Obituary: Sandy Carmichael, Rugby player who was first Scot to earn 50 caps

Sandy Carmichael, rugby player. Born: 2 February, 1944 in Glasgow. Died: 27 October, 2021 in Kilbarchan,aged 77

Sandy Carmichael was in the winning side against England six times
Sandy Carmichael was in the winning side against England six times

Sandy Carmichael was one of Scottish rugby’s all-time greats, an outstanding prop forward on the pitch and off it a wonderful ambassador for the game.

He was virtually a prototype for the modern prop – mobile, strong scrummager, good hands and an effective tackler. His reputation for technically accomplished and robust but fair play in a highly combative position earned him respect and admiration worldwide while his adherence to and promotion of rugby’s core values in developing discipline, teamwork and friendship enhanced the sport. An extremely likeable individual, he was immensely popular and highly regarded in every walk of life.

Sandy enjoyed an honour-laden career. Between 1967 and 1978 he was the first Scot to earn 50 caps, 49 consecutively, then a world record for an international prop. That included the rare distinction of being in a winning side six times against England (twice in one week in 1971), as well as playing four non-cap internationals, three against Argentina and one against Tonga. Despite being effectively an automatic selection, he maintained it was “always a thrill to see my name in the team.”

He went on two tours with the British and Irish Lions, in 1971 to New Zealand and in 1974 to South Africa, playing 16 games altogether. Had it not been for the dreadful assault he suffered in the 1971 tour against Canterbury which left him with cheekbone fractures a week before the first Test and ended his tour, he would undoubtedly have featured in that Test and probably others.

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For the Barbarians he made a total of 20 appearances which included two matches against Australia and the famous 1973 game in Cardiff against New Zealand, a candidate for the best game of rugby ever witnessed, in which he was the only Scot playing. He also toured North America with them, captaining the team against Quebec.

With Scotland he went on three tours, to Argentina in 1969, Australia in 1970 and New Zealand in 1975. In the latter he played in the ‘water polo’ Test in Auckland, so called because excessive rainfall resulted in near aquatic conditions with Sandy quoted afterwards,”… I was worried because I can’t swim very well”!

In 1977 as well as being appointed MBE., he was the only Scot selected in a World squad of 24 players from ten nations to play two commemorative games in South Africa. Domestically he represented West of Scotland with distinction from 1962 to 1978 and Glasgow District from 1964 onwards. As part of a formidable West side, he was in the team that twice won the unofficial Scottish Championship as well as being runner-up several times.

Fittingly Sandy was in the first tranche of inductees to Scottish Rugby’s Hall of Fame in 2010, his citation stating,”..…one of the bravest and fairest players to grace the game.”

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Alexander Bennett Carmichael was the middle son of David and Jessie (Jet) who with brothers David and Peter was brought up in Newton Mearns. Father David was an accountant and councillor after whom the Carmichael Hall in Eastwood was named while Sandy’s maternal grandfather was Alec Bennett, who played for both Celtic and Rangers and won 11 caps for Scotland.

After attending Belmont prep school, Sandy went to Loretto School in Musselburgh where, in addition to being ‘2nd Head of School’, his sporting talents emerged.

He played in the first XV for two years, captaining the team in his final year, converting to the front row after playing in second and back rows. Writing with prescience in the school magazine, a teacher opined,”…..Carmichael has proved to have the qualities necessary for the front row and may have found his best position…..a tiger in the loose... he could develop into a very good forward.” In 1962 he was selected for the Scottish Schoolboys’ XV for their annual match against their English counterparts but bad weather meant it was cancelled.

He also shone at hockey, trialling for Scottish Schoolboys, while in summer he excelled at athletics, captaining the team, setting a shot putt record and winning bronze medals in Scottish Schools and Junior Championships. Later he enjoyed success at Highland Games “heavy events” before international rugby began.

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That career started in 1967 with a debut cap against Ireland as a late replacement for the injured David Rollo, much to the surprise of family in the stand as he ran on to Murrayfield. In a later interview Sandy commented that when nervous he sometimes fell asleep, almost doing so on that occasion during the team talk. A long distinguished career saw many highlights including wins against Australia, South Africa and in 1969 against France in Paris, Scotland’s last there till 1995.

After retiring from playing he coached West of Scotland for some years and helped promote womens’ rugby through coaching the West side and assisting the national team.

A hereditary spinal arthritic condition exacerbated by rugby’s physical demands led to serious health issues for Sandy who underwent numerous complicated hip operations and heart bypass surgery, causing him significant mobility problems. Despite that he remained upbeat, stating he had no regrets.

In business he was involved in plant hire setting up his own eponymous company and latterly with Speedy Hire.

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In 1970 he married Avril Wallace with whom he had children Trevor and Melanie but the marriage ended in divorce. In 1993 he married Alison Brand whom he met through rugby, with whom he had Ruairidh and Rhona. The family lived in Kilbarchan where Sandy was a much loved and well known figure in the local community.

Outwith family life he was a highly appreciated contributor to Rugby Memories, a charity for dementia sufferers and was an avid sports follower.

He is survived by his wife, children and four grandchildren.

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