Rugby's great leap forward

THERE is a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages of handball games being played, usually on holy days (holidays), in several Scottish towns from the Shetland Islands to the Borders.

Whatever its earlier history, rugby football developed here in the fee-paying schools, where it was encouraged by schoolmasters, graduates of Oxford or Cambridge, who had learned at university to play football according to the “Rules of Play” formulated at Rugby. The Edinburgh Academy adopted the Rugby laws in 1851, Merchiston in 1858, and in December 1858 these two schools played each other in what is accepted now as the oldest regular fixture in world rugby.

Along with Loretto, which adopted the Rugby laws in 1864, these schools had a huge influence on the development of the game in Scotland. They took the lead in developing styles and tactics, and their former pupils were responsible for founding many of the early senior clubs, the first of these being Edinburgh Academicals, which came into being in 1857. By the end of the 19th century there were 20 senior clubs. Some took their modern form after various false starts. There was even a joint Gala-Melrose club, until one day the Gala men turned up to discover that the goalposts had been moved to Melrose.

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The game played in the early years would scarcely be recognised as rugby today. It was first played 20-a-side. Almost all the players were concentrated in the scrum, and matches often saw prolonged and indiscriminate mauling. “Hacking” – the tripping of an opponent who didn’t have the ball – was permitted until the 1870s. Referees didn’t have a whistle until 1885. Before then, the game would stop only when one side appealed to the referee. Players wore long trousers or pantaloons tucked into stockings. Team jerseys, however, were introduced early. For instance, West of Scotland have played in red and gold almost from their inception (it was said that the colours paid homage to Glasgow’s favourite high tea: ham and eggs).

The first international between Scotland and England was played at Raeburn Place in 1871. Scotland won by a goal and a try to a try. There was some argument about the second Scottish score. The referee ordered a five-yard scrum, and instead of heeling the ball, “the Scottish forwards drove the entire scrummage into the goal and then grounded the ball and claimed a try. This, although illegal according to English laws, was allowed by the umpires.” One of them, H Almond, an Englishman but headmaster of Loretto, said he had usually found that the side that protested most loudly was in the wrong. Many referees today would agree.

There was another argument in 1884. The ball was “fisted” in a line-out, an appeal was made, the Scots stopped play and the English scored a try. This dispute was so fierce that matches against England were temporarily abandoned. Scotland, Wales and Ireland now formed the International Board, because they were tired of finding that the English were frequently changing the laws of the game without consultation. England did not join the board until 1890, and then only after bitter argument, which resulted in their securing six of the 12 places on it. Some things don’t change.

By then the game had taken a recognisable shape. In 1877 the number of players in a team was reduced to 15. As a result of the practice developed in the Scottish schools, the passing game was developed. Credit for this innovation should go to Loretto. A match report in The Merchistonian of 1882 told how the home team had been baffled by Loretto’s habit of “chucking” the ball before being held in a tackle. A characteristic Scottish style had also emerged. It was based on robust and skilful forward play. By modern standards, forwards were small and light, although the greatest Scottish forward of the time, Charles Reid (Edinburgh Accies) – first capped when still at school and only just 17 – stood 6ft 3in and weighed between 15 and 16 stone. The first historian of Scottish rugby, R J Phillips, thought a vigorous virility was the mark of a Scottish pack: “Not that the Scot was rougher than the Saxon, but he was hardier, partly by racial inheritance and partly by his football upbringing”.

For a long time, the glory of Scottish forward play was the foot-rush, the controlled dribble, either from a wheeled scrum or from broken play, to the roar of “feet, Scotland, feet”.

Changes in the laws of the game, in the composition of the ball itself and in fashion have long made the foot-rush obsolete, although it was practised by Scottish packs as late as the 1950s, and schoolboys in that decade still spent many hours learning the art of dribbling.

