Is This Scotland’s Hardest Player Of All Time?

To celebrate the release of his book, “Hard Men Of Rugby”, author Luke Upton joins us to help launch our search for Scotland’s hardest players of all time. We’ll be running a series of articles and Patreon only podcasts throughout October and you can nominate your own choices in the comments section of the blog.

Luke has nominated David Bedell-Sivright for inclusion in our final list and explains why in this excerpt from the book.

When news of David Bedell-Sivright’s death in September 1915 reached Australia, the Sydney newspaper, Referee, wrote of the news: “… he was a surgeon in the navy, and it is likely that he died on one of the warships engaged there against the Turks. Sivright was a Scottish forward of the most brilliant type, a hard player, but a clever one. He was one of the finest all-round forwards ever seen in Australia from over the seas… and, at his best, was fit for a world’s team. Sivright as captain was somewhat dour, but as [a] player he was magnificent. A man of superb physique, it is hard to think that he has died an ordinary death at his age, and not to a bullet from the enemy.”

The Australian press were familiar with Bedell-Sivright from his captaining of the Lions tour to there and New Zealand in 1904. Under his leadership, the tourists won all 14 of their matches on the Australia leg of the tour, scoring 265 points and conceding just 51. This run of victories included three comprehensive triumphs over the national team. He was so enamoured with Australia, he stayed, working as a jackaroo on a cattle station, before taking the boat home to complete his medical studies in Edinburgh. 

The Referee was correct in its view of Bedell-Sivright’s place as one of the very best players of his generation, but on the cause of his death they were less sure. For Surgeon David Bedell-Sivright Medical Unit, R.N. Div., Royal Navy it was not a bomb, bullet or torpedo that ended his life, but the bite of a mosquito, whilst serving onshore in a field hospital in the trenches that led to septicaemia and his passing at just 34. 

For those who saw Bedell-Sivright play, it must have been hard to imagine anything ever stopping him. 

Born into an upper-middle class Edinburgh family, he attended Fettes, then Cambridge before becoming a doctor, an early sketch of his life might point towards a dilletante in the backs, as keen to keep his shirt clean as to avoid tackling. But this couldn’t be further from reality. 

A powerful prop, he was famous for his enormous physicality during games. A Scotland teammate of his, Andrew ‘Jock’ Wemyss, described him as, “one of the many great forwards of the early century… a very, very hard player of immense strength whose fiery determination on the field often led to the accusation he was “over-zealous”.And Wemyss knew a little about determination; he lost an eye in World War I, but that didn’t get in the way of him returning to the Scottish international team once hostilities were over. 

One of his contemporaries at Cambridge remembers his style: “He was always a very, very hard player, and took an absolute delight in the game. To the uninitiated onlooker, he appeared to be a rough player, but this was not so; it was only his great strength that made him a danger to the other side.”

Off the pitch too, he was notorious for his antics. There is a story about him, after playing for Scotland and indulging in some serious post-match revelry, laying down on a tram track on Princes Street, one of the major thoroughfares in central Edinburgh. The trams rolled to a halt and Bedell-Sivright relaxed for over an hour, either oblivious or uncaring to the chaos this was causing. The police were called, but wary of his fiery reputation, and mindful of their own safety, kept a respectful distance. Eventually, feeling suitably recharged, he got up and strolled off. Where he went is not recorded, but one would suspect it wasn’t home to bed. Another tale has him knocking out a cart horse with a single punch on another riotous night out in the Scottish capital. 

A handful on a night out, no doubt, but Bedell-Sivright was first and foremost a superb rugby player. He first played first class rugby at Cambridge, where he played in four Varsity matches against Oxford, and whilst still a student he made his Scottish debut against Wales in 1900. This would be the first of 22 caps, and he won three Triple Crowns in 1901, 1903 and 1907. To this day, he remains the only Scot to have achieved this feat. 

He retired from international rugby in 1908, but soon began channelling his aggression elsewhere and within a year had become Scottish amateur heavyweight champion. A report on his lifting the belt said he had won, “not by particularly scientific boxing but by hard punching.”

A total of 140 international players were killed in World War I. The losses the sport felt were, like all those in the war, devastating. To give just a small indication, of the 30 men that played in Scotland’s 16-15 defeat to England in March 1914, 11 would not survive the conflict, one of those lost being the Scottish captain that day, Eric Milroy, who as a lieutenant in the Black Watch was killed at the Battle of the Somme just two years later. 

Bedell-Sivright was a truly world class player and through his heroics for Scotland and the Lions, was able to make this not just a hypothetical claim, but one backed up results and trophies. 

Gone too soon but not forgotten, Bedell-Sivright’s name and reputation has lived on. Writing in 1919 in his memorial of players lost in the conflict, E H D Sewell wrote: “If a plebiscite was taken on the question: ‘Who was the hardest forward who ever played International football?’ Sivright would get most votes if the voting was confined to players, and probably so in any event.”

Edinburgh University RFC have an annual scholarship in Bedell-Sivright’s honour and he was an inaugural inductee into the Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame in 2010, and three years later was inducted into the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) Hall of Fame. 

Quite what the taciturn brooding prop would make of such honours, we will never know. But for his success leading Scotland and the Lions, his dynamic forward play, not to mention his fearsome reputation, off-the-pitch antics, and in the end making the ultimate sacrifice in conflict, Bedell-Sivright is a very worthy contender to be the hardest man ever to play for Scotland. 

This is an abridged version of the chapter on David Bedell-Sivright in Hard Men of Rugby, published on 16th October by Y Lolfa and now available to pre-order through all good independent bookshops, Waterstones and Amazon. With a foreword from Nigel Owens, the book also includes profiles of Brian Lima, Wayne Shelford, Paddy Mayne, Jerry Collins, Colin Meads, Trevor Brennan, Bakkies Botha, Jacques Burger, Sébastien Chabal, Martin Johnson and many more.

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