Shaw shines on rugby's TV debut
March 19, 2013
Wilson Shaw touches down in the corner on a great day for Scottish rugby © PA Photos
Given the impact that television has had on the development - and over the past two decades in particular, the financing - of rugby, Tuesday counts as a major anniversary. It was 75 years ago today, on 19th March 1938, that the first match was televised, a Calcutta Cup clash between England and Scotland at Twickenham.
The audience was tiny, no more than a few thousand people in and around London. So was the picture they were watching - but they were treated to an absolute belter of a match, one of the best in Twickenham's long history.
The 1930s are not generally remembered as an era of great rugby. Geoffrey Nicholson and John Morgan recalled it in Report on Rugby as a time in which "Play became excessively defensive. Forwards were spread out all over the field to counter any move of the backs and only men of genius... could make any real impression on these blanket defences, and then not as often as the crowd would have liked".
Single-figure scores were common. But something clearly happened in 1938, with an extraordinary sequence of high-scoring matches. Scotland beat Ireland 23-14 then England went to Lansdowne Road and won 36-14. But it wasn't just about Ireland being weak (although they clearly were, also losing to Wales to end up bottom of what in this period was a 4-team competition).
Scotland came to Twickenham for a fixture which was then - and would be until the early 1970s - fixed in place on the third Saturday in March, seeking a Triple Crown after squeezing past Wales with a late and controversial penalty kick.
England's headquarters was already their least favourite ground, with only a single win - in 1926 - from 11 visits since their first in 1911. They got off to an unpropitious start when their coach driver got lost and delivered them to the wrong entrance to the ground, sending them on a long walk through the assembling crowds to get to the changing room.
England were missing some first-choice players, but were still no pushover. Their new fullback Grahame Parker had landed six conversions, then an extraordinary performance, in the massacre of the Irish. They had a decent pack well led by hooker and captain Bert Toft, who was to dominate the scrums, taking four to everyone by the Scots.
But Scotland, true to form, had a tough and combative back-row who dominated the breakdown. And still more important they had one of the men of genius picked out by Nicholson and Morgan, their outside-half Wilson Shaw. The Glasgow High player was coming up to his 25th birthday - the centenary of his birth is on 11th April - and represented another Scottish archetype. Like Gregor Townsend and Chris Paterson he was an automatic choice, but not always at outside-half. His lethal pace - EHD Sewell said he was 'like a trout at a fly, so slick was he off the mark' - meant that he was sometimes, to the unfailing relief of opponents, exiled to centre or wing.
But on 19th March 1938 he was outside-half and Scotland's captain on what proved to be the greatest day of his career. He began as a creator, picking up a misplaced English pass and kicking ahead for debutant wing William Renwick to score the first of Scotland's four first-half tries. The pattern of the match was not quite as AA Thomson remembered it 'Every time Scotland scored a try, Parker kicked a goal', but this recall is understandable as two penalties by the fullback and a try from wing Jimmy Unwin had England level at 9-9 just before half-time, when Scotland had already crossed three times - Renwick claiming his second before experienced centre Charles Dick went over.
Then just before half-time, as Scottish chronicler Sandy Thorburn recalled "The ball was put out to Shaw who dummied Reynolds and cut out to the left touch line, leaving the defenders standing by his acceleration. Faced by Parker he produced a text-book right foot/left foot fast jink which left the full back sprawling in touch, and ran in for a wonderful solo try". That made it 12-9 at the break.
But England were not done. Views clearly varied of England outside-half Jeff Reynolds. JBG Thomas thought him 'a brilliant attacking player' who in this match was 'continually making the half-break for his centres' who just as continually wasted the opportunities he created. Sewell thought him miscast at outside-half, not least because Shaw was faster by between five and eight yards over 50 and ' simply ran rings around' him.
But it was Reynolds who made the next decisive intervention, dropping a goal which under the scoring values of the time gave England the lead for the second time in the match, by 13-12. Scotland hit back with two penalties by back rower Wilfrid Crawford, but another goal from Parker meant there were only two points in at as the game reached its climax.
With two minutes to go, Thomas recalled, Shaw "gathered in the loose before any Englishman could kill the ball and went away on the right, dodging and swerving and no-one could lay a hand on him. English defenders dived and fell in his weaving path, but none could stop him and eventually he raced around Parker to cross the English line". It made the final score 21-16, but as Sewell remembered, England were 'nowhere near only five points behind'. The final try tally of five to one perhaps tells a truer story.
Thomas reckoned the Triple Crown perhaps a greater achievement than Scotland's memorable Grand Slam of 1925, since the opposition was better and Scotland less brilliantly equipped than perhaps their most spectacular team ever. And as with the 1925 team, who were not - thanks to their own union's pig-headedness - able to play the invincible All Blacks of that season, there is a 'might have been' about the Scots of 1938, although one much less noticed at the time. The concept of the Grand Slam was not devised until 1957, but we still credit earlier winners of all four matches with the achievement. With France in enforced exile, though, this team like their Scottish predecessors of 1933 did not get the chance to turn a Triple Crown into a Grand Slam.
Their brilliance was short-lived. 1930s Scotland appear to have been the model for the wild form swings of Wales in the Six Nations era. They had won only two matches in the four seasons between their Triple Crown years of 1933 and 1938, then lost all three in a 1939 campaign that set new lows in scoring - England claiming the title while scoring only one more point in three games than they had in losing a single match to Scotland in 1938.
But Shaw's team were destined to be long-remembered in Scotland as successive teams failed to emulate their achievements. There were no more victories at Twickenham until 1965 (and as yet only one more after that). Nor were Scotland to claim an outright championship, Triple Crown or Grand Slam until all three were taken at once in 1984.
Nor was the extraordinary scoring of 1938 - two matches producing 37 points and one registering 50 - seen again for a very long time. All three were higher than anything seen in the championship since 1931, or would be seen again until 1967. Well might 'Wilson Shaw's match' be recalled as one of the greatest days in Scottish rugby history.
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