SCOTTISH rugby has had its fair share of highs and lows, not to mention a few brushes with the bizarre. The one thing it has not been is mundane.
Here is The Offside Line’s whistle-stop tour of the 50 games which have defined the shape and character of rugby in the sport’s most northerly outpost.
26th December 1857 – Edinburgh Academicals 4G Edinburgh University 1G
Various forms of ba’ games had taken place in towns across Britain for several centuries before William Webb Ellis allegedly decided to run instead of kick in 1823, and in the process laid the foundations of the game which we now know as rugby union. It was 34 years later that the first recorded match of this embryonic sport was played in Scotland, when Edinburgh Academicals took on Edinburgh University in a contest which stretched over four Saturdays (between 26th December 1857 and 16th January 1858) at Raeburn Place – with the former coming from one goal down to score four unanswered goals during the final afternoon. The match had been 25 a side for the first three instalments before increasing to 30 a side for the home stretch.
“Much of the success of the Academicals was due to three or four of their number who had learned to ‘drop-kick’ and played the game in England,” concluded a report of the match in the Edinburgh Evening Courant.
27th March 1871 – Scotland 1G England 0G
After a couple of false starts, the two most ancient rivals in international rugby finally met at – where else? – Raeburn Place, after a challenge signed by the captains of five senior Scottish clubs was published in Bell’s Life in London and The Scotsman in Edinburgh, which was accepted by the secretary of Blackheath (who happened to be a former Edinburgh Academy pupil). After a deadlocked first half, Scotland won the match by a goal and a try to a single try by England, although both Scottish scores were disputed (the first for an early Scottish surge at a scrummage five yards from the English line and the second for a knock-on).
The other big controversy was whether hacking should be permitted. Common practice in the early years of rugby, it was in the process of being phased out and was initially banned for this encounter, but as passions rose it began to sneak into the contest, until referee Hely Hutchinson Almond, headmaster of Loretto School, threatened to walk off unless the stipulated rules were observed. Scotland’s first score prompted the spectating James Carmichael to throw his top hat into the air and declare: “Flodden is at last revenged!”
28th April 1883 – First ever Melrose Sevens Final – Melrose 3 Gala 0
“Want of money made us rack our brains as to what was to be done to keep the club from going to the wall, and the idea struck us that a football tournament might prove attractive but as it was hopeless to think of having several games in one afternoon with 15 players on each side, the teams were reduced to seven men,’ recalled local butcher Ned Haig, a few years after he had been the brains and driving-force behind the first Melrose Sports.
The inaugural event included foot races, dribbling races, drop-kick and place-kicking competitions, while the rugby tournament attracted eight teams, with the host side coming out on top by beating near rivals Gala in the final. It wasn’t long before other Border clubs were emulating the initiative.
From that tiny acorn grew the mighty oak of a game which is now played across the globe and at the Olympics. Its value in helping to develop skills, in testing fitness and work ethic, in exposing youngsters to high-octane competition, and in providing rugby followers with a cracking day out, has been key to its enduring success.
1st March 1884 – England 1G (disputed) Scotland 0G
During the course of the match, a disagreement occurred over whether an England try which came directly from a Scottish knock-on should be allowed. Several players on both teams had stopped playing whilst awaiting the referee’s decision, and the whole episode escalated into what became known as ‘The Dispute’. The issue basically boiled down to a lack of uniformity in the interpretation of the rules and the English RFU’s insistence on being the sole arbiter of disputes. A stalemate resulted in no match between the two countries the following year, and England were then cast into the wilderness by Scotland, Ireland and Wales in 1888 and 1889, before a compromise agreement was finally reached in December 1889, with the International Board (now known as World Rugby) established as the governing authority for the game.
21st March 1914 – Scotland 15 England 16
This was the last international match before World War One. Six of the Scotland side – William Wallace (Cambridge University), James Huggan (London Scottish), John Will (Cambridge University), Eric Milroy (Watsonians), Fred Turner (Liverpool) and Eric Young (Glasgow Accies) – would go on to lose their lives in the Great War.
Five members of the England team – Ronnie Poulton (Liverpool), JHD Watson (Blackheath), Arthur Dingle (Hartlepool Rovers), Frank Oakley (Royal Navy) and Arthur Maynard (Cambridge University) – would suffer the same fate.
As Leonard Tiswell put it: “Men who had learned ‘to play the game’ on football grounds might be trusted to do no less in the greater game of war … [he] answered the call as he would the whistle – without question”.