Interview: Alan Lawson, hammer of the English, on being told off by SRU for over-celebrating Calcutta Cup win

How Scottish do I feel today? Let me see … I’m in Kinross in a cashmere factory,
in the tea shop where scones are being nibbled to the strains of a fiddle lament, and the man striding towards me is a Calcutta Cup hero from when we regularly sent England homewards to reevaluate their options.
Former Scotland international Alan Lawson, now 71, pictured at Longniddry Bents. Picture: Lisa FergusonFormer Scotland international Alan Lawson, now 71, pictured at Longniddry Bents. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Former Scotland international Alan Lawson, now 71, pictured at Longniddry Bents. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Alan Lawson extends a hand. With this appendage and its twin on the other side of his body, the scrum-half scooped a skittery pass off the floor. “The old leather ball could be like a bar of soap and those afternoons at Murrayfield could be dreich,” says our man, a veteran of the January internationals which are avoided by today’s superstars of rugby. Then, the egg safely in possession, he dashed for the line and his second try of the match. “What a day he’s had!” exclaimed commentator Bill McLaren who later in 1976 would become Lawson’s father-in-law.

Lawson’s first try that wonderful afternoon of dreichness and delirium wasn’t bad either. In fact it’s gone down as one of our greatest-ever, the essential criteria for which is the involvement of three forwards, muckle thighs pumping furiously. In ’82 against Wales, the trio of runaway bullocks were Iain Paxton, Alan Tomes and Jim 
Calder. In ’76 it was the same Toomba, Mike Biggar and Sandy Carmichael before Lawson finished off (cue Bill: “What a try!”).

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“Ah, Sandy,” says Lawson, recalling his dark blue debut in ’72. “We were playing France at Murrayfield. I was fourth-choice scrum-half but we’d had injuries so I was on the bench and ‘Spivvy’ [Ian] McCrae started. We knew, from a B international, that their scrum-half, Jean-Michel Aguirre, had this trick where he’d wander up to a five-man lineout looking completely disinterested then suddenly burst into the midfield causing havoc. Sure enough he tried it again but Sandy was ready. This juggernaut blitzed our French friend at 100mph. Sandy also ran over the top of Spivvy, breaking four ribs. I was on!”

His main rival for the No 9 shirt would become Dougie Morgan and these two would end the Seventies just about 
even, with Morgan turning out 18 times to Lawson’s 15. Both men trundled off the tartan terrier scrum-half production 
line, almost as busy as the cashmere production line, but Lawson was something of an Auld Enemy specialist: three times in a row he helped dismantle England at Murrayfield. He could wait two whole years to add to his caps but when the English returned to Edinburgh, reinstatement seemed a given. “The ’70s – great times,” he says. “And the only decade in history where Scotland beat England more times than they beat us.”

To paraphrase Bill, what a day I’m having.
Lawson, 71, has good stories and exotic ones. His father Lewis had a wonderfully mysterious war career about which Lawson knows not much more than the fact the old man’s ability to learn Japanese quickly would send him to Burma and, for a month in peril, consign him to eating nothing but Spam. Meanwhile, his son Gregor has helped give the world the fancy-dress phenomenon known as the morphsuit. Gregor’s brother is Rory Lawson, former Scotland captain, and “a far, far better player than me,” Dad insists.

Then there’s McLaren, the oracle, and Lawson remembers family outings – his wife Linda, her sister Janie and Bill’s wife Bette – to the BBC’s old Edinburgh studios in Queen Street to listen to the great man deliver his despatches. “He’d be reporting for the tea-time news. Three minutes was the norm and he’d have rehearsed and rehearsed with his stopwatch, making sure he was packing in as much rugby as he could. Sometimes, just before he went on air, the producer would pop his head round the door: ‘The football’s overrun again, Bill, we’re having to cut you down to one and a half.’ Quick as anything he’d trim the words. Other guys might be thrown by that instruction, their reports ending halfway through a sentence, but Bill was the consummate professional.”

