a lengthy discussion about changes in the game, contrasting tactical approaches across the hemispheres and invariably questions about Glasgow and Edinburgh.
He was happy to come across to some as a cranky old bugger, critical of modern rugby and its evolution from the days when he first took the field for Hawick in 1952, or when he played a part in coaching at the club and serving on the committee when
Hawick RFC became the dominant force in the Scottish game. But that was not really his thinking. Within minutes the passion and enthusiasm was burning bright, his voice oozed warmth and positivity, comparing New Zealand and South African teams to those in England or France, Wales and Scotland with a searing insight.
Born in Hawick on 8 June, 1932, McLeod only took up rugby at 16, answering a call to help out the youth team Hawick PSA and impressing in a trial. He joined the junior (adult) side Hawick YM, then Hawick and at 20 faced the touring Springboks in South of Scotland colours to rave reviews. He brought a new dimension to front-row play, whether at tighthead or loosehead, his square shape, ball skills, appetite for fitness and desire to improve week after week revealing a quality and consistency that few could match. He was never dropped by Hawick and after pulling on the navy blue of Scotland for the first time against France in 1954 – after seven trials – he was to feature in every successive Test match until surpassing John Bannerman’s 37 caps and setting a new record of 40, and deciding himself to stand down.
McLeod did his national service in Catterick and travelled north to join a Scotland team enduring a miserable record run of 17 defeats, but he was praised as a key figure in turning that around, victory over Wales in 1955 sparking rejoicing in Scottish rugby and securing McLeod’s place in that year’s Lions squad. He played in all six Tests in 1955 in South Africa and 1959 in Australia and New Zealand, and produced fascinating diaries of his tours which he worked hard recently to have published. McLeod played for the Barbarians on 14 occasions and also a combined Scotland/Ireland team against England/Wales, such was his popularity as a mobile, athletic player and tourist.
The Hawick club did not lack for people with great rugby nous in his time, with the likes of Derrick and Oliver Grant alongside McLeod as Lions, quiet servants all with expertise drawn from tours across the southern hemisphere. And all brought that knowledge back to Mansfield Park and worked tirelessly to embed it into a new culture in Scottish rugby as players and coaches.
McLeod was a great role model, a teetotaler who wanted to be the fittest of his generation and drove himself with extra training around his work in the building trade, and despaired at laziness. That approach continued throughout his life, with him rarely found at home. He also owned a sports shop in
Hawick and was a familiar face at agricultural and dog shows, the latter with his faithful bulldog Spike vying for plaudits.
Awarded the OBE in 1962, McLeod was Hawick RFC president from 1983-85, when the club sat atop Scottish rugby, was recently honoured with a place in Hawick’s Greatest Team and featured in more than one list of Scottish greats and Halls of Fame.
The Murrayfield Stadium flag is flying at half-mast and McLeod’s funeral, typically, is a private affair at his own request. He did not like fuss and yet walked a fine line between self-deprecation, that hinted at a genuine, if unbelievable, lack of belief, and a bullishness as he sought to take a grip of affairs, on or off the field and get people to see or do things his way. He was a great friend to many, particularly the late Bill McLaren, and after losing his wife Myra in 2006, the loss of McLaren four years ago hit him hard.
McLeod did not tell many stories of his own feats, so one of those that sticks in the mind came from an opponent. The young prop was delighted to find himself lining up against the Lions legend and duly told McLeod as they ran out of the tunnel that he was looking forward to learning from him. In the first scrum, the youngster put his hand on the ground as he tried to position himself against the Hawick front row, and McLeod duly stood hard on it, with the immortal words: ‘Here endeth the first lesson’.
McLeod will not have considered himself immortal, merely a straightforward Hawick bloke, but many of us who came to appreciate his career and got to know the man did. Hence the shock this week that this brick in the foundations of Hawick’s golden period has gone.
A light has gone out in the Hawick community, the Borders, Scotland and the world of rugby with the loss of one of the sport’s pioneers, and a wonderfully engaging man.