The Battling Years

WITH a large part of the armed forces based at home until the invasion of France in 1944, some rugby was possible during the Second World War.

Yet the record in the first seasons after the war was fair, partly because England, Wales and France were in a like state of re-organisation. The team of the 1940s was Ireland, masterminded by one of the greatest of all fly-halves, Jackie Kyle. They won the Grand Slam in l947-8 and the Triple Crown the following year. Scotland wouldn’t defeat Ireland till 1955.

It was assumed that Scotland would soon once again be challenging for the championship. There was nothing inherently absurd in this belief, for no country had embarked on the sort of structural change that might be expected to lead to a higher level of performance. The war had merely interrupted a settled pattern. Here the Border League was played with its old intensity. The unofficial championship was valued, though it could produce odd results depending on the strength of a club’s fixture list. The Inter-City and the annual match between North and South still served as preliminary trials for the international team. There was no full District championship till 1953-4.

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As in the 1930s, Scotland was still plagued by inconsistency in selection. Almost all successful sides have a settled half-back partnership, as Scotland had had in the Waddell-Nelson years. But post-war, Scotland wouldn’t find one for almost 20 years. So, for instance, the Edinburgh University scrum-half A W Black was capped six times between 1947 and 1950. He had four different partners. Black was a good enough player to tour with the 1950 British Lions, but, returning home, was never picked for Scotland again. Indeed in the first 10 seasons after the war, Scotland capped 10 players at scrum-half and nine at fly-half. This was not a recipe for success. Selection in other positions was no more consistent.

There was admittedly a shortage of outstanding players. Angus Cameron (Glasgow High School FP) was capped 17 times between 1948 and 1956 in a career disrupted more often by injury than by selectorial vagaries. He was a powerful runner and good reader of the game; few people can ever have kicked further or higher. Yet even he was played in three different positions: fly-half, centre and full-back.

WID Elliot, a Border farmer who played for Edinburgh Accies, was the one player of the immediate post-war years who would certainly have commanded a place in the Scotland XV of any era. He was a magnificent back-row forward, a destructive tackler and strong runner. At 6ft 3in and well over 14 stone, he was the nearest thing to a forward in the classic All Black mould that Scotland produced in the 20 years after the war, for he was fast, possessed all the basic skills and breathed aggression. He played 29 times for Scotland between 1947 and 1954, and, uniquely for a player of that time, was never dropped, though he missed half a dozen matches, including the whole of the 1953 season because of injury.

There were other players of the period who, more intelligently handled, might have established themselves. Among the backs, apart from Black, these would include Norman Davidson (Edinburgh University and Hawick) and Donald Scott (Langholm and Watsonians). But the selectors were always too ready to chop and change to allow a team to settle in a pattern of play.

Three matches in this period deserve special attention, all being in different ways remarkable. The first was against Wales in 1951. The Welsh had won the Grand Slam the previous year. They made up almost half the 1950 Lions party. They came to Murrayfield having beaten England 23-5 at Twickenham, in what was agreed to have been the finest display of back-play since Wilson Shaw’s match in 1938. There were 13 Lions in their side at Murrayfield.

In contrast, the Scotland XV was young and inexperienced, exceptions being Elliot and the captain, Peter Kininmonth (Richmond). Kininmonth was the only Lion. (Elliot had had to refuse an invitation being unable to give up the time from his farm.) On the morning of the match, the experienced full-back Tommy Gray (Northampton), who had won the Calcutta Cup the previous March with a last-minute conversion from the touchline, had to drop out and was replaced by the 19-year-old Herioter, Ian Thomson. Only the most inveterate optimist gave Scotland a chance.

Wales dominated the early stages of the match, but failed to score. Elliot was soon disrupting their back-play, targeting their young fly-half Glyn Davies. The Welsh centres were shackled by the young Scottish pair Donald Scott and Donald Sloan (Edinburgh Accies). Just before half-time, Thomson kicked a penalty from in front of the posts. The score was still 3-0 as the last quarter of the game approached. Then, a Welsh clearance was fielded under the grandstand by Kininmonth, the No 8. He let fly with an unexpected drop-kick which soared between the posts. If ever a kick won a match in any but the last minute it was that one. Wales were finished, Scotland rampant. Three tries followed, two scored by Bob Gordon (Edinburgh Wanderers) playing in his first international. It was remarkable.