Kirkcaldy-born Lawson, state-schooled and studying economics at uni, announced himself with a spin pass – “The All Blacks’ Chris Laidlaw was the pioneer, then came Gareth Edwards but I think I was the first to use it in Scotland” – and the 25 tries he scored before Christmas in his first senior season with Edinburgh Wanderers.

Given that he represented his country
before he turned out for the capital select, was he nervous? “Well, early on the morning of the France match at the Braid Hills Hotel, a pneumatic drill woke me up and I was convinced it was a Frenchman. But I used to say to myself before games that other folk would be nervous too so it would be better if I wasn’t. I always felt that at some point, however the match was going, I would make a contribution. But it was a huge help to the scrum-halves to have that terrific Scottish pack: Sandy, Nairn [MacEwan], the Mouse [Ian McLauchlan], Broon [Gordon Brown], PC [Peter Brown], [Rodger] Arneil and [Alastair] McHarg … these guys just loved anyone on the ground.

“After my first game against England [’72, Murrayfield], their captain Peter Dixon at the dinner lambasted his men for not standing up to our forwards. The guys thought that was brilliant.” The Scotland victory, 23-9, meant that for the first time ever England lost all of their Five Nations matches. Through the voraciousness of the likes of PC – “He wasn’t called ‘Ma’ Ba’ Broon’ for nothing,” smiles Lawson – Scotland retained their grip of the Calcutta Cup for a third consecutive year, something not achieved since, although the current team will endeavour to match the feat today. Actually, include the centenary international of ’71 and that was four wins over England in a row for us for the first time since the 1890s. Dixon’s excoriation over the chicken supreme did not seem unjust. Before Lawson next faced, and beat, England, he would probably have played in Dublin in ’72 but the SRU declined to send a team while the Irish Troubles raged. “They asked who wanted to go: I was a student, not married at that point, so said yes. I seem to remember that those with armed forces backgrounds would, for their protection, be allowed to grow their hair. But in the end I think only three of us were willing to travel.

“I went to Ireland on later trips. There were armed guards posted on our floor of the Shelbourne Hotel. And I remember the night before a game we were at the cinema when some Irish lads in the row in front got up to go midway through the film, leaving bags on the floor. The security guys pounced on the situation right away but it was a false alarm.”

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The ’70s for the egg game in Scotland were a curate’s egg. New club leagues increased competitiveness and as countries, Wales especially, began to play with more flair, Andy Irvine and Jim Renwick contributed
to the upsurge in entertainment. But the ageing pack would creak and we’d go on a long winless streak, and indeed over the entire decade there would be just two 
victories away from home.

Says Lawson: “The most intimidating place was Paris – bands blaring, cockerels screeching on the touchline – and France were the most intimidating team. I mean, no one messed with the Mouse and he was a definite asset. Any team wanting to mix it with us had to factor him into the equation and I remember the monster [Armand] Vaquerin [who would later shoot himself playing Russian roulette] looking down incredulously at this wee prop who’d just booted him in the face – twice. Arneil was a headbanger who, like JPR [Williams], pretty
much demanded the physical but France had [Alain] Esteve and what were real, real real thugs.” Oh well, if Lawson’s Scotland couldn’t say “We’ll always have Paris”, they could rely on England popping up to Murrayfield for a fairly predictable outcome.

In 1974 Lawson was back in the team. About his arm-wrestle with Morgan he says: “Maybe I was more attack-minded but Dougie was a great organiser. If he was here I’m sure we’d agree there were games when I played and he should have done, and vice versa.” Lawson relished the contests with England more than any other. “I played down south for five years, knew their guys and how they operated. Andy Ripley was one of my big pals. He used to say to me before we lined up against each other: ‘Lawson, I’m going to give you a torrid time!’ In ’74 Ripley, a mean 400m hurdler, went on a high-stepping charge which resulted in a try. England had improved on ’72 and the result was in doubt right to the end.

