Clifton Rugby Football Club History
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In Memoriam

 
 
 

Robert Kenneth Gillespie MacEwen - Clifton and Scotland

25.02.28 – 28.08.13

Robert MacEwen – also known as Mac but usually called Bob by his rugby contemporaries, was born in Summertown, Oxford in 1928. His Father was a retired major of the Royal Artillery, who had been invalided out of the First World War suffering from shell shock and severe gas inhalation, the consequences of which stayed with him for the remainder of his life in the form of recurrent nightmares and corroded lungs. It cannot have helped that the doctors advised him to smoke to quell his nerves!


The family moved to Bristol and Bob began his schooling at Clifton Preparatory School, the intention being that he would follow his Father and Uncle to Clifton College. The Second World War then intervened and Bob had strong memories of Bristol ablaze after heavy night time bombing by the Luftwaffe. With his Father relying on a war pension, it became impossible to afford the school fees and Bob transferred to Bristol Grammar School in 1942. The change cannot have been easy one, but he held fond memories of both schools. At BGS he established himself as a hooker in the front row of the scrum; his rugby coach was Haydn Tanner, the legendary Welsh scrum half, and he played in the same school rugby team as future England cricketer Tom Graveney.  (The Clifton RFC website has a good profile of his playing career, including a picture of Tom and himself in the same school team). A set of his rugby jerseys is mounted on the wall of the splendid new BGS pavilion at Failand.


After National Service in the RAF, Bob attended Loughborough College where he captained the 1ST XV, played for the UAU and formed lasting friendships with Jeff Butterfield and Ray Williams, with whom he was later to pioneer the development of coaching in the British Isles.


Bob then went up to St. Catherine’s, Cambridge to study Maths and Economics, a path from Loughborough to Cambridge that he later observed that Wales and Lions wing Gerald Davies was to follow. He did not win a Blue in 1952, but Micky Steele-Bodger took the most unusual step of selecting him for his team to oppose the Blues side in the pre varsity match preparation game. As far as I am aware, the only other person to be picked for the Steele-Bodger XV as an undergraduate has been Guy Steele-Bodger, Micky’s eldest son, in the early 1980s.


Blues were awarded in 1953 and 1954, the latter side containing future fellow Scottish internationals and close friends Arthur Smith and Tommy McClung, and it was at Cambridge that he was first selected to play for Scotland – against France at Murrayfield in January 1954. He also toured Japan with Cambridge in 1953 and acquired something close to celebrity status on account of his red hair. Few Japanese in the early years after the war had seen someone with red hair, and they were intrigued to discover whether he was red all over!


Bob’s second cap was awarded against New Zealand in February 1954. He always claimed that the All Blacks conned the referee, the diminutive Welshman Ivor David whom he rated as the best official of that era, into awarding them a penalty which the great full back Bob Scott converted to win the match 3-0. At a scrum inside the Scottish half, the New Zealand hooker, Ron Hemi, called a Maori codeword at which command the All Black forwards collectively took a pace back. It therefore appeared that the Scottish scrum half had fed the ball in crooked and the Scots were duly penalised (a crooked feed merited a full penalty as free kicks were yet to exist within the laws). Bob did not regard this subtle move as cheating but more like clever gamesmanship, and he always admired the All Blacks for their ability to imperceptibly raise the tempo of the game when it mattered and to take their chances. I remember accompanying Bob to call in on Hugh McLeod at his Hawick home back in 2002, where they chuckled away together about that match.


Bob was not selected for any of the internationals in the 1955 season, and it was a source of great disappointment to him that he was not even offered a trial match to defend his place. He always maintained that there was a selectorial purge of the Anglo Scots that season, but another factor may have been that the debate over whether forwards should pack 3-2-3 or 3-4-1 was at its height. The President of the SRU that year was the legendary J.M.Bannerman from the 1925 Grand Slam team, who was a strong advocate of the traditional scrum formation. Bob would not have been backward in pointing out the disadvantage to a hooker within a 3-2-3 formation up against a team who had converted to 3-4-1. I can easily picture Bob asking the likes of Herbert Waddell when they had last played in the front row, an approach not likely to enhance one’s prospects for future selection!
Another occasion when he provoked the disapproval of the SRU, possibly in 1957 when he was working in Ireland, was the occasion when he played in a charity match for the Irish Wolfhounds on a Sunday afternoon, and he received a reprimand for breaking the Sabbath, even though he would almost certainly have attended church that morning!


