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First Scottish Grand Slam

Murrayfield in 1993
The 1924-1925 season proved to be a memorable one for Scottish Rugby Union. The start of the season saw a significant name change for the sport's governing body, which went from the Scottish Football Union (SFU) to the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU).

Scottish rugby also saw the beginning of a new era in another sense, with the final game of the season, the home game against England, being played at the new Murrayfield ground. The SRU's move to the new ground would live long of the memory of fans, culminating in Scotland's first ever Grand Slam win.

Yet a Grand Slam success was probably a very distant dream for the home supporters who made up the vast majority of the 20,000-strong crowd who saw the first fixture of that international season, a home game against France which was played at Inverleith.

On the other hand, the previous season had seen Scotland winning both their home games, against Wales and Ireland, whilst losing both away games, to France and England, so perhaps there would have been some confidence around about a home game against the French, who were no great travellers in those days.

Indeed perhaps the omens for the sensational season which lay ahead may have been there to be seen by those who studied the cosmos, as this particular game was "marked by a partial eclipse of the sun which reached its maximum during the second half without interrupting play."*

One other feature about that first fixture which may have presented some sort of omen to point towards possible Scottish success was that that opening fixture took place on 25 January 1925, on the anniversary of Robert Burns' birthday. With the bard's spirit behind them, surely the Scottish team could not fail!

The stars of the Scottish team in this Grand Slam season were mainly amongst their back division, who showed a combination of pace, style and superb tackling, operating behind a workmanlike and solid pack, which all in all was to prove to be a recipe for real success which was unrivalled for any Scotland team beforehand, or indeed for another 59 years later.

It may be wrong to pick out particular heroes from a team that gained such merit as a unit, but perhaps if such a choice must be made, it would not be wrong to select centre George MacPherson and wingers Johnny Wallace and Ian Smith as worthy of special honour.

Flying winger Smith, who like MacPherson played his club rugby at Oxford University at that time, bagged an amazing four tries in that opening fixture against France. MacPherson himself, a real powerhouse and playmaker in midfield, was involved in practically every Scotland try on that day. Wallace bagged a brace of tries to complete what was a fairly comprehensive victory on the day. France did not cross the Scottish line and were well beaten their only points coming from a du Manoir drop goal, worth 4 points in those days.

Scotland v Wales in 1927

© SCRAN

A fortnight later, on 7 February and the buoyant Scottish team took to the road. Swansea was their destination and a game against Wales on their own territory always held a tough challenge.

Once again Ian Smith rose to the occasion and incredulously scored yet another four tries. Scotland raced away to a 5-24 lead; their backs showing a devastating turn of pace, brilliant handling, masterly passing and ran the home team ragged for most of the game. They couldn't keep up that amazing level of performance for the full 80 minutes however and to the credit of the Welsh they never gave up and actually managed two late unconverted tries and a penalty goal to put a more respectable face on the final score, which finished as Wales 14 Scotland 24.

Having reached the halfway point of this epic season, the Scots bandwagon was slowed down, but not derailed in Dublin. Three weeks later at Lansdowne Road, Ian Smith couldn't maintain his tournament average of four tries per game and indeed failed to cross the Irish line on this occasion.

However, once again it was the backs again who represented the difference between the two sides in an extremely tight game. Wallace and MacMyn scored Scotland's two tries in a 14-8 victory for the visiting side. Wallace's try was a particularly spectacular one, the result of an excellent passing and running move.

So the Scots hosted the Auld Enemy on 21 March 1925 with the chance for this group of players to write their names into the annals of rugby history. Murrayfield's first day was to prove one of the new stadium's more famous days. On a sparkling, sunny spring afternoon a truly memorable game of rugby unfolded, watched by a record crowd of over 70,000. This was a closely contested game between two wonderfully talented sides and which saw the lead change hands three times. High drama and controversy added to the potent mixture.

It was the English team which grabbed an early initiative, with a Luddington penalty goal, putting his side 3-0 up. The Scots stormed back quickly J.B. Nelson of Glasgow Accies scoring a try which was converted by full back Drysdale, of Heriots FP. 5-3 to the homers.

England didn't stay behind for long, however, and scored two tries, by Hamilton-Wickes and Wakefield, the first of which was converted by Luddington. This gave the visitors an 11-5 lead, which meant that the Scots had to score twice, as a converted try was only worth 5 points.

The excitement reached fever pitch with 25 minutes remaining, when the Scots scored a magnificent, but highly controversial try, following a superb passing move which involved Smith, MacPherson and Johnny Wallace, who touched down right next to the flag in the right-hand corner.

The English team, officials and fans were adamant that Smith had a foot in touch before Wallace grounded the ball to finish the move, but Welsh referee Mr Freethy was happy that the try was good and awarded the three points to Scotland. Amidst a hushed silence from the home crowd AC Gillies kicked a magnificent touchline conversion to bring Scotland to within a point of England. The score was 10-11.

Scotland then turned on the style, feverishly attacking the English line for a prolonged period, but another try would not come, nor indeed was it needed as things were to unfold, as Scotland did manage to grab the lead, through a four-point drop goal from Fly Half Waddell, who kicked them ahead with five minutes remaining.

Scotland were not home and dry yet and had to withstand a spirited effort to save the game from England in the remaining minutes. England attacked continuously, but the battling spirit of the home side would see them hold out against severe pressure until the final whistle. With only a three-point lead to hang on to Scotland could afford no errors, as a penalty goal or unconverted try would square the game and a drop goal or try and conversion would see the visitors take the day.

Scottish defensive mistakes were not forthcoming; indeed the magnificent tackling of the Scots in these final moments of that historic Grand Slam season was as important a factor in that success as had been the superb attacking play of their backs throughout the four games.

History tells us of course that the Scots did indeed hold on for an heroic victory. Nevertheless, it is a certainty that both teams would certainly have been relieved to have heard the final whistle, the English side being so exhausted by their efforts to save the game that many of their players were hardly capable of dragging their exhausted bodies off the Murrayfield pitch.

The end of the game saw scenes of celebration and sheer joy, the likes of which had never before been seen on a Scottish rugby field and which would not be repeated for many years to come.

* from "International Rugby Union – A Compendium of Scotland's Matches"
(John MacL Davidson)

Written by: Paul MacDonald



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