By 1900 the popularity of rugby was well established, and the pattern of the Scottish club game fixed, varying little over the next 75 years. Except in the Borders, it was almost entirely a middle-class game, and the principal city clubs were mostly associated with the schools, restricting their membership to former pupils. Most international players were drawn from the FP and Academical clubs of Edinburgh or Glasgow. (The first player from a Border club to be capped was Gala’s Adam Dalgleish in 1890.) There were also FP clubs in Aberdeen, Dundee and some smaller towns. Even the two oldest open clubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh – West of Scotland and Edinburgh Wanderers – drew much of their membership from those who had attended independent boarding-schools and were not qualified for one of the city FP clubs. So they scarcely broadened the sport’s social base. They also attracted incomers from other parts of the United Kingdom, often schoolmasters. Indeed, on one occasion in the 1930s, Edinburgh Wanderers supplied both captains in a Scotland-Wales match, the Scottish one, Ross Logan, being a Merchistonian.

Only in the Borders was rugby a game for all classes, as it was in Wales. This may have been partly because none of the Border towns were big enough to support a professional football club. But there were other reasons. The mill-owners in the textile towns, themselves often products of Scottish or English public schools, encouraged their workers to play rugby, and even formed factory teams. Then, too, the uncompromising take-no-prisoners nature of the game appealed to the Border character. Certainly, Border clubs were soon famous for the robust quality of their forward play.

They were also responsible for two innovations. The first came as early as 1883, when a Melrose butcher, Ned Haig, casting around for a way to improve the club’s finances, hit on the idea of fitting a knockout miniature rugby tournament into an afternoon of athletic sports, and so invented “Sevens”. The idea caught on, and soon the autumn and spring sequence of Sevens became hugely popular. (Although athletic sports have long since vanished from Sevens days, traditionally minded Borderers still refer to the event as “the Sports” rather than the “Sevens”.)

The other innovation was more controversial. In 1902, the Border clubs established the Border League, which was viewed with grave suspicion by the Scottish Rugby Union. League rugby was associated with the English Northern Union clubs, which had split from the Rugby Football Union on the issue of paying players for “broken time”. This revolt led to the emergence of two codes: Rugby Union and Rugby League. So, for the SRU, the establishment of a league in the Borders had a whiff of professionalism. Nevertheless, the Border clubs stood firm. Their league prospered and encouraged a fiercely competitive spirit, although there were those who said that rivalry between the towns was already sufficiently intense to make any formal competition superfluous. But, in the words of the Borders journalist Walter Thomason (for more than half a century “Fly-Half” of the Sunday Post), the league was “until comparatively recent times regarded with a decidedly frosty gaze from on high”.

This was not surprising. The Scottish Rugby Union, founded in 1873, was determinedly protective of amateurism and intensely conservative. When, for example, the New Zealand All Blacks made their first tour of the British Isles in 1905-6, the SRU, at the urging of its secretary, J Aikman Smith, criticised the payment of daily expenses made to the players by the New Zealand Union. This provoked a breach that was not healed for 30 years. When the All Blacks next toured in 1924-5, Scotland refused to play them. Aikman Smith was a dominant figure for almost three decades. He opposed any changes in the laws intended to speed up play, on the grounds that the game was for the players, not spectators. He refused to have players’ jerseys numbered. “It is a rugby match, not a cattle show,” he is said to have told King George V. This conservatism outlasted him. One SRU president of the 1950s, Alt Wilson, said that when any innovation was suggested, “we say ‘no’, then think about it”.

Nevertheless, in at least one respect the SRU was forward-looking. Scotland became the first country to have a purpose-built international ground when Inverleith was opened in 1899, and the union improved on that by building Murrayfield in the 1920s as the home of Scottish rugby. For the first 50 years of its existence it could accommodate a bigger crowd than any other international rugby ground in the northern hemisphere.

The years 1900-1914 were the first golden age of Welsh rugby. But it was a successful time for Scotland too. The Triple Crown, requiring victories over the three other “home” countries, was won in 1901, 1905 and 1907. The game itself had passed out of its formative years, assumed a shape and acquired a set of laws, which would hardly change until the 1960s. In that period, any tactical developments took place within a generally accepted framework. Forwards were by now considered by many, especially outside Scotland, as principally providers of ball for the backs. There was a clear division of function between the two parts of a team, and specialist positions were being recognised.

