Hugh McLeod OBE - Ahead of his time

Scottish Rugby is immensely saddened to learn of the death last night of the former Hawick, Scotland and Lions internationalist Hughie McLeod.  He was 81.

Hugh Ferns McLeod was a pioneer, ahead of his time. His achievements as a player were the stuff of legend but, arguably, it was the manner in which he moulded future success in Hawick that marked him as a truly special character.

Hugh drove himself very hard as a player. He set high standards and expected the same of others.  Into retirement he still followed a fitness regime which might have proved – no, would have proved too onerous for younger folk.  Whether it was cycling, swimming up in Edinburgh or walking, Hughie loved to be active.

Driver of the Green Machine

Hawick’s long period of domination in Scottish club rugby in the 1970s – they won the first five official Scottish championship titles – could be attributed to every grain of knowledge that McLeod acquired from his own extensive international experience and his determination that others would benefit from it.

Working alongside other committed rugby people, most notably his neighbour and great friend, another former Lion and Scotland cap, Derrick Grant, and Scotland centre and former chairman of selectors and SRU President the late Robin Charters, McLeod forged the formidable “Green Machine” that many admired but few, of that era, could emulate.

Born in Hawick on 8 June, 1932, Hugh McLeod did not play rugby until he was 16.  Just four years later he attracted much praise for a battling display in the setpiece against the touring 1952 Springboks.

Recalling his early playing career, McLeod told Scottish Rugby recently: “I was convinced by a committee man, that I could be helping the PSA – they were desperate for forwards and they said, ‘Why d’you no go up and have a trial?’ So I went up to the PSA and that was the start of my rugby career.

“I started just for fun, eventually got promoted to the YM then I went to the Hawick side. I was lucky enough I was never dropped and just went on from there.

“Being the youngster, they must have seen something in me and I went on.

“I was always propping but when I reached Mansfield, Harry Scott was the loose-head prop and there was no way I could put Harry Scott out.

“There was Harry, Peter Deans and Stewart Coltman.  Stewart was an international too. This is the bit of luck you need in rugby – Coltman had to go to the American office with Lyle & Scott and there was a vacancy at tight-head prop.

“They tried two or three in the town and eventually came to this youngster – me – and asked me to take it on, before we played Edinburgh Wanderers. I played there and I was never out of the Hawick side.”

He made his Scotland debut against France in 1954 at Murrayfield and won his 40 caps at prop – where he was equally as assertive on the left or right of the scrum – consecutively to set a new Scottish record at that juncture by beating John Bannerman’s haul of 37.

Hugh’s memories of that first Scotland appearance were vivid.  He told us: “I played for the South a lot of times – I made a lot of friends in the South – and I played in many Scottish trials before I got my first cap.

“I was in the tank corps at Catterick when I was informed I was in the Scotland side to play against the French in ’54 – I went to the army in ’53 and came out in ’55.

“I’d kind of took the flu when I went to Murrayfield for my first international. My mother came – she followed the rugby a wee bit, but my father didn’t follow it a lot. She came round the back of the stand, when we were getting our photos taken, to see us before we went out to play. She said afterwards ‘You looked like a ghost, I don’t know how you played.’ But it didn’t affect me, I must have got over it.

“I can’t remember an awful lot about the game. It was something new, a step-up, it was bigger and faster.”

Hugh had to wait until his seventh cap for Scotland to taste victory – the 1955, 14-8 win against Wales – which brought to an end a sequence of four years without success.

Six Lions Tests

Little wonder that Hugh was selected for the 1955 Lions tour to South Africa and went on to play in all six Tests – two against Australia and four against New Zealand – on the 1959 Lions tour. He chronicled his memories of both tours so diligently that anyone keen to learn of those years simply had to sit back and listen to him recall stories galore.

That 1959 tour lasted four months and it was a tribute to Hugh’s fitness that he was there from the first match at the Olympic Park in Melbourne (where the Lions won 53-18), to the last against Eastern Canada as the Lions made their way home.  They won that final game 70-6 with McLeod weighing in with a try and two conversions!

Hugh also played 14 times for the Barbarians between 1954 and 1959 and in both 1955 and 1959 he played for the combined Scotland & Ireland side v England &Wales.

His last game for Scotland was the 3-all draw v England at Murrayfield in 1962, famously only discussing with his great friend, the late and great Voice of Rugby,  Bill McLaren, his intention to bow out at 40 caps – “a nice roond figure” – even before he had told his wife!

Hall of Fame

Off the field Hugh worked in the building trade and was very proud of his skill as a plasterer.  He went on to own a sports shop in the town. He also had a passion for dog shows and would travel both sides of the Border to show his bulldog, Spike!

He was made an OBE in 1962, five years after he had married Myra. She passed away in 2006. Hugh was president of the Hawick club between 1983 and 1985 and was recently named in Hawick’s greatest ever team.

Hugh’s nephew, Colin Telfer, went on to play stand-off for both Hawick and Scotland and to coach the Scotland team in the 1980s.

Last November, Scottish Rugby had the great privilege to induct Hugh McLeod into its Hall of Fame to recognise his tremendous contribution to the rich history of our game.  He is one of only 22 to be honoured in this way.

Hugh’s funeral will be private at his own request.

Scottish Rugby wishes to extend its sincere sympathies to all Hugh’s family and friends. Our flag at Murrayfield is flying at half-mast as a mark of respect for Hugh Ferns McLeod.