One wouldn’t want to try to rank them in order, couldn’t indeed do so. What may be confidently said however, is that, as an all-round player in what he contributed beyond the set scrum, Carmichael, who died earlier this week, was one of the very best. Indeed of those who played in the amateur era he was perhaps the one who might have adapted most successfully to the professional game when so much more in the way of handling, carrying and tackling is expected of those wearing jerseys numbered 1 or 3.
Often he is remembered, quite rightly, as an eminently fair player who got on with the job enduring, but not responding to, the often brutal illegalities that were meted out to him by New Zealand, South African and French front-row men. He played for the love of the game and his reward was the respect he won from all who care for rugby. A one-club man, I suppose he was saddened by the decline of West of Scotland in the last quarter century. On the other hand he would, I’m sure have approved, and been in tune with, all those club players who turn out on Saturday afternoons simply for the love of the game.
He played for Scotland for ten or 11 seasons, the first Scottish player to win 50 caps. He could count victories against South Africa and Australia, and of course every country in what was then the Five Nations. In 1971 he scored a try against Wales in what some of us oldies fondly remember as one of the finest internationals we have seen, lost 18-19, and he also played in what was, I think, the first match at Murrayfield against today’s opponents, Tonga, in 1974. Somewhat snootily, the SRU didn’t award caps for that game, even though they fielded a full-strength side. Scotland won 44-8 that day.
Things are different now. Caps will be awarded today, although Scotland will this time be some way below full strength, the match falling outside the period in which World Rugby requires clubs to release players for international duty. Tonga themselves are without players belonging to English or French clubs. It would be a surprise if we were to run up such a score again, but it would be even more of a surprise, and a very unwelcome one, if Tonga were to match their international visit to Scotland in 2012 when they won 21-15 in Aberdeen against what was, on paper anyway, a pretty good Scotland side. All Scotland’s points were kicked by Greig Laidlaw; Tonga scored two tries.
Because, rather oddly, some might think, Scottish backs are more in demand than forwards by English and French clubs, Gregor Townsend’s back division today is somewhat experimental, with Blair Kinghorn, more usually in the back three, picked at fly-half, Darcy Graham at full back rather than on the wing, and two new caps in the three-quarter line, winger Rufus McLean and Sione Tuipulotu in the centre. Both have been playing well for Glasgow. Tuipulotu may sound as if he might belong in the Tonga side, but he was reared in Australia, has played for the under-20 Wallabies and before joining Glasgow was playing his club rugby in Japan. He owes his eligibility to a Granny from Greenock.
There are no real surprises in the pack, though injuries mean that we have a shortage of locks, such a shortage that, as I remarked last week, it’s a little surprising that Richie Gray hasn’t been called back to the colours. Instead, Edinburgh’s Jamie Hodgson wins his first cap, and Rob Harley who first played for Scotland against Samoa in Apia in 2012 is very deservedly summoned back. Harley has suffered from being one of these in-between players, a less powerful lock than several who have been available, not as fast a No 6 as other rivals. But he has been a terrific player for Glasgow with more than 250 games to his credit, and I doubt if it could ever have been said that in any match he has given less than a hundred per cent or let his team down. There can be few, if any, in Scottish rugby more respected than Rob Harley – which is just what one might have said of Sandy Carmichael in his day.