Scotland still produced great forwards, and was famous for this. Two outstanding players were Mark Morrison of Royal High School FP, capped 23 times, and Darkie Bedell-Sievewright, a Fettesian who played for both Cambridge and Edinburgh University, and won 22 caps between 1900 and 1908. He also captained the 1904 British Isles team, selected by the RFU, that toured Australia and New Zealand. Both these players conformed to the description regularly applied to Scottish forwards: raw- boned, vigorous, hard. “Forcefulness,” it was said, “was a rather obvious component of Bedell-Sievewright’s play.”

The most remarkable player of the Edwardian era was K C Macleod. He was only 17 and still at Fettes when he was picked against New Zealand in 1905. He won nine caps, all at centre-threequarter while at Cambridge University, and retired before he was 21, at the urging of his father because two elder brothers had been seriously injured playing rugby. He was famed both for his running and his drop-kicking, and scored a memorable try in the 1906 victory over South Africa. He retired before he had reached his full powers, and, having already been Scottish long-jump champion, went on to captain Lancashire at cricket, play football for Manchester City and, in middle-age, win the Amateur Golf Championship of Natal.

Scottish rugby suffered severely in the 1914-18 war. Thirty capped players were killed, a far heavier loss than was suffered by any of the other home countries. Many had, of course, already retired from the game, but the figures can take no account of the number killed or maimed who might have played international rugby – it is reasonable to assume losses on a proportionate scale. Few players bridged the war. One of them was Jock Wemyss (Gala and Edinburgh Wanderers), later a BBC radio commentator. It was Wemyss who asked for a new Scotland jersey in 1920, and was met with a frosty inquiry as to the fate of the one he had been given in 1914. He had been wounded in the war, and lost an eye. He reputedly carried a spare glass one, bloodshot for use on Sunday mornings to match his real eye.

Nevertheless, the 1920s were one of Scotland’s best decades at international level. The record ran: played 41, won 25, lost 14, drawn 2. This achievement, unmatched in any later decade, should be set against the premature retirement of a number of star players. Eric Liddell, having won seven caps on the left wing in 1922-3 and scoring a try in a famous win at Cardiff, dropped out to concentrate on athletics in preparation for the 1924 Paris Olympics, and then became a missionary in China. W E Bryce of Selkirk, an outstanding scrum half from 1922-4, retired early because of injury. A L Gracie, who captained Scotland and scored the deciding try in that Cardiff match, soon lost interest. Selected for the trial in 1924-5 and then for the French international, he blithely refused both invitations.

Like many Scottish internationalists, Gracie had little acquaintance with the country he represented. Indeed he once remarked that “facetious friends assert that I have never been to Scotland except to play football”. This wasn’t quite true. As a child he had spent holidays with grandparents in Ayrshire. But the search for players with some Scottish qualification is not, as some young rugby followers may suppose, a recent development and the result of the game having gone professional. Indeed, of the famous Oxford three-quarter line that played for Scotland in the mid-1920s, only G P S Macpherson had been born and learned his rugby in Scotland. G G Aitken was a New Zealander, A C Wallace was an Australian who captained the New South Wales “Waratahs” when they toured in 1927-8, and, although the great winger Ian Smith had Borders connections, he too was born in New Zealand and went to school in England. The truth is that only very rarely in our rugby history have we been able to field a team of players born in Scotland and playing for Scottish clubs. Until the 1960s the two main English universities, Oxford and Cambridge, were regularly represented. Even more important was the contribution of London Scottish. Well over 100 Scottish internationalists have come from the “Exiles” club. No other club can match that record, not even Hawick.

Although Scotland did well in the 1920s, the first half of the decade really belonged to England. They had held the Calcutta Cup since 1913, and in seven matches against Scotland had a try-count of 17-3 in their favour. Their team was built around one of the game’s great creative thinkers, Wavell Wakefield, who was more responsible than anyone else for identifying the specialised skills required by different forwards.

Murrayfield was opened in 1925 and the Calcutta Cup match was the championship decider. Scotland were going for their first Grand Slam. That was beyond England, since they had only drawn with Ireland at Twickenham, but victory would give them their fourth title in five years.

