Obituary: Robert Kenneth Gillespie “Bob” MacEwen, MA (Cantab), B.Ed, CtextFTI, FCFI, rugby internationalist and businessman

Former Scotland hooker Bob MacEwen. Picture: SRU
Former Scotland hooker Bob MacEwen. Picture: SRU
Have your say

Born: 25 February, 1928, in Oxford. Died: 29 August, 2013, in Oxford, aged 85

Bob MacEwen, who has died aged 85, was a Scottish rugby internationalist and visionary who was a prophet without honour in his own country. He co-authored the Rugby Football Union’s first coaching manual, Guide to Coaches and Players, and was an acknowledged expert on forward play, but was often at odds with the hierarchy within Murrayfield.

He was born in Oxford, and his Scottish qualification came through his paternal grand-father. He was raised in Bristol, attending Clifton Preparatory School and Bristol Grammar School, where he was coached by Welsh legend Haydn Tanner and a contemporary in the first XV of future England cricketer Tom Graveney.

After national service in the Royal Air Force, he went to Loughborough University, captaining the university and beginning a lifelong friendship with the brilliant Northampton and England centre Jeff Butterfield and Welshman Raymond Williams, of whom more later. He also captained the Universities Athletic Union XV.

He then went to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, to read Economics and Mathematics. He was not chosen for the 1952 Varsity match, but became the first current undergraduate to play against the University, when Micky Steele-Bodger chose him for his XV, which plays Cambridge in an annual pre-Varsity match warm-up. He would later play for Major Stanley’s XV in the equivalent game for Oxford University.

He did win his Blue in the 1953 match, which was drawn, and won a second Blue in 1954 when the Cambridge XV, which included fellow Scots Arthur Smith – after whom he gave two of his sons the initials AR – and Tom McClung, who would be his best man, beat an Oxford side, which included future England cricket captain M J K Smith, 3-0.

His performance in the 1953 match helped earn MacEwen a Scotland Trial in 1954 and his first cap, against France, at Murrayfield. He was one of two front row debutants that day. The other was the great Hughie McLeod of Hawick and it was the start of a lifelong friendship.

McEwen went to his grave convinced he had been hard done by in his second international. He was certain the All Blacks “conned” referee Ivor David with a pre-planned move, stepping back to make it appear that LP MacLachlan, the Scottish scrum-half, had been guilty of a crooked scrum feed, which allowed Bob Scott to kick the game’s only points from the resultant penalty.

Not that he held the move against the All Blacks; he admired their planning to pull off the scam.

He missed the England game that year through injury, which meant he played in matches 12, 13, 14 and 16 of the inglorious 17-game run of losses between February 1951 and February 1955.

He wasn’t in the Scotland side that finally broke that sorry sequence, having been denied even a Trial in 1955, partially through his own efforts – he had publicly disagreed with the great Lord J M Bannerman, then SRU president, who insisted Scotland should pack down in a 3-2-3 formation, while MacEwen argued for a 3-4-1 formation, but also by a decision by the SRU to prefer Home-Scots to Anglos.

MacEwen toured Japan with Cambridge, where his flame red hair caused something of a stir. He also toured North America with a combined Oxford and Cambridge party, before coming down to begin a short spell as a teacher. He quickly realised he wasn’t suited to classroom life.

He also joined Butterfield at Northampton, before Murrayfield suggested that, if he wanted further Scotland caps, he should think of joining London Scottish.

Ever present for Scotland in 1956 and 1957, he took his tally of caps to 12, and was chosen for the Barbarians, where his was the voice that famously told Cliff Morgan, filling in as temporary scrum-half in one game, that, he (Morgan) was trying to put the ball in from the wrong side of the scrum.

Then he had his Barbarians’ playing career abruptly terminated, after he chose to get married to Shelagh, rather than tour South Wales with the club.

He had met Shelagh while working as a management consultant, helping to turn round an Irish shoe-making firm. This assignment in Ireland saw him playing for Lansdowne when he won his 13th and last Scotland cap, against Wales, in 1958.

While in Ireland he also provided Tony O’Reilly with a reference when he applied to join the Irish Dairy Board at the start of his meteoric business career and, again, fell foul of Murrayfield, after turning out for the invitation Irish Wolfhounds on a Sunday – a “crime” not viewed sympathetically by the arch-Presbyterians within Murrayfield.

It was time to retire and concentrate on earning a living. Bob MacEwen became an acknowledged expert on turning around failing businesses and rose to become a director of Charles Clore Sears Holdings conglomerate, earning particular kudos for his work in revitalising the Chester Barrie tailoring range.

Although no longer playing, he had maintained his interest in rugby. He was elected to the RFU’s coaching advisory group and co-authored, with Butterfield and Williams in 1966 of the RFU’s Guide to Coaches and Players, the first official coaching manual to be published in the UK.

Williams took copies back to Wales and circulated them around the clubs, thereby laying the foundations of the great Welsh sides of the 1970s. Butterfield preached the gospel successfully to an initially sceptical English game.

MacEwen sent a copy to Murrayfield, where it vanished without trace – back then coaching was dirty word which smacked of professionalism to the Murrayfield Mandarins.

In the 1970s Bob and Shelagh MacEwen returned to Ireland, to turn around the fortunes of her family’s flax farm near Coleraine. It became a motor hotel and was the venue for former SRU president Andy Irvine’s wedding. During this decade MacEwen also, as an acknowledged expert on scrummaging, advised Carwyn James and Syd Millar on forward tactics before the successful 1971 and 1974 Lions tours and worked on the Ulster Provincial Coaching Group.

Shelagh sadly contracted cancer and, after a long and courageous battle, died in 1985. Thereafter Bob MacEwen had his own long-standing medical problems. However, although unable to go to every international personally, he was an avid TV viewer of games, while also enjoying frequent trips to Scotland.

He adored Barra and liked, if possible, to call in on Hughie McLeod in Hawick when north of the Border.

After Shelagh’s death, he lived with eldest son Ian, before spending his final months back in Oxfordshire near his daughter Kate. These final months were cheered by the Lions’ Test win in Australia.

He rated the 1951-52 Springboks, who beat Scotland 44-0, as the greatest team he had seen, marginally ahead of the 1967 All Blacks. He had a whale of a time, with Butterfield, at the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa and was a steely defender of Scotland’s reputation in the professional era – pointing out their results were no worse than had been achieved in his amateur days.

As a former hooker, he abhorred the way squint feeding was allowed: “This devalues the art of hooking,” he insisted.

He also enjoyed success in his business life. He was highly regarded within the footwear and textile industry. Stephanie Dick, the director of operations at the Textile Institute, said: “Bob’s death certainly marks a milestone in our history. His contributions to our development were vital and important over many years. I have worked closely with Bob in several capacities over all those years. His passion for finding a pathway to success will not be easily duplicated. I will miss his counsel”.

He was a fellow, former council chairman and treasurer of the Clothing and Footwear Institute and as such played a pivotal role in its merger with the Textile Institute.

He was honoured with the fellowship of the merged body, won its Holden Medal in 1985, the Institute Medal in 1998 and was awarded honorary life membership in 2011.

He was honorary treasurer between 1994 and 1998, and was still an elected council member on his death.

Bob MacEwen died in Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, just a mile or so from where he was born. Predeceased by Shelagh and son Robbie, he is survived by Ian and Alastair and daughters Jane and Kate and his grandchildren. He will be remembered at a memorial service in the village church in Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire, on Tuesday, 17 September.