None of the Scottish backs was more than 22. It should have been something to build on, even though the team subsequently lost 5-6 to Ireland and 3-5 to England. And nothing in these narrow defeats suggested we were about to enter the blackest period of our rugby history.

The following autumn saw the tour of the Fourth Springboks. They were a great team, winning 30 of their 31 matches, losing only to London Counties. They massacred Scotland 44-0, for long a record. They scored nine tries. With modern scoring values, the result would have been 62-0.

It was easy to blame the selectors, but they had not made many really strange choices, though they had discarded a specialist hooker to add bulk to the pack. They had only nine of the team that had defeated Wales, but injuries accounted for a couple of changes. Six of the scrum were the same. The team was quite possibly near the best available.

They were, of course, ludicrously ill-prepared to meet a touring team, their preparation being restricted to a run-around on the Friday afternoon. Then, though the seven Borderers in the side had played competitive rugby in the Border league, few of the others can have had a match in which the result really mattered since the Calcutta Cup back in the Spring. The low standard of Scottish club rugby was telling on the national side, and there were no backs of individual brilliance such as Smith, Macpherson and Shaw to compensate.

Moreover, Scottish rugby was old-fashioned, the model out of date. It still envisaged a game where forwards and backs were distinct, in which, when forwards attacked, they would do so with the ball at their feet. The inter-passing of South African or French forwards was admired but not imitated. Over the next few years there was much fierce argument about how we should play. But it was sterile, and concerned with questions that no longer occupied the attention of other rugby-playing nations. The respective merits of the 3-2-3 and 3-4-1 scrum formation were endlessly debated, and the great forward of the 1920s J N Bannerman, in his term of office as president of the SRU, called for a return to the style of his youth, as if elsewhere the game of rugby had stood still.

So we entered on the black years, suffering 17 successive defeats between February 1951 and February 1955. It sometimes seemed as if we would never win again. We scored only 54 points in these 17 games: 11 tries, six conversions, and four penalties. Admitted, scoring was low in the 1950s, and there were far fewer technical offences punished by penalties. Nevertheless, this record was miserable.

The selectors ran wild. In three seasons, 39 new caps were awarded. More than 30 players were selected in 1953. There was more stability in 1954 when only 20 were used, but of these, 14 had not played the year before, and 10 were new caps. That season saw some light at the end of the tunnel. There was no crushing defeat, and, captained by Douglas Elliot, Scotland held New Zealand to a margin of one penalty to nothing. That season also saw the emergence of a number of forwards - Hugh McLeod (Hawick), Hamish Kemp (Glasgow High School FP), Ernie Michie (Aberdeen University) and Adam Robson (Hawick) who would form the nucleus of the pack for several seasons and restore national pride.

The turning-point was the Welsh match at Murrayfield after a 15-0 defeat in Paris seemed to dash hopes of a revival yet again. It is always rightly remembered as Arthur Smith’s match, in acknowledgement of the importance of the solo try he scored from deep in the Scottish 25. It was the first of the nine tries he was to score for Scotland and by far the most significant. (It was also his first international match). Scotland went on to win 14-8, and the black cloud was lifted. Ireland were beaten three weeks later, and astonishingly the team of which so little had been expected went to Twickenham with a chance of the Triple Crown. They were to be denied 9-6, though the Gala prop Tom Elliot went to his grave believing he had been denied a valid try. Today, with the video referee to call upon, he would probably have been awarded it, and Scotland would not have had to wait another 29 years for our first Triple Crown since 1938 - always assuming, that is, that Angus Cameron had converted it. We had to wait till 1964 to regain the Calcutta Cup.