One of the stars of the 1955 Lions tour was Cliff Morgan, who died a day after Bob. They played with and against one another on many occasions. I recall Bob telling me about a match played together, possibly for the Barbarians, when the scrum half had left the field injured. With no replacements allowed in those days, Cliff stepped in at scrum half. The mercurial Welsh wizard of a fly half had probably never experienced such a close up view of the front row of a scrum, for he proceeded to put the ball in on the tight head. I imagine that Cliff was subjected to a front row tutorial in the clubhouse after the game!


Looking back on his international career, Bob believed that the Scottish teams of the 1950s were continually handicapped by poor and inconsistent selection. For example, he rated Arthur Dorward of Gala as the best of the scrum halves, but Arthur appeared to yo-yo in and out of the team.


Bob’s final cap came in 1958 against Wales in Cardiff out of the Lansdowne club in Dublin where he played for a season while working in Ireland. With a family on the way and Shelagh, for whom he had turned down a Barbarian Easter tour to marry in April 1957, not allowed into the male only clubhouse after the game, it was time to retire.


Bob was always regarded by his contemporaries as a considerable thinker and theoretician of the game. He was particularly influenced by watching the performances of the 1951-2 Springbok side – he rated them and the 1967 All Blacks as the two most creative sides to tour the British Isles. He was a strong advocate of the importance of coaching, if British rugby wanted to compete successfully with the Southern Hemisphere teams. He was, however, also of the firm opinion that bad coaching which stifled player initiative was worse than no coaching at all: his philosophy was that a coach should create a framework within which flair and natural skills could be utilised more effectively.


These creative and analytical talents were put to good use in the 1960s when he was asked by the Rugby Football Union to join the RFU Coaching Advisory Panel, chaired by his Cambridge friend and captain and future RFU President Ian Beer. The panel consisting of Ian, Bob, Jeff Butterfield, Ray Williams and Hywel Griffiths from Wales, and Mark Sugden from Ireland spent many weekends running coaching courses throughout England and they compiled the first complete coaching manual ‘A Guide For Coaches’ which was published in 1966. While Jeff was largely responsible for the pamphlet on back play, Bob concentrated on technical issues for the forwards such as scrum alignment and foot positioning, while Ray scooped up a hundred copies to take back to Wales to become their first National Coaching Organiser and the background mastermind in shaping up those marvellous Welsh teams of the 1970s.


Bob would have loved to be invited to assist in the development of the coaching structure back in Scotland, but the SRU at the time was very suspicious of the onset of coaching fearing that it would erode the amateur ethos – Bill Dickinson from Jordanhill, in effect Scotland’s first coach of the national team, was only allowed the title ‘Advisor to the Captain’. In hindsight, they may have had a point!


Bob  had to resign  from the RFU coaching panel in 1969 when he moved to Northern Ireland, but he was immediately involved in the Ulster Coaching Development Group. He was certainly consulted by both Carwyn James and Syd Millar before they embarked upon their highly successful Lions tours in 1971 and 1974, and he took great pleasure in the part that the development of coaching had played in defeating New Zealand and South Africa on their own soil.


After a year of teaching at KCS Wimbledon in London when he was playing for London Scottish, Bob turned to a business career as a management consultant, where rugby connections constantly emerged. He was employed by Weston Evans to turn around Padmore and Barnes, a shoe factory in Kilkenny; negotiations with the workforce tended to be conducted through the local priest rather than the trade union shop steward!  It later amused him to reflect that around that time he helped Tony O’Reilly at the start of his spectacular business career by assisting him to gain his job with the Irish Milk Marketing Board. Although he tended to specialise in the clothing and footwear industries, for a period in the 1970s he worked in Northern Ireland transforming the family farm of Shelagh’s parents near Coleraine, which had suffered from the decline of the flax industry, into a modern motor hotel, and it was the choice of Andy Irvine, Scottish Lion and future SRU President, as the venue for his wedding reception when he married Audrey in the spring of 1975.


