Team talks and cocktails... the diaries of a 1950 lion

Iain Morrison is given access to Scotland stand-off Ranald Macdonald's insightful and quirky journal from his six-month tour in Australasia
Ranald Macdonald runs with the ball in hand against New Zealand.Ranald Macdonald runs with the ball in hand against New Zealand.
Ranald Macdonald runs with the ball in hand against New Zealand.

On 29 March 1950 the 22-year-old
Scottish international Ranald Macdonald boarded the sleeper for London where he met the remainder of the British and Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand and Australia.

The voyage, on the TSS Ceramic, took four-and-a-half weeks and the tour itself lasted over six months. They played 30 matches, including four Tests against New Zealand, two Tests against Australia and a match against Ceylon (as was) on the way home.

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The squad were the first to wear red jerseys (they had previously worn blue), and it was the first time the tourists had been dubbed the “Lions”, rather than being known simply as the “British Isles”. It was also the first tour to fly out a replacement, in the form of Welsh teenager Lewis Jones, to join the party.

Macdonald kept a diary throughout, it offers a unique insight into a lost world and these extracts are published with the kind permission of his son Ewan Macdonald.

Macdonald, who played stand-off
for Edinburgh University, was a precocious talent who was picked in the “probables” side in the Scotland trial when he was a teenager. He had just four Scotland caps to his credit when he was picked for the Lions.

The tourists lost the New Zealand series 3-0 (one Test was drawn) but won the final two Tests against Australia with something to spare.

It was another era, a gentler time immediately after the horrors of the Second World War, with endless rounds of afternoon tea, cocktails, dinner and home made entertainments, all of which we have come to expect. What is surprising is just how contemporary some of the extracts seem. At one point the players argue the merits of high and low cross-field kicks; Warren Gatland may be doing the same thing right now.

The players are on the ship en route to New Zealand, tempers fray and someone recognises that the green of Ireland is not represented in the players’ kit because the socks were all blue at the time.

22 April, Saturday

Team Talk. General plan---Possession, Attack, Counter-Attack, Defence.

Green garters---for Ireland---excellent idea.

Horse racing in evening. Rather Depressed. After beers. Boys got a little out of hand. Jack (Kyle, Ireland or Matthews, Wales?) v noisy.

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Graham (Budge, Scotland) v’s Osborne (‘Ginger’ Osborne, manager) v’s 1st Officer. Everyone seemed to take part in this storm in a tea cup---I kept clear.

Disturbance due chiefly to general lack of women and boredom.

24 April, Monday

Team talk. Carried on with revision of General Plan + Variations. Unproductive + rather futile argument on high and low cross kicks.

Gus (Black, Scot) and I had drinks in Mr Wallace’s cabin.

27 April, Thursday

Team talk --- letters from S.A. and N.Z. make us all fully aware of intensity of the games that are approaching. We must be 300% fit.

Saw two Albatrosses. Huge.

In the build up to the first Test the Lions lose tamely to Southland in Invercargill and Macdonald felt he had little chance of a Test place until an injury.

23 May, Tuesday

Slept in---no breakfast. Team talk. Lunch. Kick off 2.30. Led on to the field by pipers. Injuries began from the start. Dai (Davies, Wales) off for a while. George (Norton, Ireland) fractured ulna (arm) just after half time.

Forwards dreadful---backs worse. Ivor (Preece, Eng) and Gus just cannot combine. 11-0. Dreadful. Bed early (9.0). Good night’s sleep and I needed it. Disappointed about the Test team but I only have myself to blame.

25 May, Thursday

Training at 2.45. Bleddyn (Williams, Wales) told me I am to play on the wing on Saturday in place of Malcolm (Thomas, Wales). He said to me: “We wouldn’t have put you 
in if we hadn’t thought you could do it.”

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Nice of him but what option had they? I was the only fit 3Q left. However we had a good spin and I was yards faster in spikes. Maybe imagination.

26 May, Friday

No training. Received Scottish Association badges from Mr Morrison.

Karl (Mullen, Capt) speaks of great feeling of confidence amongst us of putting up a good show. I think he’s right. I pray we do well tomorrow.

27 May, Saturday

New Zealand 9 British Isles 9

Drank champagne from Mr Lewis’s cellar.

Occasionally Macdonald’s diaries relegate the rugby to the sidelines with so many other attractions in New Zealand.

30 May, Tuesday

Left by 11.35. A big crowd saw us 
off---several female eyes were 
damp---and we were very moved.

The day before the second Test in Christchurch, Macdonald is not selected, most of the dirt trackers have gone AWOL and the Lions lose 8-0 although it doesn’t stop the Scot from enjoying a night on the tiles.

9 June, Friday

Rees and I “trained” in afternoon at Lancaster Park. Furious at others for not turning up. In evening most pleasant party at Charles Dick’s. Lovely, glorious food. Met one or two pleasant fairies (ladies). Home 11.30.

I hope the boys do well tomorrow.

10 June, Saturday

New Zealand 8 British Isles 0

Game. Disappointed. Poor Bill. Boys didn’t wake up till after 20 mins. Pity. Sherry party 5.30-6.15. Mike O’Brian took us to someone’s house for Scotch at 8.15.

