Sandy Carmichael: Still in love with rugby at 71

I’M IN a pub called the Trust Inn with Sandy Carmichael, which isn’t proving auspicious because, try as I might, I can’t get the gnarled old prop forward to put his faith in your correspondent and tell all about who did it. By “it” I mean the almighty hiding he was given on the 1971 Lions tour of New Zealand. Write the name of the assailant on this beermat, I say, and I’ll only disclose it after you’re dead. He laughs like he’s been offered such a deal once or twice or 35 times before. “Nae chance,” he says, “I’m taking the guy to my grave.”

Sandy Carmichael in 1977. Picture: SNS

Carmichael also stresses that he’s not going there any time soon, this despite six hip operations, a significant quantity of metal being required to mend and meld broken bones, a heart bypass – “a quintuple, you can’t get any bigger” – and all the merry mayhem of being an old dad, doing the school run at 71 and being bombarded with pop music he doesn’t like. “Sam bloody Smith,” he groans, “I’m sick to the back teeth of him.”

But, after two hours in his company, I’m very aware of his rollicking robustness. I can’t detect any weakening of the famous Carmichael indomitability which saw him through 50 internationals for Scotland in an era when, much as the game today agonises over being too brutal, rugby was absolutely bloody ferocious.

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He was part of an illustrious dark blue pack alongside Gordon Brown, Alastair McHarg and Ian McLauchlan, his friendship with the latter being especially tight after all their front-row grunting together, and he’s looking forward to some jovial name-calling with Mighty Mouse at Murrayfield today. “The bugger got to find out my father was actually born in Wales and hasn’t allowed me to forget it. But do you know he’s incredibly short-arsed? I always say to him: ‘Mighty, when you step off the kerb does your backside thump the pavement?’ I love the man, of course. Do you know we went through six hookers together?”

We’re in Johnstone, Renfrewshire. Carmichael usually gets around by 
motorised buggy but today he’s packed his crutches in the car to pick me up from the train station and drive me to the Trust. He introduces me to Fraser, the pub manager, a rugby man, who’s opened up early for us, and also his good pal Billy. Another rugby man? “No,” he says, “that’s Paul Lambert’s dad.”

Midway through our chat, Billy, earwigging from behind his favourite pillar, turns round to inform Carmichael: “Christ, you can talk some shite.” Afterwards, back in the car, our man finds a text on his phone from the barfly: “The second half of that was even worse.” Well, maybe Billy’s heard these stories from the scrum once or twice or 35 times before. Me, I’m loving them.

“Mums in the school playground are always asking me if rugby’s a good game for their kids to play,” says Carmichael, slurping his coffee. “I tell them all the same thing: that it gives the boys entry to a world club. If they were to find themselves working abroad, all they would need to get themselves a good social life would be to find the nearest rugby team. I remember when Laly Haddon, a Maori All Black, turned up out of the blue at my club, West of Scotland. Lots of the Glasgow ones were closed so of course we took him in, got him a job in a cement factory. He used to say: ‘Sandy, every day I come out of that place looking whiter than you.’

“Laly was a great guy and a fine player and when he left us – to head out to the Mexico Olympics – he said to me: ‘When the Lions come to New Zealand you’ll be in the squad and I’ll see you then.’ Of course I thought he was talking rubbish, but when I made that tour he was at the airport in Auckland to meet me.”

As we know, and as the photographs of his ginormous keekers which shocked the world showed, Carmichael’s trip ended with that assault in Canterbury. Haddon came to the aid of the battle-scarred Scot with some Maori hospitality, taking him up country to his farm.

“He warned me that the landlady of his local was a right grumpy old bat but just then came news from home that I’d become a dad. I’d swithered about going on the tour but my first wife Avril said: ‘You have to, otherwise you’ll hold it against the child for the rest of your life.’ Anyway, the landlady just melted when I told her about the birth. She danced and she cried. A Maori song on the jukebox called My Little Boy was played non-stop. The baby’s heid was well and truly wetted and, at the end of the night, she gave me the 45. In return, I gave her a set of antlers from a New Zealand deer I’d just shot and, until he died of cancer, Laly told me they were still hanging in the pub with the inscription: ‘This is where Sandy Carmichael, British Lion, learned about the arrival of his first-born.’”

Of course, the rugby advice Carmichael proffers in the playground can also apply to girls. Although of a certain vintage, he has no issue with women playing the game – how could he when he coached West of Scotland’s ladies team and ended up marrying one of the props? “Men are supposed to have one-track minds but women are worse,” he says. “With those girls, everything had a sexual connotation. We’d be doing sprints and I’d be telling them: ‘Go on, push it all the way to the end.’ The quip would come back: ‘That’s the way we like it, Sandy.’

“When I started coaching them I told myself: ‘Now Sandy, keep calm. Do not get involved romantically.’ But that’s what happened. As the coach I had all their details. I remember looking at the lists at home one night, noticing Alison’s age and thinking: ‘Uh-oh’. She’s 20 years younger than me, one cap for Scotland, against Ireland, who I played on my debut, and, as she likes to point out, she won her game. She wanted kids but I’d had the snip after my first two so we underwent IVF – what an amazing journey that is – and Ruairidh and Rhona are our miracles. I didn’t worry about becoming a dad again in my late fifties and reckon they’ve kept me pretty young for an old git. My other two, Trevor and Mel, have given me four grandchildren and everyone comes together for parties. It’s great having my harem around me.”

