Jack Hegarty played six times for Scotland between his debut against France in January 1951 and his final match facing the same opposition four years later – but it was the dedicated service to his beloved hometown club over almost 50 years as a player, selector and committee member that marked him out as a true giant of the game.
John Jackson Hegarty was relatively late breaking into senior rugby due to the Second World War. He had tried to enlist in the Royal Navy in 1942 along with five friends from Hawick, but at 16 was deemed to be a few months too young, so ended up in the Marines instead. He was on a ship that went down in the Mediterranean but survived largely unscathed, and when he returned to the Borders after the ceasefire he trained as a hand knitter with Pringle of Scotland, where he spent the rest of his working life.
He made his debut for Hawick during the 1948-9 season, and was a stalwart of the pack for the next 12 years, serving three seasons as captain in 1951-52, 1959-60 and 1960-61.
Hegarty played predominantly in the second-row, but was also a capable back-row forward, making his international debut at flanker alongside Peter Kininmonth and Doug Elliot. He did not play in a winning team for Scotland, but enjoyed outstanding success at club level – with the 1959-60 season celebrated in local folklore as the greatest side Hawick ever produced, providing the inspiration and setting the tone for the unprecedented success the club enjoyed during the years that followed.
“No-one can deny the talent and brilliance of this team. They were way ahead of their time, playing the type of rugby football that we now accept as near normal where backs and forwards intermingle in passing movements to the consternation of opponents,” recalled the late, great Bill McLaren, in the club’s centenary history.
After an early slip at home to Glasgow High School FP in September, Hegarty’s team went on a 29 match winning run. They scored 161 tries that season, clinching the unofficial Scottish Championship in a Monday night game at Netherdale in early April, with a riotous 36-0 demolition of rivals Gala. Hegarty was carried from the pitch on the shoulders of fellow Scotland caps Hugh McLeod and Adam Robson after the final whistle.
“Movement followed movement in such bewildering fashion that it was impossible to note all who handled. The direction of attack was frequently changed and no sooner had the Gala defence covered one gap than another was engineered by the quick handling Greens,” was the observation of one enthralled rugby journalist of the day.
“They have set a new standard in Scotland for fitness, team spirit and team play,” stated another newspaper report.
Hawick’s record for that season in all matches was: Played: 34; Won: 33; Lost: 1; Points For: 720; Points Against: 120. In matches against Scottish opposition: Played: 26; Won: 25; Lost: 1; Points For: 500; Points Against: 91.
Hegarty led Hawick to the title again during the 1960-61 season before finally bringing the curtain down on his playing career in fitting style when he was a member of the seven which won at Langholm Sports in April 1961. He was 36 years old.
On top those of six international caps, he played regularly for the South of Scotland and was part of the Inter-District Championship winning team in the 1954/55 season, as well as appearing against the touring Springboks in 1951, the All Blacks in 1954 and the Wallabies in 1957. He represented the Barbarians on the 1960 Easter tour to Wales, facing Newport and Penarth, and won countless accolades on the Borders sevens circuit, including two Melrose winner medals in 1953 and 1955.
The 1960 Melrose Sevens saw the first in a long line of glamorous guest teams competing at the Greenyards, with a Cambridge University side containing five Scotland internationalists – Ronnie Thomson, Ken Scotland, Gordon Waddell, John Brash and Cameron Boyle – lifting the Ladies Cup after defeating Heriots 28-9 in the final. But Hawick would almost certainly have beaten the flash students in the first round had Hegarty not knocked on with the line at his mercy, and he received little sympathy from his work colleagues the following Monday morning when he was greeted with a stirring rendition of the old Max Bygraves number: “You need hands when nobody wants to know you; You need hands to brush away the tears.”
Hegarty’s playing days might have been over by 1961, but he continued to fulfil a key role in the relentless success the club enjoyed over the next quarter of a century, as an understated but hugely influential figure at Mansfield Park.
Hugh Mcleod had started the ball rolling with his enthusiastic adherence to the lessons learned on Lions tours to South Africa in 1955 and especially New Zealand in 1959. Derrick Grant and Robin Charters built on that with their insatiable drive for success during distinguished tenures coaching the team, while Hegarty was the voice of calm authority in the background.
“Derrick and Robin were firing the bullets but Heg was always there keeping an eye on things. He didn’t speak a lot but he had strong opinions, so when he pulled you aside for a quiet word then you knew it was going to be something worth listening to,” reflects former Scotland star Jim Renwick, who was part of the great Hawick side of the 1970s and early 1980s.
“He’d ask you questions and want to hear your opinion as well, which was a bit different to the way things usually worked in those days. It tended to be about the coaches telling the players what to do, and the players doing what they were telt – but Heg made you think a wee bit more about it.”
Hegarty may have been a shrewd observer of the game, but he clearly lost track when filling in as a touch-judge during an encounter between Hawick and Stewart’s College FP at Inverleith in December 1962. The match was played in a pea soup fog and ten minutes after the final whistle the squad realised their man with the flag had not yet returned to the sanctuary of the clubrooms. He was still in post on the far touch-line when the search party found him.
The rugby gene ran deep in the family. Eldest son John played a couple of seasons in the centre for Hawick in the late 1960s before signing a professional league contract in 1971, while younger son Brian was a key man in the back-row for the club throughout the 1970s, and was capped four times in 1978.