Obituary: Hugh Ferns McLeod, OBE, Scottish rugby internationalist

Born: 8 June, 1932, in Hawick. Died: 12 May, 2014, in Hawick, aged 81

Hugh McLeod: The Hawick Hardman who won a record 40 consecutive caps at prop for Scotland. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Hugh McLeod: The Hawick Hardman who won a record 40 consecutive caps at prop for Scotland. Picture: Ian Rutherford

ONE of the greatest players ever to wear the green of Hawick, the dark blue of Scotland and the red shirt of the British and Irish Lions, Hugh McLeod was at once both a rugby revolutionary and a traditionalist. He almost single-handedly changed the way prop forwards participated in the game in Scotland, yet in later life he was a staunch defender of the amateur ethic and disliked professionalism and the current tendency for brawn over brain.

McLeod stood just under 5ft 10ins in his stocking soles, weighed around 14 stones at his peak, yet such was his mastery of the dark arts of propping that whether on the tight or loose-head side, he usually bested much bigger opponents in the scrum, while bringing his supreme fitness to bear as he became one of the best ball-handling prop forwards of all time. He once famously said: “Rugby league players handle so well because they handle so much.” That just about summed up his personal approach to the game – he was a tough, committed player who always wanted to be in the thick of the play.

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On Lions tours and elsewhere, McLeod diligently learned from local coaches and players about new techniques and skills, and brought the message home to Hawick, helping to turn the Borders club into the famous Green Machine that dominated Scottish rugby in the 1960s and 70s.

Born and raised in Hawick and educated at the local high school, McLeod started playing at 16 for one of the local junior sides, Hawick PSA – the initials stood for the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon organisation in the town. The PSA and other junior clubs were, and still are, “feeder clubs” supporting Hawick RFC, and such was McLeod’s obvious talent that he was soon training with the big club at Mansfield Park.

He made his first-team debut at 17, and he kept his place in the team almost from then on, soon earning district honours. The biggest impression he made on the national selectors was playing for South of Scotland against South Africa in 1952.

Despite having to go down south to Catterick on National Service with the tank corps, McLeod was soon called up for Scotland and made his international debut against France at the age of 21 on 9 January, 1954, then reckoned to be a very early age for an international prop. That match was lost 0-3, but the same month the Scots almost pulled off a victory over New Zealand, McLeod being excellent in the first match televised live in its entirety from Murrayfield.

In that loss to France in 1954, he packed down beside hooker Bob MacEwen, who was also making his debut. The two men became lifelong friends, despite MacEwen being an English-born Cambridge University graduate, and they kept in touch until MacEwen’s death last year. McLeod would make and keep many similar friendships in rugby, especially in playing for the Lions and the Barbarians.

In the mid-1950s, however, Scotland were in the midst of a dire run of 17 defeats in Tests, but the introduction of youthful players like McLeod saw that run ended with the 14-8 defeat of Wales in February, 1955. His performances for Scotland saw McLeod selected for the British and Irish Lions team that toured South Africa, and though he did not make the full Test team, McLeod did earn himself two nicknames – the Hawick Hardman and the Abbot.

Interviewed in 2008 for Once Were Lions, the book I wrote with Jeff Connor, McLeod recalled from his meticulous tour diaries that, having played for the army several times, he had been allowed to leave the tank corps five weeks early to play for the Lions, but needed cash help from his mother and fiancé to go on tour.

He explained: “If it had not been for my mother and future wife, I wouldn’t have been able to go on the tour because it was a rule that you had to have £40 in your wallet and that was an awful lot of money in those days. You also had to supply all your own gear except your tie and it was thanks to them that I was able to go.

“That fellow Tony O’Reilly was awful quick with the gab and the first time he saw me, I was wearing my tracksuit with the trousers rolled up about my knees. ‘Look,’ O’Reilly said, ‘it’s an abbot’ and the name stuck.”

So, too, did the Hawick Hardman epithet, which he showed to be accurate with a string of superbly tough performances on his second Lions tour to Australia, New Zealand and Canada in 1959. By that time McLeod was always the first name on the Scotland team sheet, and he won 40 consecutive caps at prop, to set a new Scottish record to beat John Bannerman’s 37.

Such was his standing in the game in these islands that he was twice picked for “select” teams, playing for Scotland-Ireland in the 1955 match that opened Lansdowne Road Stadium, and in the same Scots-Irish select that played to celebrate the golden jubilee of Twickenham.

He played in all six Tests on the 1959 tour, thus becoming one of the few Scots to beat the All Blacks when the Lions won the fourth and final Test 9-6. As well as the Lions and the selects, McLeod was honoured to be picked 14 times for the Barbarians between 1954 and 1959.

In April 1960, McLeod was a senior member of the Scotland squad who toured South Africa in what was the first short tour by a rugby nation. They played one Test, which ended in an 18-10 defeat for Scotland.

His final international appearance was at Murrayfield against England in March in 1962, when he was not yet 30. It was a 3-3 draw, and McLeod told his good friend from Hawick, the legendary commentator Bill McLaren, that he was retiring because 40 was a “good roon’ number”. He was awarded the OBE for services to rugby union later that year.

By then McLeod was already exerting considerable influence on Hawick RFC. He preached a new approach to fitness – he remained a fitness fanatic, cycling round Hawick until shortly before his death – and with his coaching colleagues such as Derrick Grant and Robin Charters he taught the players at Mansfield Park a whole new approach to the game, so much so that when the official SRU league started in the 1970s, the Green Machine won the first five titles.

During and after his playing days, McLeod worked in the building trade as a plasterer before opening a sports shop in his beloved Hawick. He continued to coach and be a committee member at Hawick and eventually became club president in 1985, following Dr Ford Simpson.

Last year, he was named in the club’s greatest ever team, and was also inducted into the Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame. McLeod continued to have strong views about modern rugby and this sometimes led to disagreements, even within his own circle.

In 2008 he said: “When I am watching a match these days, I wonder if it’s the same game I played or not. They have made the game for big men when it should be for all sizes of men, and now everybody has to be a forward and win the ball, whereas in my day we forwards won the ball for the backs.”

Hugh McLeod married his wife Myra in 1957. She predeceased him in 2006. They are survived by their son Roddy.