“The lead changed hands four times in the last quarter. Going into injury time we were behind but then Andy [Irvine] won it for us with the last kick of the game. He’d kicked brilliantly throughout and this penalty was way out wide on his wrong side. When the whistle went Broon and I hoisted him on to our shoulders. We got a ticking-off from the SRU for that. It wasn’t the done thing back then – only handshakes allowed.”

This game was a year before Murrayfield became all-ticket so in old TV footage the great walls of humanity – much waving of flags and scarves, afghan coats down the student end – stretch right up into the grey winter sky. “You could be carried along by the crowd. That happened to me in my first game, following Jim Renwick as he ran in a 40-yard try.” Another outstanding feature of the coverage from ’74 is McLaren’s ineffable impartiality for such a proud Scot as he praises England play and scolds the booing of their kicks. “He loved the game of rugby and he was Mr Fair,” adds Lawson. “He applauded great effort and was no more critical of a mistake than to say: ‘He won’t be happy with that.’ Bill espoused sportsmanship and I reckon that’s why he didn’t like the pro game too much because some of the old values were being eroded.”

Lawson first met Linda at a house party in Edinburgh following a sevens tournament at Howe of Fife – “We gatecrashed,” he admits. When he discovered the identity of her father, was he intimidated? “Well, my main interest was the girl – I just knew she was the one – and Linda and I have now been in love for 45 years. But Bill was wonderfully welcoming; you couldn’t hope to have met a stronger or more caring
family than the McLarens. Of course we talked rugby together but he didn’t critique 
my games. Maybe if he had I’d have been a better player!”

Since he retired Lawson has been a volunteer for the Bill McLaren Foundation: “To date it’s raised £1.1 million for good causes, mainly in grassroots sport, by promoting Bill’s values: be the best you can be, honour your school, your team, your town.” In business he worked for the Rank Organisation: “I was the back-up for the bloke who banged the gong. Not quite – financial controller.” Then he became a management consultant, turning round the fortunes of a Kirkcaldy lino firm. His father had been a headmaster and he would go back to school too, becoming the bursar at Loretto.

Lawson, with McLaren’s even-handedness, points out that he didn’t always beat England. In ’79 at Twickenham there was a 7-7 draw when he was named man-of-the-match for what the Pathe newsreel called “those rugged Scots” – but the 26-6 defeat at the same place two years previously was Scotland’s heaviest in the fixture until that moment. “I’ve managed to blank out most of that game and prefer to remember the banquet afterwards. The [England] Rugby Union had invited Ted Heath and the Bishop of Ely. I don’t think anyone wanted to listen to the Prime Minister. Geech [Ian McGeechan], when he spoke as our captain, said: ‘We may have lost the match but we must have won the dinner!’”

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The England teams Lawson faced always had a monster pack – not much has changed since the ’70s – but they could be “stodgy” and half-back was a problem area of the team with 19 different combinations being tried over the decade. Scotland chopped and changed in that area, too, but in ’76 Lawson returned to his berth to meet the Queen and complete his hat-trick of victories.

This was a rare visit to Murrayfield for HRH and, with the Nationalism on the rise, the SRU felt the need to warn fans in the match programme: “No boozing or booing, please.” By the end, though, there was only wild rejoicing at the thrilling scores. Says Lawson: “Do you know, I didn’t think I was playing particularly well but then came this 20-minute purple patch. For my first try, England kicked ill-advisedly, Dave Shedden gathered and suddenly it was five Scots on to one. Still to this day I get told off by the Mouse for not passing to him.”

Get the ball down. That’s all Stuart Hogg had to do last week against Ireland but he fumbled it. “Hoggy coming from Hawick will be reminded of that drop until the next man from the town does something similar because the same happened to Brian Hegarty in the ’70s.” Forty-four years ago Lawson got it down, then in the second half he picked the ball up and got it down again.

What a day he had!