11 June, Sunday

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Breakfast in bow tie at 9.0. Gus and I looked a pretty pair. Slept from 9.15-6.0. Got up---dinner at Morag’s. An excellent cure for a hangover.

The tour has moved on to Wellington area where Macdonald appears to have been roped in as radio co-commentator but only after remembering his Edinburgh University pals sitting exams back home.

14 June, Wednesday

Gus and I traipsed round shops and sent cable to the boys for finals. Hope they cope OK. It’s 8.30pm now---must be 10am at home---are they in the middle of written paper? Left for ground at 1.30pm. Winston McCarthy asked me to take details of play for him while he broadcasts. Brilliant 1st spell (24-5). Poor 2nd (27-13).

15 June, Thursday

Sunny, frosty morning. Not playing on Sat. I’m getting a bit fed up. So I bet they play me on the wing again next Wednesday. Left by bus for Napier at 9.0. Stopped in Masterton for 5 mins. Left Gus behind. He arrived just after Jack (Kyle, Ireland) and Noel (Henderson, Ireland) who had been forgotten in Carterton!!!

Spirits rise with a 20-0 win over Hawke’s Bay in Napier followed by a 27-3 victory over Bay of Plenty, and for other reasons too.

17 June, Saturday

Game – best of the tour to date. Forwards were fighting all the time but they started it and we finished it. Jack Kyle scored funniest try on record – they stood still and watched him. Few speeches under stand after tea. Dinner – drinks – dances. Billiards. Discussed propinquity and promiscuity with Terry.

21 June, Wednesday

Sunny. Slept till 11.0. Game---Dick Lane injured after scoring first try. Dai Davies injured after 1/4 of second half. 13 men till end. Must be up at 6am to make the long trip to Wellington. I’ll sleep well after playing well---it’s about time too.

29 June, Thursday

Out to Margaret King’s (nee MAIR) house. V. pleasant hilarious party. Lovely kids + Val Turner. Why couldn’t I have met her last week? Life now becomes v.v. complicated. Bed 2.0.

30 June, Friday

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Team talk 10 am. Made it! Spoke to a few All Blacks. Rang up Val about tickets. Found Val’s office in Lancaster Quay. Walked home with her. Evening: “The Third Man”. Classic. Enough said.

It is the day of the third Test in Wellington, replacements are still not allowed, even for injury, and the Lions lose 6-3 but Macdonald has more pressing matters on his mind.

1 July, Saturday

New Zealand 6 British Isles 3

Claire came to the hotel re tonight. Must take her to the dance. Damn.

Ken (Jones, Wales) unfit. Noel to play. Why? Game. Lions on top for ten minutes then Jonny and Ron injured. All Black forwards terrific. I am beginning to agree with replacements after seeing Ron come back. Governor General’s reception. Drink with Ginger. Guinness with Billy Mac. Dinner. Pleasant. Cabaret. One secret dance with Val. Singing in Karl’s room. Bed 4.45 am.

The NZ leg of the tour is winding down, just the final Test and the Maori match which ended that leg of the trip. Macdonald misses out on the Test but played the Maori game but not before displaying his soft side.

28 July, Friday

Visited blind school. Moving experience. Our most worthwhile experience in New Zealand. Nita Robita a little Maori girl was thrilled to get my Lion and I led her round getting autographs from Lions and All Blacks. Pitiful and lovely. In the afternoon we went to record our songs, two sides each. What a souvenir! All sounded good except “Now is the Hour”. Pity. Great fun though.

29 July, Saturday

New Zealand 11 British Isles 8

Game. Poor first half. All Blacks well on top. Goal and DG to PG (8-3). Second half livened up considerably. Peter Henderson (NZ wing) scored good try (11-3) then came 20 minutes of superb football. The great Jones-Jones try (Ken and Lewis, both Wales) (11-8) and several close things for both sides. Moving scene at the end of the game “Now is the Hour”. Champagne at hotel and dinner at Trocadero. Simpson’s party. Singing. Bed at 5 am.

2nd August. Wednesday

Game. Huge crowd. Bigger than the Test. Wind spoilt handling and we were not so good. 14-9 was a fair score. Peter Smith (Maori flyhalf) off with injured shoulder. Fantastic scenes at the end. Hundreds crowded the pitch to say Goodbye and shake our hands. Official farewell ceremony in St George. Moving speeches. Gift of a mug. Cabaret. Caeser Cohen’s party. Packing. Bed at 6.0 am.

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The squad moved on to Australia where they lost to New South Wales but beat Australia twice by 19-6 in Brisbane and 24-3 in Sydney. Impressive victories at the end of a gruelling tour. Macdonald played in the second Australia Test and scored a try. Giving him an enviable Test record for the Lions of played two, won one, drawn one. It was to prove his last ever Test match. The squad returned home via Sri Lanka, whom they beat comfortably. After being away from home for over six months you can’t help but marvel at Macdonald’s parting sentiments.

8 October, Sunday

Docked Tilbury about 7.30. Felt like death. Grey skies. Said goodbye to Vi and Zella. Left ship first at 9.50. Thro customs by 10. London by 11. Lunch at 12.15. Sang all songs, a little messy but worth it. Last speeches by George, Karl & Ted. Why must it all end?