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Hugh McLeod

Rugby player

Rugby player

Born: June 8, 1932; Died: May 12, 2014

Hugh Ferns McLeod, who has died after a short illness at the age of 81, was one of the most influential characters and larger-than-life personalities in the history of Scottish rugby. It is often claimed these days that x or y "broke the mould", but McLeod truly was a nonpareil in the sport and made an impression on everybody he met on his travels, whether with Scotland, the British & Irish Lions or the Barbarians. In his pomp, as a tough-as-teak prop, he was one of the most fearsome opponents in the global game, yet he was never happier than when he was captaining his beloved Hawick at Mansfield Park.

Rugby was in his genes, yet, surprisingly, he did not take up the game until he was 16. He only started playing for fun and the last thing on his mind as a teenager was that he would devote the next 60 years to the pursuit he revered.

However, the more he pitted his strength, wits, stamina and resolve against first local and then national rivals, the more he realised he was a match for anybody. Within five seasons of becoming a regular fixture in the Border community's squad, he was impressing the Scotland selectors and made his Test debut against France at Murrayfield in 1954.

This was a period where the SRU's finest were accustomed to being beaten in the majority of games, but McLeod was never anybody's patsy. Others in blue might have been swept aside by their adversaries, but "wee Hughie" stood firm. As friends recalled yesterday, it was not in his nature to contemplate a backward step. He was fearless and the plaudits arrived to prove it.

In common with many of his compatriots, he was a warrior on the pitch, but a gentleman off it. As he declared about that aforementioned debut: "I'd kind of taken 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. And 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."

If he thought it a new sensation, he soon rose to the challenge. Time after time, during the next eight years, his was the first name pencilled in on the team sheet, as he terrorised anybody who dared to tackle him in the bearpit of the front row.

He had to wait until his seventh appearance to savour victory for his country - in a 14-8 triumph over Wales - at the climax of a sorry sequence of four years without a win. But McLeod was gifted enough to transcend his country's limitations and was chosen twice for Lions duty, the first on the 1955 tour to South Africa, the second during the protracted campaign against Australia and New Zealand, where he played in all six matches.

The latter tour dragged on for all of four months and it was a reflection of the Borderer's relish for the fray that he was there at the start - at the Olympic Park in Melbourne - and at the finish when the Lions met Eastern Canada on their way home. McLeod scored a try and kicked a brace of conversions in that latter contest. And afterwards, he chronicled his memories of these peripatetic adventures with such fine attention to detail it was hardly surprising he subsequently became an astute tactician, accomplished committee figure, and one of the architects of Hawick's march to rugby greatness.

He was firm friends with the "Voice of Rugby" Bill McLaren and a stalwart ally of another legendary Teri, Derrick Grant. After gaining 40 Scottish caps, he elected to bow out, not because there was any pressure on him to retire, but simply due to the fact he considered it "a nice roond figure". It was a statement which epitomised the man: uncomplicated, unfazed by thoughts of personal glory of overstaying his welcome. Instead, he set about orchestrating a wholesale revolution in the way the sport was run in his birthplace and the results spoke for themselves. Working with Grant and former SRU president, Robin Charters, he was one of the catalysts of the "Green Machine", when Hawick were the best side in the country by a mile and had the prizes to prove it.

They were champions in the first five official Scottish title seasons from the mid-1970s onwards and McLeod's presence ensured there was never any slacking off. Even in his eighth decade, he was cycling, swimming and walking and entertaining people of every age with his vast store of anecdotes.

He could be as hard as nails in the morass of the scrum, but that was never the full story with McLeod. He had married his sweetheart Myra in 1957 and the pair were proud as punch when McLeod was made an OBE in 1962.

McLeod was inducted into the SRU's Hall of Fame last November as a full member, in recognition of his immense contribution. Nobody was more worthy of the accolade.

A plasterer by trade, he went on to own a sports shop and also had a passion for dog shows. There never was any better example of a proud Border terrier than Hugh McLeod.

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