Public interest was enormous. There was sure to be a record crowd, since Inverleith had been able to hold only 25,000. In fact, there was such confusion at the turnstiles that the kick-off had to be delayed. But when the game did get under way, the crowd was 60,000.

It was a tremendous match, in which the lead changed four times. Scotland were down 10-11 with 20 minutes to play, before they snatched victory with a drop-goal (then worth four points) from the Glasgow Accies stand-off Herbert Waddell. “It will be the duty of Scottish sides in coming years to confirm the Murrayfield precedent,” proclaimed the Glasgow Herald on the Monday. But it was to be another 59 years before we won another Grand Slam. Admittedly, this wasn’t possible in the 1930s, when France were excluded from the competition on suspicion of professionalism, and Scotland did win two more Triple Crowns, in 1933 and 1938.

There were great players in the 1920s. Macpherson was remembered by those who saw him play as the outstanding Scottish attacking centre. Ian Smith scored 23 international tries, a record for any country until international matches became much more frequent in the 1980s and 1990s. The Glasgow Accies halves, Waddell and J B Nelson, had a record of winning nine of the 11 matches in which they partnered each other for Scotland. John M Bannerman was the archetypal Scottish forward, hard as nails and skilful too. He won 37 caps between 1921 and 1929, and didn’t miss a single international in those nine seasons. His record stood for more than 30 years, until Hawick’s Hugh McLeod surpassed it in 1962. Although he was often in trouble with officialdom, erratic in time-keeping and sometimes vague – he once, for instance, asked a team-mate on the Glasgow-Edinburgh train whether it was Wales or Ireland they were about to play – Bannerman was indispensable, the cornerstone of the Scottish pack.

Club rugby flourished between the wars, even if the number of internationalists picked from clubs in England suggests that the standard was not always very high. There was no official championship, but newspapers agreed on publishing an unofficial one, based on the percentage of games won. The Border League continued and crowds as large as 10,000 were attracted to local derby matches. In the cities there was intense rivalry between the different FP and Academical clubs, which also drew crowds that clubs today, and our modern professional teams, can only envy. Outside the internationals, the big match was the lnter-City between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Tours from the southern hemisphere were still rare. Between the wars, Scotland played only three such matches: one against New South Wales (won); and one each against South Africa and New Zealand (both lost, narrowly).

The main change in the game between the wars was the development of back-row defence. This made midfield gaps harder to exploit. The tendency for wing forwards (flankers) to detach themselves early from the scrum, and the existing offside law, put more pressure on half-backs . One response was to pick a bigger, stronger scrum-half. The South African Danie Craven, who also played international rugby as a No 8, was the greatest example, but Scotland’s Ross Logan was from the same mould.

Another response was the emergence of fly-halves that were more ready to kick than run or pass. With no restriction on kicking the ball into touch on the full from any part of the field, such a fly-half could, behind a strong pack, dictate position. The supreme exemplar was South African Bernie Osler. His style was condemned as dull on the Springboks 1931-2 tour, but no-one could deny it was effective; all four internationals were won.

It is doubtful as to what extent administrators in Scotland heeded these changes. Their approach remained amateur in every sense of the word. Selection often appeared to be haphazard, partly, no doubt, because the panel of selectors changed every season, and partly because it was difficult to make valid comparisons on the evidence of “friendly” club rugby. The teams for the first Scottish trial of season 1937-8 were drawn from 27 clubs. There were four Army men, one naval officer, three Cambridge undergraduates and five other Anglo-Scots. Yet there was one important position in which the selectors had been consistent. Since the Welsh match of 1922, three scrum-halves – Bryce, Nelson and Logan – had appeared in 56 of Scotland’s 59 matches.

There was little optimism in the season of 1937-8. Since the Triple Crown of 1933, Scotland had won only three out of 12 championship matches. The Border clubs were in a slump; by the New Year of that season Hawick, for instance, had won only four out of 14 games. Edinburgh’s rugby seemed in no better shape. They lost the Inter-City 29-6, and were held to have played feebly. Logan was approaching the end of his career and had fallen out of favour with the selectors, who themselves, on the evidence of the trial teams they had chosen, had little clue as to their best XV.