Yet the teams from 1955-63 were pretty good. If there was no win over England, there were three draws to six defeats, and only twice was the margin of defeat more than a single score. Failure to beat the Auld Enemy was disappointing, but England were consistently stronger in these years than at any time between the early 1920s and the 1990s. The record against other countries was more satisfactory. Wales and Ireland were both beaten five times to four defeats. France four times to five. The victories over Wales included the first win at Cardiff since 1927, although there had been victories at Swansea in the 1930s.

In this period Scotland always had a very good, if rarely dominating, pack. Hugh McLeod surpassed Bannerman’s record of 37 caps, and this was to be equalled by his fellow-prop, the redoubtable David Rollo from Howe of Fife, Norman Bruce (Army & London Scottish, but a Gala man) was a very fine hooker. Michie, Kemp, Frans ten Boss (Oxford University & London Scottish) and the Army captain Mike Campbell-Lamerton, were notable locks, and back-row players such as Robson, Jim Greenwood (Dunfermline), G K Smith (Kelso), Jock Douglas (Daniel Stewart’s FP), Ken Ross (Boroughmuir) and Ronnie Glasgow (Dunfermline) were all outstanding players in a position where Scotland have rarely been weak. Glasgow, the most voracious of tacklers, should have had more than his 10 caps.

Two great backs emerged in this period, and at least one very good one. The latter was fly-half Gordon Waddell, the most efficient of players and one of the coolest under pressure. He toured twice with the Lions, and probably played his best rugby on their 1962 tour of South Africa. For Scotland he was mostly a kicking fly-half, to the irritation of many. The demands of business ended his rugby career in his mid-20s.

Waddell was good, very good. Arthur Smith and Ken Scotland were great. Those of us who saw Smith in action have no doubt who should wear the No 14 jersey in an imaginary Best of Scotland XV of the past half-century. He played 33 times for Scotland. In these matches we scored 33 tries, and he scored nine of them. The most perfectly balanced of runners, he was to most wings as a Derby winner to a selling-plater.

Ken Scotland was the perfect classical full-back, but one with a Romantic imagination, bringing a new sense of adventure to the position. He kicked beautifully with either foot, and was the best timer of a pass I have seen in a Scottish jersey. Arthur Smith indeed called him "the best passer of a ball I have played with". When on the occasion of his own 50th cap, Tom Kiernan, the Irish full-back and Lions captain, was asked to name the greatest player of his time, he said, simply "Ken Scotland. It was a privilege to be on the same field as he was". I sometimes thought it a privilege to be on the same ground. He was incidentally versatile enough to play for Scotland at fly-half (his schoolboy position) as well as full-back, and at centre in two Tests for the Lions against New Zealand.

His international career also ended prematurely, when his work took him to Aberdeen and he played very low-level club rugby for Aberdeenshire. Both he and Smith were men of many clubs, at least five in Scotland’s case, four in Smith’s. In the amateur days work took precedence. Nothing marks the difference between then and now more vividly than Greenwood’s career. First capped in 1952 and then dropped, he returned to the Scotland side in 1955 and toured South Africa with the Lions that year. On his return he played no club rugby at all, giving priority to his work as a schoolmaster at Trinity College, Glenalmond. Yet he played for Scotland throughout the next four seasons, usually as captain. He would play fewer than 12 matches a year, some of them for the Barbarians. Even 20 years later, long before the advent of professionalism, this wouldn’t have been possible.

Despite the presence of Scotland and Smith, the team in this period rarely played exciting rugby. They lacked flair and pace in midfield, and also a scrum-half of the first rank. The characteristic Scottish attacking manoeuvre was the high punt under the posts or the long diagonal to the wing. Perhaps it was the memory of the black years that caused Scotland to approach every match in the spirit of underdogs. But it also reflected the low standard of the domestic club game. Attempts to raise this by introducing the District championship achieved little. Most club players had little experience of pressure.

