The final day in the sun
Huw Richards
March 20, 2014
Scotland kick ahead against England © PA Photos

Amid the understandable deluge of First World War centenary commemoration, it is easy to lose sight of another anniversary. It is 75 years this year since the outbreak of the Second World War on and this week (Tuesday) sees the anniversary of the last major pre-war international match , Scotland versus England at Murrayfield on March 18, 1939.

The date was the third Saturday in March - then a fixed point in the game's calendar, whether at Twickenham or Murrayfield, with a host of associated events such as committee meetings and golf matches grouped around it. One of those meetings, of the Home Unions committee on March 17 1939, voted to invite France - expelled in 1931 - to rejoin the championship.

Whether the French would have come back in 1940 remains in doubt. The French Federation were so desperate to regain their place that they agreed to abolish their national championship, one of the main conditions set. Even so, as Carwyn James and John Reason have pointed out, if the Home Unions conditions had been met in full "there would have been nobody left either to play the game or administer it in France".

France, for entirely non-rugby reasons, would have to wait until 1947. But the Calcutta Cup match marked the end of eight seasons in which the championship reverted to its older function as a Home Unions competition. It had been a time of fierce competition. Each country had won at least one outright championship, but nobody had managed to retain the title.

"In that time six players from this match, four of them airmen, died on active service. Both fullbacks died, Scotland's George Roberts as a prisoner of war of the Japanese in 1943 and England's Ernest Parsons as a DFC-decorated bomber pilot over Turin on October 14, 1940"

Scotland's fortunes oscillated remarkably in a manner foreshadowing Welsh performances in the first decade or so of the Six Nations. The Scots had the poorest record overall, with only nine victories in eight seasons. Yet there were two Triple Crowns in 1933 and 1938 alongside four whitewashes and five wooden spoons.

Scotland had already lost their first two matches, away to Wales and Ireland, when they went into that final match at Murrayfield. There had been a slightly 'scissors-paper-rock' quality to the other matches. England had beaten Wales 3-0 at Twickenham, then gone down 5-0 at home to the Irish. Victory over Wales in Belfast the week before the Calcutta Cup would have given Ireland the Triple Crown and championship. Instead they went down 7-0, Wales's outside-half Willie Davies scoring all the points shortly before departing for a rugby league contract with Bradford Northern.

Victory for England would mean the second Home Nations era concluding exactly as they had begun in 1932 - with Scotland whitewashed at the bottom while Wales, Ireland and England shared the title with two wins apiece.

And that is what happened, with England winning 9-6. At first glance it looks like one of the all-time great injustices, with three English penalties beating two Scottish tries, worth only three points each in those days.

Yet as Scottish chronicler Sandy Thorburn wrote: "Although it was disappointing to lose because of three penalties, the result was fair, for a disciplined England pack dominated the game and a spark of enterprise in their backs would have seen Scotland routed."

Scotland's scores had also come first. The first saw England fumble a cross-kick by wing John Innes, allowing Scotland's other wing William Murdoch to gather and charge in from halfway. The second was scored on the right by their captain and centre Wilson Shaw - the star, from outside-half of their memorable victory at Twickenham a year earlier. Fatally, neither was converted - the first kick being ruled out because referee Ivor David ruled that the ball placer, still at this time required by the rules, had touched the ball after it had made contact with the ground.

But England dominated possession, with skipper Bert Toft out-hooking opposite number Ian Graham by 48 scrums to 12. Their rewards came in long-range penalties kicked by centre Jack Heaton, a Lancastrian enjoying the second year of a bizarre three-season international career - the oddity being that the seasons were 1935, 1939 and 1947.

Heaton formed a wing partnership with his cousin Dick Guest. Both played for Waterloo, which supplied four players in all with Toft and Scottish back-rower Wilfrid Crawford also playing their club rugby at Blundellsands. He landed two penalties before the break and the third not long after. There was still plenty of time to go, but John Griffiths records that the crowd "had accepted defeat in a rather dreary match" long before the end.

England's Thomas Huskisson, February 11, 1939
Thomas Huskisson was awarded a Military Cross for his services in World War Two © PA Photos

It was to be nearly eight years - until New Year's Day 1947 - before the championship resumed. In that time six players from this match, four of them airmen, died on active service. Both fullbacks died, Scotland's George Roberts as a prisoner of war of the Japanese in 1943 and England's Ernest Parsons, a New Zealander who played his first and only test at Murrayfield, as a DFC-decorated bomber pilot over Turin on October 14 1940. England prop Derek Teden, another airman, died the day after Parsons.

Two back rowers died - Scotland's Donald Mackenzie, another RAF man, in June 1940 and England's Robert Marshall after nearly six years of war service in the Navy, and the award of the DSC and bar, in May 1945. Scotland scrum-half Tommy Dorward, whose younger brother Arthur would follow him into the team in the 1950s and one of three Scots, including half-back partner Rab Bruce-Lockhart, whose brothers played for Scotland, died on RAF service in March 1941.

Other players received military honours. Scottish centre Duncan Macrae, England wing Robert Carr and forward Thomas Huskisson all won the Military Cross. Huskisson added a bar to his MC and was given a military OBE in 1945. The same year saw England back rower John Watkins, a career naval man, awarded a military CBE, upgraded to a CBE in 1967 by which time he had risen to the rank of Rear Admiral.

Seven players survived to play international rugby after the war. Heaton and Guest, whose England career lasted until the 1949 Calcutta Cup match, resumed their wing partnership postwar and played together in the 1947 fixture. Outside-half Tommy Kemp did not play then, but reappeared as captain in 1948.

When Guest played in the 1948 Calcutta Cup match he confronted no fewer than four opponents from the same fixture nine years earlier - Innes, Murdoch, prop Ian Henderson and back rower Bill Young, who was recalled for his first and only post-war cap and scored the decisive try in Scotland's 6-3 win.

Services to the game did not end there. Guest, Toft, prop Robin Prescott and back rower Joe Berry all served as England selectors. Guest and Berry both went to be president of the RFU and Prescott almost certainly would have done if he had not become Secretary of the organisation in 1963. Toft was for 14 years rugby correspondent of The Observer.

On the Scottish side Shaw and Innes were both president of the SRU in the early 1970s while Murdoch followed his 13-year international career - then a Scottish record - by refereeing five international matches in the 1950s. For sheer durability he is challenged only by Ivor David, who was still taking charge of international matches in the mid 1950s and refereed three of the tests played by the 1953-4 All Blacks, who recalled him as by far the best referee they encountered in Europe.

End of an era it may have been, but for some of its participants the 1939 Calcutta Cup match was merely a mid-point.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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