Allan Massie: Celebrating an age when it was a crime to congratulate a try-scorer

W ell, assuming all have come unscathed through last night’s return match with Georgia, it is passport-checking time for the happy 31, coaches, analysts and so on. Suddenly 22 September and the match against Ireland look very close. Meanwhile it is agreeable to step back in time and to remember, and reflect on, the days when rugby was a recreation for players and not a job or career.

Ian Smith , in white, dives over thee line to score a try against South Africa on his debut for Scotland in 1969. Picture: Colorsport/Shutterstock
Ian Smith , in white, dives over thee line to score a try against South Africa on his debut for Scotland in 1969. Picture: Colorsport/Shutterstock

So I’ve been reading the rugby memoirs of Ian Smith, sixth in the line of Heriot’s FP full-backs to have played for Scotland: Dan Drysdale, Tommy Gray, Ken Scotland, Colin Blaikie, Ian Smith and Andy Irvine. Smith got eight caps between 1969 and 1971 , scored a couple of tries, and unlike many more famous Scots was in a Calcutta Cup-winning side. Yet it is no disrespect to him to suggest that few Scottish supporters short of pensionable age have heard of him. All the more reason to read his memoirs which Birlinn have published. They will learn much of interest and be well entertained.

His first international was against South Africa. It was memorable, a triumph for him, and a strange and, for many, unpleasant occasion. This would be the last visit by a Springbok team for a quarter of a century. The Nationalist apartheid regime was still securely in power, and the tour had been vigorously opposed by the Anti-Apartheid Movement, while matches were disrupted. It must have been a miserable tour for the players, confined to their hotels and ferried about in buses. Murrayfield was well-policed. The terraces at the north and south ends of the ground were shut off, and police ringed the pitch, eyes fixed on the crowd and backs to the game. I was there, and remember it clearly. I believed then that dialogue with the South African regime was preferable to the boycott demanded by the protestors. I think now I was probably wrong.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Scotland won 6-3. Smith scored the only try, taking a pass from John Frame. It was a miss move they had practised and played time and again for Edinburgh University. Though he was rather tubby and said to be slow, he was quick enough over ten or 15 yards, and timed his incursion beautifully.

Though a Herioter, he played 
little for the FP club. After University he was commissioned into the Army Dental Corps, and, based in Aldershot, was listed in the programme as being from London Scottish. In fact, when selected for Scotland, he was playing, but only occasionally in the London Scottish second or even third XV. His international career was cut short by injury, but wouldn’t have lasted much longer, partly because the Army posted him abroad – to Germany and Hong Kong – and partly because Andy Irvine came on the scene.

Smith was a passionate rugby player and the game an important part of his life, but, however keen he was to excel, he was playing for fun and always recognised that family and work must usually take precedence. Of course this is still the case with the vast majority of those who play the game. It is often easy to forget that professional rugby is a very thin layer of cream on top of the porridge.

He remarks on how little, in his time, players might know about opponents – and how little their opponents might know about them. There were no videos to study and very few tools for analysis. Selectors unavoidably worked in a fog. There were only so many matches they could attend and, if they set themselves to watch one particular player, they might then overlook another one. They relied far more than they do now on the opinions and reports of others. Journalists such as The Scotsman’s Norman Mair, pictured, and Reg Prophit of the Evening News had a greater influence than any branch of the media has today – and a good thing too, some might say.

As for manners, what would a young player today make of the reproof delivered to Smith as a schoolboy when he had the temerity to congratulate a team-mate for scoring a try: “Heriot’s boys do not congratulate the try-scorer. Only footballers do that.” So there. “Try-scorers,” he writes, “could almost have felt they were plague carriers” as their team-mates turned their backs on them.

He encloses a copy of the letter from the SRU regarding expenses. “If your family home was in Edinburgh,” he notes, “ then the SRU were not going to allow you to stay in the North British Hotel after the match and dinner. Players were expected to supply their own shorts and stockings.”

He also makes the serious point that there was no graduated preparation for international rugby then. You went from club rugby played in front of a few hundred to Murrayfield or Twickenham, “just like that”. And if you were a new cap, it was likely you wouldn’t know some of your team-mates even by sight. No wonder the young Smith was nervous; scared half to death by his captain, Jim Telfer, too.