The game’s social base was still very narrow, and the FP clubs of Edinburgh and Glasgow were no longer producing players of high quality. It was now usual to find the majority of Scottish backs being drawn from clubs south of the Border. Waddell and lain Laughland (32 caps) played all their club rugby in England, Scotland most of his, Smith in England and Wales. Of Scottish backs who won more than 20 caps in the 1950s and 1960s, only George Stevenson of Hawick played all his club rugby north of the Border.

The year 1963 saw the worst match at Murrayfield in anyone’s memory. Wales won 6-0 by a penalty and a drop-goal, and there were 111 line-outs. Ironically, it did the game good. The law was changed to prohibit kicking into touch on the full from outside your 25, the off-side line was re-drawn, and restrictions on the length of the line-out imposed. These changes ushered in a period of attacking and adventurous rugby such as many had despaired of ever seeing.

The next season was Scotland’s best since 1938. New Zealand were held to a 0-0 draw, the last international match in which no points were scored. The

Calcutta Cup was won for the first time since 1960, 15-6, a young raw-boned Melrose forward called Jim Telfer scoring one try and giving the pass for another. The Five Nations championship was shared with Wales.

Yet the rest of the decade followed the same pattern as the previous 10 years. There were some good wins, with both South Africa and Australia being beaten. There were fine players, but there was no prolonged period of success. This was due, in part, to the continuing vagaries of selection. For instance, the Melrose half-backs David Chisholm and Alex Hastie had a remarkable record, being unbeaten in the first 10 internationals in which they played together. But these were not consecutive matches. After contributing greatly to that 1964 Calcutta Cup win, they were omitted for the first three internationals of the next season. Then in four seasons, 1967-70, six different scrum-halves were capped. The best, after Hastie, was Gala’s Duncan Paterson, but it took some time to convince the selectors of this. The Scottish XV still took the field underprepared. Jim Telfer was the first captain to ask for squad sessions, and was viewed with some suspicion on that account.

The SRU was still suspicious of change, their appetite having been, presumably, satisfied by their installation of an electric blanket under the Murrayfield pitch in the 1950s, and the unusual enterprise they had shown by undertaking the first short tour by a home country, to South Africa in 1960. They still resisted suggestions for organised competition, suggestions, it should be said, that roused little enthusiasm among club committee men.

Yet there was change. The FP clubs were declining. Boroughmuir had gone open in the 1950s and won the unofficial championship. In Glasgow the strongest club was now West of Scotland. Far more internationalists were coming from the Border clubs, backs as well as forwards. Hawick were the outstanding club of the 1960s, a decade in which 10 of their players were picked for Scotland. A new trend was apparent, which would gather pace in the 1970s and 1980s. The decline of the city clubs made the Border ones more attractive to ambitious players. Douglas Elliot, though a Border sheep-farmer, had played all his club rugby for Edinburgh Accies. Now Colin Telfer, a product of Royal High in Edinburgh (and fly-half in a Scottish Schools side that beat the English schools 57-0) played for Hawick. He had Hawick connections, being a nephew of Hugh McLeod, but he lived in Edinburgh. A few years earlier he would probably have played for his FP club. Gala, too, were attracting imports, including the future Scottish captain Peter Brown from West of Scotland, and John Frame from Edinburgh University. Gala itself produced the best Scottish midfield back of the late 1960s, Jock Turner.

Other changes were coming. The SRU at last overcame their antipathy to coaching, and fell into line with the other International Board countries, though in mealy-mouthed fashion they designated the first coach appointed as "adviser to the captain". He was Bill Dickinson, a lecturer at Jordanhill College, and his contribution to Scottish rugby in the early 1970s was immense. He was a great coach of forwards and he had some great material to deal with: the props Iain McLauchlan and Sandy Carmichael and the locks Gordon Brown and Alastair McHarg especially. For a few years his teams were unbeatable at Murrayfield, winning at one point nine matches in succession. It was indeed "Fortress Murrayfield" as never before, and all too rarely since.