There was one outstanding back, Wilson Shaw of Glasgow High School FP, who had already been capped 13 times – no-one, however, could decide on his best position. The Glasgow Herald correspondent wrote that “it is in England and Wales that Shaw has most admirers for his play at stand-off”, but the Scottish selectors had usually preferred to put him on the wing. They would probably have stuck with W A Ross (Hillhead High School FP), but he was injured. In the teams for the first trial, they put Shaw on the wing again. That game was cancelled on account of frost, and in the final trial, he was at stand-off. It was just as well.

Wales came to Murrayfield fresh from a victory at Twickenham, backed by 10,000 supporters, for whom the LMS railway company had supplied Welsh-speaking railwaymen to act as interpreters if needed. Scotland won 8-6, thanks to a late penalty and to the fact that Wales played half the match with 14 men, their prop, Morgan, having been injured – there were no substitutes in those days. Ireland were then dispatched 23-14. It was the first time both Wales and Ireland had been beaten at Murrayfield in the same season, the 1933 Triple Crown having been based on victories at Swansea and Lansdowne Road. So now in 1938, if another Triple Crown was to be won, Scotland had to do the business at Twickenham, where they had secured only one victory (1926) since they had first played there in 1911.

The odds were against them. England might have lost to Wales in Cardiff, but they had thrashed Ireland 36-12 in Dublin. The question was whether good backs could beat good forwards. The Scottish pack was lighter than the English, which was a serious disadvantage since there were more scrums than today. This was partly because of the much stricter ruling as to what constituted a knock-on (juggling with the ball was not permitted), and partly because more loose scrums (rucks) resulted in set scrums rather than, as now, penalties. On the other hand, the Scottish midfield attack had emerged as the sharpest in the four countries. So the game could be won by the running and breaking of Shaw, and the two medical students in the centre, R C S Dick and D J Macrae.

The game was notable for another reason: it was the first to be televised – “the light was excellent, and there was no difficulty in distinguishing the English and Scottish pIayers” – although reception was available only in and around London, and very few people had sets.

It was a remarkable and memorable match. The English forwards did all that had been expected, or feared. Opinions vary as to whether they won three or four times more ball than Scotland. But the Scottish back-row of Duff, Young and Crawford spoiled and scavenged tirelessly, while Shaw “ran as if he had been shot from a gun”, and the centres cut through at will. The match was won 21-16. More tellingly, Scotland scored five tries, Shaw himself getting two of them, and England only one. Shaw was hailed as “the greatest rugby player of his generation”, and was carried shoulder-high in triumph from the field. It has always been known as “Wilson Shaw’s match”. The Triple Crown had been won by a team that was originally despised and despaired of. But then, after the victory over Wales, The Scotsman had declared that “Scottish rugby XVs come into existence to confound their critics”, or, often, to disillusion the hopeful.

Next year things were back to normal. With characteristic perversity, the selectors ignored the evidence of 1938, and shunted Shaw back to the wing. With him at number 10, Scotland had scored ten tries and won all three matches. In 1939 they lost all three and scored only four tries. However, the memory of 1938 remained to be savoured, one that had to last Scotland a long, long time. We would have to wait until 1971 before winning again at Twickenham.

Inevitably any brief survey of more than 80 years of Scottish rugby history is concentrated on the record of the national team, a few great matches and a handful of outstanding players. But internationals were rare. After the French were dropped from the championship, there was only the Calcutta Cup game at Murrayfield in the years when Wales and Ireland were played away. So for most of the season it was only the club game that mattered, to players and supporters alike. For the vast majority of players, then as now, the game was simply a recreation. It didn’t offer a career, although at the top level it might assist a player to establish himself in his chosen line of work. But it was more likely that in those strictly amateur days, even an internationalist might drop out in his mid-20s because of the demands of his profession or job. This partly accounts for the number of players capped while at university, and never subsequently. It was also the case that many university players reached levels of fitness that they could not afterwards maintain.