Alexander Bennett Carmichael loved playing rugby for his country. Throw in games where caps weren’t awarded and the record books reveal an incredible half-century of consecutive appearances by this Glasgow-born colossus, a plant-hire boss who performed feats of human bulldozing on the pitch, one of the bravest and the fairest and also, for a prop, one of the fastest – and yet he never took his place for granted. “I couldn’t wait for the letter saying you were playing so I’d nip down to Shawlands Cross at midnight for a newspaper. That became a ritual and it was never less than a great big thrill to see your name in the team.” Occasionally, tighthead rivals emerged and Carmichael would check them out. “I went through to Edinburgh to have a look at one fellow but felt I could leave his match at half-time. There was another chap called Bryce – ‘the unbendable Bryce’ you journalists said of him. Well, in a Glasgow-Anglo Scots match, I bent him for the whole 80 minutes.”

But this fine rugby career with its two Lions triumphs and turns for the Barbarians didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts. “Playing for the school I was yellow,” he says. This was Loretto, where days would begin with cold baths. “Mighty called it a poofs’ place but there was no heating in the dormitories. For a scientific experiment, we left a mug of water in the middle of the floor overnight. In the morning the water had turned to ice and cracked the mug.” If he wasn’t enjoying rugby why didn’t he stop? “That wasn’t an option. But the school was the making of me. I sorted out my tackling and became pretty good at it.” He’s being modest. Two try-saving stops in Paris in 1969 were as crucial to that famous win as Jim Telfer’s touchdown. “Jo Maso still curses me,” he smiles.

Carmichael’s first cap had come two years before as a late call-up on the morning of the match against Ireland. “I could hardly tie my boot-laces I was so excited. I think I played okay. Well, I must have done because one of the Irish props took a chunk out of my lug-hole. Have you ever been bitten on the ear? Bloody sore. There was a bit of an inquiry and the chap never played for his country again.”

His second game for Scotland was the infamous one where New Zealand captain Colin Meads was sent off, Carmichael having had a bit-part in the incident. “I kneed him in the gut because he’d been punching one of our guys. He lashed out with a foot and caught Davie Chisholm. At the dinner later Meads was upset. That was the only time I saw the big man cry.”

But it was the ’69 tour of Argentina which was, according to Carmichael, “the closest I’ve ever been to a war”. There was civil unrest on the streets and rugby unrest every time the Scots took the field. “One game had to be postponed for two days due to snipers, which was a first. The Argentines had a guy called [Raul] Loyola who was basically the contract man. Their team would point to you and he’d come in for a whack.” In Rosario, even the stroll from hotel to cocktail party was hazardous. “Our security man told us to leave in groups of four, presumably so we’d still just about have enough men standing for the next game if they were to get shot.” Next match, Jim Telfer came up with a plan – “He said: ‘If any one of us gets punched we all turn around and hit the guy nearest. Don’t let me down.’” This was the origins of the “99” call deployed on the ’74 Lions tour of South Africa.

So how does the ferocity of the modern game, which everyone is talking about, compare with what happened back then? “The matches we played were brutal but a lot of it was hidden, although even when it was right in front of referee, sendings off were rare. There was licensed thuggery. But the main difference between then and now, I’m afraid to say, is the skill level: it just isn’t there anymore. When one of these big hulk backs of today gets the ball, the first thing he does is look for someone to smash into.”

Argentina, reckoned Telfer, was the makings of the Carmichael-McLauchlan combo. Although he was never less than formidable, he rarely started the aggro. Focusing on the ball was surely a good thing for Carmichael’s teams, although this perceived lack of aggression would cost him. “With the Lions in ’74 I couldn’t get into the Test side. I was told this was because I didn’t have the ‘knuckle’.” In rugby, that was the way the half-time orange crumbled for Carmichael and he has no regrets about not managing to be the biggest psycho in the scrum.

So why won’t he name the psycho of ’71? “Because if I did that it would be the end of the matter and I want it to stay alive, so that New Zealand rugby doesn’t forget what happened. Every time British teams play there I get asked about it, and that’s good because it means they haven’t been able to draw a line under Canterbury.”

There might well have been more than one All Black involved. Carmichael was hit with a backhander in a lineout, then kicked in the face in a ruck, but incredibly he played on. Slumped on the bench at the end, icepacks over both eyes, five cheekbone fractures, he looked like he’d gone 15 rounds with Smokin’ Joe Frazier. “Mighty came to see how I was doing just as I blew my nose. But it was blocked and, because my sinus was cracked, the air blew into one eye socket, which inflated like a balloon. That was the only time I ever saw the Mouse look scared.”

Unsurprisingly, Carmichael doesn’t like to dwell on the incident, preferring to talk about the great camaraderie of that tour. “I’ll tell you something: before ’71 I didn’t care for the English. But I found out that David Duckham is one of the finest gentlemen you could hope to meet. I roomed with him and he was there when I learned my tour was over. I was feeling very sorry for myself, looking an absolute sight, and he said: ‘Now Sandy, we can stay here, it’s up to you. But if you feel like going to meet up with the boys I’ll come with you.’” Then a great guffaw. “Of course, I always loved beating England, before and after. Six times I did it. Only big McHarg can match that.”

He blames the same big McHarg, heaving from behind in the scrum, for his current dilapidated state, but this is another of his jokes, arthritis being hereditary in his family. “McHarg, though, was 14 and a half stone. Mighty, as I always like to say, and he hates it, was 15 and a half fat.” Sandy Carmichael may be creaking but, to borrow the epithet of a contender seen off some time ago, he may very well be unbendable. And now he must be going. “The school run,” he says, reaching for his crutches. Those mums need to hear one more time just how great a sport rugby can be.