The 1971 Five Nations was memorable for two reasons. The Welsh match at Murrayfield was one of the greatest and most exciting ever played there, Wales winning 19-18 thanks to a last-minute conversion from the touchline by the bearded flanker John Taylor; it was to be remembered as "the greatest conversion since St Paul". But there was to be an equally memorable one at Twickenham a few weeks later, if one less classical in execution. It was kicked by the Scottish captain and splendidly idiosyncratic No 8 Peter Brown, whose habit of turning his back on the ball as he retreated like a bowler to the start of his run-up did little to give supporters confidence. But the goal was kicked on this occasion, even if the ball, as Bill McLaren (not yet half-way through his reign as rugby’s pre-eminent commentator) put it, "wobbled over the bar in an inebriated fashion." So Scotland won 16-15, with three tries to two, and it was the first victory at Twickenham since Wilson Shaw’s match. The following Saturday Scotland played England again, outside the championship, to celebrate the centenary of the first-ever international fixture, this time at Murrayfield, and won 26-6. After years of famine in encounters with the Auld Enemy, this was a feast. 1972 saw the first international appearances of two of Scotland’s greatest and most enjoyable players: Jim Renwick (Hawick) and Andy Irvine (Heriot’s FP). Both would go on to win 50 caps, more than anyone hitherto, but they were players who made statistics irrelevant. Renwick was a wonderfully inventive player, with a keen rugby intelligence and the quickest of wits. He would be my first choice of all the centres of the past half-century. He was an extraordinary omission from the 1977 Lions; he would have gone, if, as Irvine put it, "the Lions selectors had possessed a fraction of rugby brain".

Irvine was, quite simply, the most exciting player to have worn a Scotland jersey in my lifetime. He wasn’t a perfect full-back. Indeed his defence was always suspect, but there has never been a better attacking one from any country. He could accelerate like an E-type Jaguar, and swerve off either foot. He could turn any match with a moment of magic, and lift any game out of the ordinary.

There was soon to be innovation. The SRU abandoned its opposition to competitive rugby, and in season 1973-4 the national leagues were inaugurated. In fairness to the often-maligned administrators, Scotland moved in this direction ahead of England, Wales and Ireland. The importance of the development can’t be overrated, even though it was to be some years before it made much difference at international level. But the benefits were soon apparent. The standard of club rugby improved. There was a concentration of talent as players moved to ambitious and successful clubs. Quite soon, most of the closed clubs went open. Those that didn’t declined. Open clubs kept their old FP or Academical name, and still played on grounds owned by the schools. Hawick dominated the championship in its first years, but when Heriot’s FP became the first city club to do so, they had already attracted "outsiders"; their leading try-scorer was Bill Gammell, a Fettesian already capped for Scotland while playing for Edinburgh Wanderers. League rugby drew the crowds, and the 20 years that followed its introduction were the best in the history of Scottish club rugby. In that period the title of champions rarely went out of the Borders, Hawick, Gala and Melrose enjoying long periods of ascendancy.

The 1970s was a decade in which rugby flourished and attained an unprecedented popularity. Adjustments to the laws had made it a more open and exciting game. Television, in particular the arrival of colour television, and the commentaries of Bill McLaren won a new following for what had always been a minority sport. The British Lions won a series in New Zealand in 1971 for the first time. It was the decade of the Welsh who won three Grand Slams and five Triple Crowns. For the first half of the 1970s Scotland were not that far behind, beating Wales at Murrayfield in 1973 and 1975, the success stemming from the powerful pack, a predatory scrum-half in Dougie Morgan (Stewart’s Melville FP) and the magic of Irvine. The first of these matches was watched by the largest crowd ever to attend a rugby match in the northern hemisphere; it was put at 104,000 and there were said to be 20,000 locked out. (An estimated 40,000 Welsh had come north in support.) As a result, for the first time, internationals at Murrayfield were made all ticket. Previously you just turned up and paid at the turnstiles.

In 1973, yet again, Scotland went to Twickenham in search of the mythical and elusive Triple Crown. Hopes were high, even though their inspirational captain Iain McLauchlan had cracked a bone in his leg against Ireland three weeks previously. Nevertheless astonishingly, he played at Twickenham. He was not, however, the only forward to be less than 100 per cent fit. Irvine later described the Scottish dressing-room before the match as resembling "a bad day in a television hospital soap drama". England won 20-12, ending a run of four successive defeats by Scotland.

