Allan Massie: Old-style skills lost on modern pros

John M Bannerman played thirty-seven times for Scotland 1921-29, not missing a single match. His record of caps stood till Hugh McLeod passed it in 1962.

Heriots and Scotland full-back Ken Scotland was equally adept at punting and drop-kicking with either foot. Picture: PA Archive
Heriots and Scotland full-back Ken Scotland was equally adept at punting and drop-kicking with either foot. Picture: PA Archive

Scotland won 25 of Bannerman’s 37 matches, triumphs including Scotland’s first Grand Slam, completed by beating England in the first match to be played at Murrayfield.

Bannerman never played against New Zealand, South Africa or Australia. The All Blacks did tour in 1924-5, but Scotland refused to play them because there had been a dispute about the division of gate receipts on the previous New Zealand tour in 1905-6. There were long memories in the SRU Committee Room.

All sports change over time – I’m old enough to remember when football teams played with five forwards, which was why full-backs and the centre-half scarcely dared venture across the halfway line. But rugby union has changed more than most and the game Bannerman played would hardly be recognized by players today.

What , for instance, would they make of the art or craft of cross-dribbling?

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This was the famous Scottish foot-rush. Actually the word “rush” is a bit misleading, because it suggests something a bit harum-scarum. The forwards, having taken the ball at their feet, usually from a set scrum, would spread out a yard or so apart, and pass the ball between each other. They had spent hours practising dribbling, keeping the ball under close control.

Discipline was essential because the recipient of the pass had to be careful to stay onside, keeping behind, or at least no more than level with, the man with the ball at his feet. It took courage and good timing to stop a foot-rush, especially on a wet day and muddy pitch.

It went out of fashion about sixty years ago. I was never sure why.

The Scottish forwards of the late Fifties often employed the tactic successfully, and hours were still spent mastering the art of dribbling. I remember as a schoolboy seeing the Scotland captain, Jim Greenwood, dribbling the length of the 220 yard cinder-track, running quite fast with the ball never more than a foot or eighteen inches ahead of him and always under control.Jim had been a success on the 1955 Lions tour of South Africa –not much call for dribbling skills there, I guess, but he had played in all four Tests, scoring a couple of tries. Hughie McLeod and his front-row partners, David Rollo and Norman Bruce, were also good with the ball at their feet, as was the lock Hamish Kemp of Glasgow High School FPs.

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Another thought on dribbling: it was a skill which could be learned and practised on its own, and in the amateur days when club training sessions were fewer and international squad sessions rare – indeed forbidden more than twenty four hours before a match, on suspicion that this sort of thing might lead to a contravention of amateurism – keen players spent far more time developing their individual skills than group ones.

Sometimes this was unavoidable. Ken Scotland once told me that when he was working in the English midlands and playing his rugby for Leicester, some distance from both home and work, he rarely saw his team-mates except on Saturdays.

Consequently a good many players mastered some skills which few professional players have today. How many full-backs and fly-halves kick equally well off either foot? Answer: very few. Yet in any match there may come a moment when the ability to kick off what wasn’t your natural kicking foot is important. The only way any spectator could tell which was Ken Scotland’s natural stronger foot was that he kicked penalties and conversions right-footed. Yet he could drop goals and punt just as well with his left foot. The same, I think, might have been said of Gordon Waddell and David Chisholm, our two best No 10s in the first thirty years after the Hitler War. Not being able to kick off either foot is like not being able to pass off either hand – a sore limitation.

It’s strange that professional players seem content to be limited in this way. England, they might remember, wouldn’t have won the World Cup in 2003 if Johnny Wilkinson, a natural left-footer, hadn’t spent hours learning to kick well and drop goals with his “wrong” right foot. His winning drop-goal gave the 
BBC radio commentator Ian 
Robertson, a moment of panic, amusingly confessed in his autobiography.

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Having correctly credited Wilkinson with the goal, he had a moment of doubt – that was right-footed, Johnny’s left-footed, was it Mike Catt who kicked it? Of course it wasn’t .His immediate reaction was correct, or, if you prefer, right.

Professionals today have a wonderful array of skills, and much of what they do makes old-timers goggle with amazement. But then there are these other skills which seem to have been forgotten or even disappeared from the game. Sometimes this may be because of changes in the Laws, but sometimes one thinks it is because they haven’t troubled to learn them.