Obituary: Jimmie Ireland

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The Independent Culture
AT A time when Scottish rugby is wrestling with the inherent problems that professionalism has brought to the game, the death of Jimmie Ireland, one of Murrayfield's greatest administrators, will be for some a poignant reminder that for most of history Scotland was the prickly, staunch bastion of amateurism.

Ireland was a player of repute, an international referee, a president of the Scottish Rugby Union (RFU) and chairman of the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB). But like all his predecessors and contemporaries, he was contemptuous of anything which frayed the amateur fabric of the game. If he had still been stalking the corridors of power when the IRFB decided to professionalise the game three years ago, there is no doubt he would have been an implacable opponent.

For Ireland, rugby was a leisure activity, played for fun and friendship. In his day there was no such thing, apart from in newspaper columns, as a Five Nations championship. International matches were nothing more than an extension of club matches, a series of friendly contests which accidentally brought in the fans and as a consequence swelled the SRU's coffers, revenue which kept the whole game alive. To have used any of that cash to pay players would have been unthinkable.

What indeed would Ireland have made of the fact that last Saturday, barely 30,000 attended Scotland's match against the world champions South Africa? As the last surviving member of Scotland's first Grand Slam side of 1925, he played in the Calcutta Cup match when 80,000 attended the opening match at Scotland's brand-new stadium. England were beaten 14-11, which helped them to accumulate a record (at the time) of 17 tries and 77 points from the four matches.

That was Ireland's third cap as Scotland's hooker and he went on to appear another eight times, being on a losing side only twice, both against Ireland. It was heady stuff for Ireland and his team-mates because before 1925, Scottish rugby had not won anything of note in the previous 18 years.

Clearly Ireland was part of an exceptional team. Five of the pack were reported capable of running 100 yards in 11 seconds and in their backs they possessed one of the great wings of that or any generation, Ian Smith. It was easy to understand why Ireland accepted the values and virtues of the time. When he swapped jerseys with his opposite number, Sam Tucker, after the Twickenham match in 1926, he was duly presented with a bill for 12s 6d from the SRU. That 1926 match, won 17-9, was incidentally Scotland's first victory at the home of English rugby.

Ireland was born in Glasgow in 1903 and educated at Garnetbank Primary and Glasgow High School, one of Britain's great rugby academies. His two older brothers played for GHS before him and he was capped at the age of 14 for Scottish Schools.

After retiring as an international player he continued in club rugby, but unlike many international players of his time, he went on to attain stature as a referee, handling Ireland v England and Wales v Ireland (in 1938) and England v Wales, England v Ireland and Ireland v Wales the following season.

By this time he had been singled out as an administrator of promise. He was appointed Glasgow's representative on the SRU in 1936 and the same year became a member of the world's most famous club, the Barbarians. The die was cast.

Jimmie Ireland, trained to be an accountant, and nurtured in the strict code of amateurism of his time, held a variety of high offices, culminating in his presidency of the SRU in 1950. He was chairman of the IRFB in 1949 when Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were admitted as full members for a first time.

In 1996 he opened a block of hospitality suites at Murrayfield, each suite named after a member of the 1925 side in which he had played.

Robert Cole

James Cecil Hardin Ireland, rugby player: born Glasgow 10 December 1903; married 1938 Margaret McLean (died 1981); died 25 October 1998.