Rugby world says farewell to master coach ‘Curly’ Mitchell

TRIBUTES have been paid to Douglas “Curly” Mitchell, one of the foremost rugby coaches of his generation, who has died aged 93.

In his career as a PE teacher at Edinburgh’s Royal High School from the late 1950s until the 1970s Mr Mitchell produced a succession of outstanding teams and helped the likes of Colin Telfer aspire to full international honours while others such as Iwan Tukalo and Gordon Hunter benefited from the standards he established as the norm.

The pinnacle of Mr Mitchell’s achievement was probably the all-conquering side of 1963-64, which was the first Royal High School team to go through an entire season undefeated. Their record was played and won 33 matches, points for 485, against 66; another undefeated side soon followed as Royal High set the benchmark for schoolboy rugby, playing all the top teams in Scotland and sometimes beyond.

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It was the style of play cultivated by Royal High that earned them so many admirers, though, and a member of the first unbeaten side, Charlie Bryden, recalled: “Dougie consistently coached exemplary teams renowned for ball-playing skills and attractive rugby.

“He was a quietly spoken, self-effacing man who, nevertheless, always managed to get his point over. He never seemed to walk anywhere, always seeming to be on the run and as a great rugby tactician he constantly hammered into us the importance of straightening the line and drawing a man with the ball.

“When Cory Jane scored the All Blacks’ third try at Murrayfield last week after a finger-tip passing move it was straight out of Dougie Mitchell’s coaching manual.”

Over the past fortnight much has been made by coaches involved in the Autumn Tests of the importance of winning collisions and claiming ‘breakdown’ ball from rucks.

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Bruce Laidlaw, who toured Argentina with Scotland in 1969, playing in a non-cap Test, recalled his mentor as years ahead of his time in that 

“It wasn’t until after I stopped playing rugby that it dawned on me just how exceptional and forward thinking Dougie was as a coach. His basic philosophy was that everything must be geared to us winning possession at the breakdown as it was from here that you could score tries.

“Although he played at centre himself he spent 95 per cent of his time coaching forwards; it was his conviction that it was only through them we could secure the crucial loose ball.

“He had us doing things in 1960 which the All Blacks and Australia introduced as standard tactics some years later. He had the school backs practising passing endlessly up and down the playground day after day,”

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Alastair McIntosh (66-69) echoed that theme, and said: “I suppose we were the original 15-man team but he was also was very keen on defence and when the opposition got the ball – a rare event! – we were all told to ‘corner flag’, i.e. cover diagonally across the field to snuff out any attack from their backs. I guess this was the original drift defence.

“However, if we won and felt we had played pretty well he was always very hard on us saying we should have played better. On the other hand on the rare occasion when we lost he would say how he was proud and that we had played as well as we could. Reverse psychology but much appreciated.”

Such devotion to setting the bar high has had Colin Blaikie remembering: “Dougie was a hard man to please but I think that brought out the best in all his teams and he really enthused us with a genuine passion for running rugby. I think he missed two midweek training sessions in the three years I was in his team.”

Likewise Robin Boog, who continues to serve the Royal High /Corstorphine club said: “Goodness knows what Dougie would have been worth as a coach in today’s professional marketplace. ‘Do the simple things right and everything else falls into place’ was his mantra and he once told us: ‘If you have the ball they can’t score’ and ‘if they can’t score you can’t lose’.”

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Mr Mitchell would also organise training camps as recalled by Iain Cowper, who said: “One year the squad went to Balquhidder youth hostel. Canoes and bicycles were transported by lorry and hard but enjoyable sessions on both were punctuated by tough hikes in the hills before cycling back to Edinburgh.”

A private funeral has already taken place for Mr Mitchell who died in Dornoch on November 2. He is survived by grandchildren Jaimie and Robbie and great-grandson, Dylan.