Outside the Border League, all matches were still designated as friendlies and – although some city clubs were well-supported and old rivalries might make for a few keenly contested games – they were mostly just that, and the general standard was low. It is significant that only six of the victorious team at Twickenham in 1938 played their club rugby in Scotland: Shaw himself, Macrae, the full-back Roberts, the scrum-half Dorward and two forwards, Hastie and Duff. The clubs represented were, respectively, Glasgow High School FP, St Andrews University, Watsonians, Gala, Melrose and Glasgow Accies. The need to look south of the Border for so great a part of the team boded ill for the future.

It is very difficult now to judge just how good the best players of the past were. The truism that a star in one generation would have been a star in a later one is probably valid, even allowing for the vast changes in the way the game is played, and the greater size, weight, speed and fitness of the modern player. Evidence for just comparison is lacking.

Nevertheless, those who saw the players between the wars had little doubt that Scotland have scarcely had a better attacking centre than Macpherson or stand-off than Shaw, although both had critics in their own time who questioned their defensive abilities. Clearly too, Ian Smith, the original “Flying Scotsman”, with 23 tries in 32 internationals, would have been formidable in any age. The record of the half-back partnership of Herbert Waddell and J B Nelson has scarcely been matched since. Bannerman was undoubtedly a great forward, in the class perhaps of David Leslie, that outstanding back-row forward of the 1970s and 1980s, while inter-war Borders forwards such as D S Davies (Hawick), Jock Beattie (Hawick), Jack Waters (Selkirk) and the devastating tackler Jimmie Graham (Kelso) clearly had all the attributes associated with the breed.

Going further back, even more has to be taken on trust. But few can doubt that forwards such as Charles Reid, Mark Morrison and Darkie Bedell-Sievewright would have made their mark in any era. Reid, indeed, is an exception to the general rule that most forwards of the past would have been too small and light to shine today. Setting aside the fact that fitness training, doing weights and attending to diet would have made them bigger, heavier and stronger, Reid, at 6ft 3in and 15 to 16 stone in the 1880s, was more or less the same height and weight as the great Irish captain of the 1974 Lions, Willie-John McBride.

As for the backs, Macleod was evidently exceptional. R J Phillips, writing in the 1920s, maintained that the 1880s half-back pairing of A R Don Wauchope and A G C Asher were “the greatest to have played together for their country”, although he added, perceptively, that the best of Waddell and Nelson was probably still to be seen. His description of Don Wauchope bears repetition: “He was a completely equipped all-round player. Heavily built around the haunches, he ran with a comparatively short stride, and had the power to change his course within a very small space of ground.” This wouldn’t be a bad description of someone like the outstanding Welsh fly-half of the 1950s, Cliff Morgan, or of Melrose’s David Chisholm, or indeed England’s Jonny Wilkinson today.

In one respect, Scottish rugby between the wars was in a healthier condition than it was half a century later. Glasgow rugby was still, comparatively speaking, strong. Glasgow High School FP and Glasgow Accies were almost always represented in the Scotland XV. Apart from those already mentioned – Bannerman, Waddell, Nelson, Shaw – there were J C Dykes (20 caps, 1922-9), J C H Ireland (11 caps, 1925-7), W M Simmers (28 caps, 1926-32) and L M Stuart (eight caps, 1923-30). Fife, too, made a considerable contribution in this period. St Andrews University was usually strong, and so were Kirkcaldy and Dunfermline. Indeed, in the 1930s Dunfermline produced five international players, outstanding among them being Harry Lind, capped 17 times in 1931-6, whose drop goal won the 1933 Triple Crown in a postponed match against Ireland.

Finally, one other point may be made. If club matches were friendly and internationals rare, press comment was far less inhibited than it is today. For example, The Scotsman remarked that Shaw’s tackling in the 1937 Inter-City had been “unbelievably slack”. Perhaps the anonymity that was then the rule encouraged such plain speaking, and relations between reporters and players were probably more distant than they are now. One catches also a note of the blunt candour that was then to be found in school reports and school magazine pen-portraits of their First XV. It was to be some time before the rugby authorities came to believe that the proper role of journalists was to be supportive.