The loss of Shelagh to cancer in 1985 was a grievous blow, and this was followed by the onset of a myeloma which hampered his mobility but which he courageously kept at bay for over twenty five years. In the 1990s he lived in Kent, and he often watched the rugby on television in the company of fellow Cambridge Blue and Scotland back row forward Dr Bill Young, who held the unique achievement of playing either side of the war, firstly in Wilson Shaw’s Triple Crown winning team at Twickenham in 1938 and then scoring the winning try in the 6-0 defeat of England at Murrayfield in 1948. One highlight of those years was when he accompanied Jeff and Barbara Butterfield’s Rugby Club tour to the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and he was thrilled to have experienced the final at Ellis Park when Nelson Mandela presented the Webb Ellis Cup to South Africa’s Francois Pienaar.
Like many of his contemporaries, Bob could grumble about aspects of the modern game. He acknowledged the greater fitness levels and commitment, but he admitted that he would have been bored with the requirement of having to train every day as a professional player. He tended to keep a close eye on the forwards, and he had huge admiration for the play of the likes of Frank Laidlaw, Colin Deans, and more recently Ross Ford, who followed him into the middle of the Scottish front row.
Media criticism of the Scottish XV’s recent record used to annoy him. He well appreciated that Scotland invariably had a smaller pool of talent upon which to draw compared to the other home nations, and he repeatedly reminded me that the team’s recent record was still better than what his team managed in the 1950s!


Bob remained full of ideas: he thought that the modern game had become too predictable, with one side often recycling the ball through endless phrases of possession, and he wanted to see more situations where both teams had the opportunity to contest possession. During the early part of this summer he was exchanging e-mail thoughts with Ray Williams and Ian Beer on how to reinvigorate the scrum as a key component of the game after observing the number of incomplete and unsatisfactory scrums throughout the 2013 Six Nations Championship. He therefore fully endorsed the campaign of Brian Moore, ex England hooker turned BBC commentator and journalist, to ensure that referees upheld the law requiring scrum halves to feed the ball into the scrum straight. He thought that the art of hooking had been diminished by the way the game had come to be refereed, and he was puzzled that hookers seemed to be picked more on the basis of their ability to throw the ball in at a line-out than their hooking ability. He regretted that the value of a quick tight head heel with the opposition backs lying deep appeared to have been forgotten.


For his final period of his life Bob returned to Oxfordshire to live near his daughter Katie and son in law Simon in the village of Stanton Harcourt. He never missed a match on television right up to the triumphant 2013 Lions tour of Australia. Nothing gave him more pleasure than the relatively recent Calcutta Cup victories at Murrayfield in 2006 and 2008, particularly as he had sent Simon up to both matches and his English son in law had travelled in full expectation of English victories. At the final whistle he relished the phone calls that came through from Simon sitting in the East stand, conceding defeat and saying that he was isolated and surrounded by raucous celebrating Scots!


Bob died peacefully in his sleep, aged 85, in the early morning of 28th August in Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, a couple of miles down the road from Victoria Road where he was born. His ashes have been buried alongside Shelagh and his second son Robbie in a grave adjacent to that of his parents and sister at The Minster Church, Warminster, Wiltshire.


Rugby was a key thread that ran throughout his life. It gave him huge pleasure and lifelong friendships. He was immensely proud to have represented his country, particularly as he had packed down in each of his internationals with one of Scotland’s greatest prop forwards Hugh McLeod.


Bob was a thoughtful, courteous and gentle man, so much so that I occasionally wondered how he had managed to face down the might of an All Black pack.

                                                                                                                       Ian MacEWEN      September 2013

 

 

Photo and profile in news archive section of Scottish Rugby Union website: www.scottishrugby.org
Obituary in The Scotsman on September 5th: www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/obituaries
Obituary in The Glasgow Herald on September 6th: www.heraldscotland.com/comment/obituaries