by MALCOLM GRANT
OLIVER GRANT, one of that long line of great Hawick forwards who helped make the Green Machine the dominant force in Scottish club rugby from the late-1950s through to the mid-1980s, and who was capped six times by Scotland, died last week aged 88.
Primarily a No 8, he gained his first two caps playing second-row during the 1960 Five Nations championship, making his debut in Dublin as a late call-up in place of the injured Frans Ten Bos, and playing a full part in a gutsy 5-6 win. Afterwards his great friend a teammate Hugh McLeod ran the length of the pitch to retrieve the match ball for him, presenting it in the dressing room with the immortal words: “Ave been coming here for eight years and couldnae buy a win…..and yow ya bugger dae it on your first shot!”
His second cap was won against England at Murrayfield, before being selected for the first short tour of its kind when Scotland went to South Africa, where he played the Test match, packing down against the great Doug Hopwood, a man whose trademark No 8 ‘pick-up’ Grant greatly admired, and which he would adopt, adapt and use to great effect throughout his career. Scotland put up a typically tenacious display in that match, losing only 18-10 to the Boks in Port Elizabeth.
Following the death of his father in April 1961, Grant slipped out of favour with the Scottish selectors, until season 1963-64, when following a tremendous performance against Wilson Whineray’s All Black’s in a narrow 8-0 loss for the South at Mansfield Park, he roared back into the reckoning. In that South side were nine Hawick men, six in the pack, an incredible achievement for the small Border town.
He won his place back in the Scottish side to face France, winning that game 10-0, and the following month retained his place as Scotland locked horns with the mighty All Blacks once again, when he played his part in an inspired and ferocious pack performance as they held New Zealand 0-0 in front of a huge Murrayfield crowd. In the Scottish pack with him that day was his great friend and team mate Billy Hunter, who in the dressing room after the game put his hand on Oliver’s knee and said: ‘no bad, for twa lads frae the ATC’ … ‘Aye Billy, no bad’.
His final cap was against Wales that season, at the Arms Park.
He was selected for the Baa-Baa’s Easter Tour in 1962, when he played against both Cardiff and Newport, scoring a try against latter.
Oliver was thought to be unlucky to miss out on selection for the Lions tour to South Africa, when many in the rugby press believed his style of play and experience of touring in South Africa early in his career would stand the tourists in good stead, alas it wasn’t to be.
A regular fixture in the South district pack from the late-1950s through to the mid-1960s, Oliver played his part in several championship winning squads, together with several of his Hawick teammates from that wonderful era, many of whom went on to represent their country, most notably Adam Robson, Hugh McLeod, Billy Hunter, Jack Hegarty, Norman Suddon and brother Derrick.
However it was in playing for his beloved Hawick that Oliver truly revelled and excelled. After cutting his teeth with the semi-junior side the ATC and Hawick YM, he played his first game for the Robbie Dyes in 1954, a tight victory against the men from Langholm, and went on to make more than 200 appearances for the Greens,
His try-scoring record from the back-row was outstanding. Playing alongside older brother Jack early in his career, and then younger brother Derrick in the 60s, Oliver made the No8 jersey his own, and was part of the all conquering Greens squad of the early 60s which, under the captaincy of Jack Hegarty, won the Unofficial Scottish Championship and Border League whilst establishing Hawick as the dominant force in Scottish club rugby through much of the 60s.
He was also part of a fine Hawick Seven who came within a hairs breadth of wrestling the Middlesex Sevens crown from mighty London Scottish in 1963, coming back from a three try deficit in the final only to fall agonisingly short with the last play of the tie, but winning the hearts of the huge Twickenham crowd in doing so.
Work commitments took Oliver south to Yorkshire in 1965, and in hearing he was resident in Knaresborough, the Harrogate committee got in touch to coax him out of semi-retirement as they targeted the Yorkshire Cup that season. He pulled on his boots again, and was part of a strong squad, also featuring Wales and British Lion hooker Jeff Young, which won their way to the final, where they defeated Wakefield 9-8 at Otley.
During this period, Oliver was capped for Yorkshire on several occasions, an honour he ranked very highly indeed.
After finally retiring from playing, work commitments took Oliver and his family south to London, but the call of the oval ball was never far away and he quickly became involved with coaching at London Scottish … a love affair which endured for more than two decades, before the spectre of early professionalism began to rear its head. During his time at the Athletic Ground, Oliver nurtured and coached many talented players, creating a team which regularly challenged at the very top tier of the English club game.
Oliver’s canny coaching style was recognised by Ian Robertson the Cambridge University captain (and Scottish cap in waiting), asked him if he might take a couple of sessions in the build up to the 1967 Varsity clash that season, Oliver duly obliged, putting the pack through their paces, and Cambridge managed to overturn their arch rivals for the first time in four seasons.
With Oliver coaching London Scottish, and younger brother Derrick coaching Hawick during this time, the two were indirectly responsible for a fine conveyor belt of talent which the SRU could call on.
Oliver will long be remembered by the Hawick faithful and by those who played with him and against him, as part of a generation of Hawick rugby players, who’s soul purpose was to play for each other, honour the Green jersey they wore with pride, and who through it all remained humble grounded family men.
In the words of another proud Scot, Eric Liddell: “In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.”
Oliver never gave anything but his best … and the game of rugby was all the better for it.
He is survived by his wife, Sally, daughters Vivian and Hannah and son Malcolm, and with their families.