Scotland would win the two Murrayfield Calcutta Cups, but the second half of the 1970s was almost as bleak as the early 1950s. Only one match was won, and two drawn, in three international seasons 1977-9. The reason was not far to seek. The great pack of the first half of the decade had broken up, though McLauchlan and McHarg played on till near its end, The biggest loss was Gordon Brown, probably the finest lock forward to have played for Scotland. His career was blighted when he was suspended for three months as the result of an incident in an Inter-District match in December 1976. (He had retaliated to an attack; his assailant got 18 months.) The SRU were, very properly, taking a stern line with regard to indiscipline and foul play; but it was unfortunate that the man they made an example of should have been Scotland’s most important forward. Brown went on the Lions tour of New Zealand the following summer, but never played for Scotland again. He was young to retire, and our record in the late Seventies would have been much better had he been playing. Injury also deprived them for three seasons of David Leslie, a magnificent flanker or a No 8.

If that period was less depressing than the 1950s it was partly because Scotland were playing attractive rugby even when losing. Besides Irvine and Renwick, there was a very accomplished centre or fly-half, Ian McGeechan, who played eight Lions tests. Now coached by the former international flanker Nairn McEwan, this team scored some splendid tries, but were too weak up front to beat good sides.

Selection was now usually more consistent, but throughout the decade there was uncertainty as to the best scrum-half. There were two candidates, Morgan and Alan Lawson, (Edinburgh Wanderers and London Scottish). Morgan was a harrier, a subtle tactician, a very fine defensive player, Lawson had a long fast spin pass and an electrifying break. Lawson played 12 full internationals between 1972 and 1979, Morgan 17 between 1973 and 1978.

The choice was difficult. Given the comparative weakness of the pack in the later 1970s, there was a case for playing Morgan as the better scrum-half behind a pack likely to be beaten. But there was also a case for preferring Lawson as the man more likely to release the potential of the Scottish backs, the team’s greatest asset.

If there was uncertainty there, the selectors were now less ready to chop and change. In 1979 the young Selkirk fly-half John Rutherford was picked for the first time. His talent was obvious - he was already an attacking fly-half such as we had too rarely had: but in those days he kicked poorly, though in time he would become a masterly tactical kicker. He won seven caps before he played in a winning team. In the 1950s he would certainly have been discarded after a couple; likewise if he had been an English player in the 1970s. The selectors so rarely receive praise that their faith in Rutherford, which was be so amply justified, should be noted and commended.

When that victory at last arrived it was in a truly extraordinary game. It wasn’t Rutherford’s match, though he scored a first-half try. It was Irvine’s. Yet for an hour it had looked like being a disastrous day for him: he had missed six penalties, one from 15 yards out, in front of the posts, and a conversion. He had even been booed by a section of the crowd. With little more than a quarter of an hour left, France were leading 14-4. (A try was then worth four points.)

Then Rutherford ran the ball from deep in the Scottish half. Irvine came up at speed outside the left wing, Bruce Hay, and, as he was tackled, passed inside to David Johnston. A couple of other passes and a Frenchman knocked the ball to the ground. Who should be there to scoop it up but Irvine, following up at speed and diving over in the corner before the French realised he was back in the game. His troubles forgotten, he kicked the goal majestically. In the next 12 minutes, he scored another try after a handling movement that swept half the length of the field, and kicked two more penalties. He scored 16 points in that quarter of an hour and it would have been 18 if he hadn’t been winded in scoring that second try and left Jim Renwick to kick the conversion.The French newspaper L’Equipe headlined his performance "Le Triomphe du Baroque" and rechristened Murrayfield "Irvinefield".

That victory by 22-14 ended a run of 13 matches without a win. It was a great way to draw a line under the Seventies and start a new decade. That autumn,

Jim Telfer became Scotland’s coach, and a new age was born.