Sandy Carmichael recalls brutal British Lions tours

Sandy Carmichael West's most capped player opened the stand....... West of Scotland Rugby Club open their new stand with Glasgow Classics (in blue hoops) Vs Scottish Classics...Glasgow beat Scotland 47 to 38'Picture ALLAN MILLIGAN date taken 20th May 2000    (digital image)
Sandy Carmichael West's most capped player opened the stand....... West of Scotland Rugby Club open their new stand with Glasgow Classics (in blue hoops) Vs Scottish Classics...Glasgow beat Scotland 47 to 38'Picture ALLAN MILLIGAN date taken 20th May 2000 (digital image)
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THE CREAM of British and Irish rugby will depart these shores in four weeks’ time clutching red jerseys they were told this week they are merely guardians of, but while they speak of the need to match Wallaby speed and physicality one of the Scottish guardians of 40 years ago is thankful that the game is not as viciously physical at it was.

Sandy Carmichael compares much modern rugby to “watching paint dry”, but after enjoying Scottish wins in this year’s Six Nations, excitement is growing in his Kilbarchan home as another Lions tour hoves into view. The Lions have played against the big three of the southern hemisphere in 27 tours, and returned home series winners just eight times – 1891 and 1896 (both South Africa), 1899 (Australia), 1904 (New Zealand), 1971 (New Zealand), 1974 (South Africa), 1989 (Australia) and 1997 (South Africa) – and Carmichael was part of the squad that ended the 67-year wait for glory.

“It has been fascinating watching the selection hype this week,” he says, inching forward in his seat. “I’m disappointed that we’re down to three Scots, because, for me, when you look back at the successful Lions tours, Scots have been at the heart of them.

“We’ve never had loads, but in 1971 we had six – myself, Ian McLauchlan, Frank Laidlaw, Broony [the late Gordon Brown], Chris Rea and Al Biggar – and Rodger Arneil joined up, and in 1974 we had six again: Andy Irvine, Ian McGeechan and Billy Steele joined myself, McLauchlan and Broony; and they were 30-man squads, not the 37 now.

“In 1989, Finlay Calder was captain and had a good number [nine] and in 1997, under Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan, we had five or so [five initially and Tony Stanger joined up]. We’ve got to earn our places, but Greig Laidlaw and Ryan Grant should be going. Greig can cover scrum-half and stand-off and is a top goal-kicker, and Ryan has been the form prop in the RaboDirect league this season. They have picked [Matt] Stevens of England, who has been retired for more than a year. He is not a great scrummager, he’s fat and doesn’t look fit.”

Carmichael does not agree with certain selections, but he will defend the concept of the Lions to the hilt, and the right of the coach to plough his own furrow. He won 50 caps in 11 years for Scotland and formed one of the most lauded Scottish front rows of all time with Ian McLauchlan on the other side of the scrum. He starred for the Barbarians and toured twice, and won twice, with the Lions. Now 69, father and grandfather to eight children in all, he still has that love for the game that his father turned him on to as a youngster growing up in Ayrshire, despite his day in the sun coinciding with one of the toughest periods to be a front row forward, and a vicious enmity between the southern hemisphere and the north.

“It was not for the faint-hearted,” Carmichael recalls, with a chuckle. “The brutality is not there now that the game is professional, which you have to say is a good thing.”

So, how brutal was it? Carmichael is reluctant at first. The physical pain from some pummelings may have gone long ago, but the memory of smashed cheekbones in Canterbury in 1971, which took away his hopes of a Lions Test, remain raw. Sitting with Carmichael, now grey with new knees, and a walking stick by his side, he remains a great story-teller. But he has great stories to draw on. We talk through countless battles, the kind that never made the papers, but which inform a period that did as much to shape the game that any tactical innovation. Carmichael was part of the 1969 Scotland squad that toured Argentina and suffered from what all concerned recall as the most brutal violence they ever witnessed on a rugby field.

Jim Telfer captained the squad on that trip and still believes, as shocking and unnecessary as the violence was, it turned Carmichael and McLauchlan into world-class props. Telfer called the players together midway through that tour, after Carmichael “had my head kicked in” and Ian Murchie had suffered a broken collarbone, and instructed them to punch their nearest opponent at the start of the next game when one of their own was hit again. They all did and duly caused mayhem, but it also shocked the Pumas into stepping back.

That approach surfaced in patches on the 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand, where Kiwi thuggery reared its head, but it came to the fore in South Africa in 1974, and prompted captain Willie John McBride to introduce the infamous ‘99 call’.

“It began in 1971,” said Carmichael. “The team was getting a good kicking from the moment the tour started, and Willie John [McBride] eventually took the referee John Pring aside and told him ‘you sort this out, or we’ll finish it’. Luckily, Pring, a New Zealander who reffed all four Tests, sorted it out and we got some rugby, and, of course, we drew the last Test and won the series 2-1, but, from what I understand, Pring never refereed another Test match. It didn’t go down well in New Zealand.

“Then nine of us went from 1971 to the 1974 Lions and we had a meeting, which went along the lines of ‘right boys, you know what we started in ‘71, we’ll need to put out the same message now. Touch us and we’ll finish it’.

“It was down in Port Elizabeth when it started, but we were ready and, by hell, did we finish it. That was when ‘99’ came in. It wasn’t pretty but it was crucial to earning respect there. The Lions had not won a Test against the ’Boks since 1955 and we won 21 of 22 games on that tour, [won]three Tests and drew the other.”

Clearly, the 1974 squad, considered the golden Lions for that unique unbeaten tour, were also great players, but it is instructive that they had to dig deep to turn around decades of defeats. It also earned a new respect and led to agreement across unions, between coaches and administrators, that the game had to be cleaned up. The introduction of more television and increased touring were other factors, but it is debatable whether the two hemispheres would have come as close together from that point had the Lions not gained that respect.

As Warren Gatland’s pride head south seeking a first series win in 16 years and first in Australia for 24, the cleaning-up of the game means there will be no need for a ‘99’ call. But, Carmichael insists that the Lions will still need to show the same strength of character and earn respect on the field if they are to emerge victorious.

“Their beating might actually come off the field, from a media desperate to create stories and undermine them, but they will also have to impose themselves from the first game, and that’s a physical statement right across the field. The game has changed, thankfully, from when I played, but it’s not become any easier to win a series, and Australia are better now than they were 40 years ago. For the Lions to beat a national side, now professionally prepared, that has grown together, in their back yard, they have to find a standard of rugby, and physicality that most probably haven’t uncovered before. The Lions is big, but to win with the Lions is as big as it gets. I can’t wait!”