The code-jumper who left his heart in Gala

BRIAN Shillinglaw, who has died at the age of 68, was one of Gala and Scotland's greatest scrum-halves.

His rugby union career was cut short in 1961 when he decided to leap the great divide and switch codes to the league, signing with Whitehaven for a reported 5,000.

In 1961, 5,000 was a lot of cash to a bricklayer and National Serviceman. Shillinglaw had shown his skills to the nation and they had been seen, too, by the talent scouts from the south – the men in raincoats and flat caps who merged, often unsuccessfully, with partisan Border crowds.

In those days, such a shift was almost a cardinal sin in the Borders. Shillinglaw was not the only Scottish cap to make the move. Others had gone before, and a year after Shillinglaw made his decision, Selkirk’s Ron Cowan signed for Leeds. Others would follow. Professionalism has now brought down the barrier. But when Shillinglaw – once the toast of Netherdale and Murrayfield – returned to his native Galashiels, strict SRU rules saw him barred from union grounds, even as a spectator. Thankfully, that changed.

There can be no doubt that Gala and Scotland had not seen the best of Brian Shillinglaw when he made the switch.

There can be no doubt that he would have gone on to achieve much greater feats. He was a potential British and Irish Lion.

He began his rugby career with semi-junior side Gala Wanderers, where he made an immediate impact, before moving to Gala A and playing his first game for the senior side against Selkirk in the autumn of 1956.

During National Service, he played with distinction while serving with the KOSB and was still in khaki when he played the first of five caps against Ireland in 1960. Also in the side on that occasion – and in Shillinglaw’s next four caps – was Netherdale hooker Norman “Bonzo” Bruce.

In his debut international in Dublin he had a powerful game with Gordon Waddell at stand-off. Scotland won 6-5. There was a 13-11 victory over England, but also an 18-10 defeat by South Africa in Port Elizabeth.

The next year, the Scots went under 13-11 to France and 12-5 to South Africa at Murrayfield.

The game in Port Elizabeth was part of the first experimental short tour taken by any rugby-playing country.

Gala’s Bob Burrell recalls being told by Springbok captain Avril Malan that Shillinglaw was one of the best rugby players ever to come out of Scotland.

A fast-breaking and very strong scrum-half, ‘Shill’, as he was known throughout the Scottish rugby scene, was a key member of the Gala seven which won the Melrose sports in 1959.

He played 65 times for Gala, scoring 14 tries and kicking two conversions.

In season 1960-1 Gala had the luxury of three past, present or future international scrum-halves available for selection: Shillinglaw, Arthur Dorward and Dunc Paterson.

He played his last game for Gala against Selkirk in the spring of 1961 and in the same year turned professional with Whitehaven, later playing with Wigan and Leigh.

At Whitehaven, he took over the scrum-half berth from the established David Hazeldon, who moved to stand-off.

Hazeldon won back his place at the base of the scrum and later declared: “Shillinglaw did oust me for a while. He had a lot of speed and skill, but to be honest, I really don’t think he had the heart for it.”

Maybe his heart was back in Gala.

When he returned home, he once again picked up his trade as a brickie, but suffered ill health in his later years.

Shillinglaw never lost his interest in the game that he loved.

He was an astute reader of both play and players.

When Kelso, Scotland and Lions centre Alan Tait turned to rugby league, Shillinglaw was one of the first to predict that he would not be used as a centre south of the Border, but as a full back – a position in which he went on to represent Great Britain.

Brian Shillinglaw must have enjoyed a wry – but welcoming – smile when the barriers between the codes came down and Tait was able to return to Murrayfield.

Brian Shillinglaw died in the Borders General Hospital at the age of 68. He is survived by his son Brian, daughter Carol, brother Raymond, and five grandsons.