It is only March but I think the contest has been won already. The prize for the Saturday Interview’s most evocative image from childhood painted by a sporting great goes to… Alan Tait and his faithful ferret Tarzan.
The future Scotland rugby hero had only been four years in the Borders when he was spirited down to Cumbria. That was just long enough to confirm him as a country boy and he would continue to adhere to rural tradition even though he’d been thrust into one of the most heavily industrialised corners of England.
Tait’s Workington sounds positively Lowryesque, a place of grumbling smokestacks and permanent gloom. “It always seemed to be raining there and you hardly ever saw the sun,” he says. “Mind you, that also probably had something to do with us having the world’s first large-scale steelworks. Last thing at night they would let the steam out of the big chimneys and, because we were right on the coast, the wind would blow these massive plumes back across the town. We had coal mines, too, so the air was always mucky. The clanking of machinery never stopped.
“So there weren’t many places for me and my ferrets to hunt rabbits. They were unemployed to say the least but I used to take my favourite, Tarzan, for walks with a piece of string for a lead. We lived in a terrace just like Coronation Street. I suppose it must have looked bizarre, this ferret skipping across the cobbles under these great clouds of grime.”
We’re in Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Hotel, across the road from the stadium. Tait liked Warrington, where a friend or a mate is a “marra”, but he eventually escaped its grot to return to his native Kelso and Tarzan went with him to be happier in the Southern Uplands. But he never lost that Cumbrian accent, formed in his primary-school years, despite a lifetime of border raiding between Scotland and England.
Kelso to Workington, back to Kelso to play rugby union for the town team and Scotland, Widnes for rugby league then Leeds, back to Scotland for union’s professional era as a Newcastle Falcon, two spells as the national team’s assistant coach, the top position at Newcastle, an academy post with Scotland. This has been Tait’s career and, at 51, he’s heading south again, to Leeds again, to be No 2 to Bryan Redpath at Yorkshire Carnegie. Well, it’s a whole lot better than getting back out on those roofs to mend the tiles, his day-job before rugby’s different versions began the keen competition for his services.
We’re talking because Tait was part of the last Scotland team to win at Lansdowne Road, now the Aviva, where today the current side will try to conclude this year’s Six Nations with three victories in a row. His role back in that 1998 game against Ireland was significant, and it began before kick-off with for him some uncharacteristic speech-making.
“We’d lost to Italy in a warm-up for the Five Nations and [coach] Richie Dixon had gone. Jim Telfer had come back and the team were under pressure to perform. There was a lot of talking in the meetings and I probably said more before Ireland than I’d ever done in the lead-up. I was usually quiet, intense, thinking about the match but also worrying about it, hoping I didn’t let anyone down. But that week I was really wound up and I remember getting the guys in a huddle and coming out with a phrase I’d heard one of my captains use in league, maybe Ellery Hanley or Kurt Sorensen. ‘You’ve talked the talk,’ I said, ‘now’s the time to walk the walk’.”
In a tight game, played in blustery conditions, Tait plunged over for a try then continued to draw on his league smarts as the Irish roared back.
“I put a hit on Keith Wood hoping it would lay down a marker because he was their talisman. The referee penalised us, saying it was high, but it was a perfect league tackle, right in the sternum. Then I used a system from league to try to stop Ireland going out wide. It was an umbrella defence and pretty much me on my own, pushing up, actually straying offside but, thankfully, the ref didn’t spot me.”
Scotland edged the game 17-16 and, the following year, would be crowned champions.
It’s fascinating hearing our man admit to not being the most confident of individuals in the dressing-room because, out on the park, there was no such reticence. Between the codes, Alan Victor Tait – check out that middle name – won 27 caps for Scotland and 16 for Great Britain. He’s a quiz question: a Scot who played in a World Cup final at Wembley. Among other things, he’s remembered for his gunslinger celebration after scoring for the Lions on the triumphant 1997 tour of South Africa and a try where he obliterated a man with a gun in his name, England’s Dan Luger.
That score, in a game which was lost although we ultimately finished on top of what was the last Five Nations, was an even more vivid example of the swerve, swagger and smash Tait had brought back from league. Bill McLaren, in the foreword to the player’s biography, must have had the try uppermost in his mind when enthusing about how he used to outfox opponents with his radical running angles. If others did manage to grab hold of Tait, they simply got dragged along. The hapless Luger was done on the line with an almighty chest-bump as thrilling as anything in Scottish sport.
Tait smiles at my table-top reconstruction of the play using condiments. “I had to bounce Luger out of the way because I didn’t have another sidestep left in me. I’d run from so far back and was right out of gas. It was probably the best try of my career and I just wish that game had been shown on the BBC rather than Sky, who made rather a mess of it. It would have been lovely to have had Bill getting a wee bit excited.”
Maybe you could describe Tait’s darting as being ferret-like, possibly borrowed from Tarzan on a bunny quest, although that wouldn’t best convey his brute power. But he also has a funny story from his Workington boyhood about a runaway digger: “Me and the marras found it on a building site and started it with the crank. I drove and they all got in the bucket but we got caught. The police called round our houses and gave us a bollocking. There were a few hairy moments like that when I was a kid. Good fun but daft and, when I think back, pretty scary.”
Tait played table tennis for his county, football for Cumbria Under-12s and represented his school at gymnastics but there was only ever one sport he was going to make his life. His father, also Alan, played for Kelso before switching to league with Workington Town.
“Dad was a centre like me. My mum took me to see him play but I don’t remember much about the games. The Workington ground was nice and open with a speedway track and I was more interested in riding my bicycle round it. But, when he died ten years ago, a lot of the old boys who came to the funeral told me he was a tough, wiry bugger who they hated playing against because he was all elbows.
“They showed me programmes from games where there were crowds of 20,000 with his name opposite the likes of Alex Murphy and I hadn’t appreciated he’d taken on some of the greats. He didn’t talk much about his rugby, maybe only if he’d had a tooth knocked out or something. It was a right dirty game back then.
“Dad never got to the Challenge Cup final but that was a sacred day in our house – we used to watch it on TV together. I was lucky enough to play in two and, although Leeds Rhinos lost them both, Wembley was my pinnacle at that stage of the career. Playing for Scotland had been magnificent but Wembley had been the dream from a long way back. However, coming back to union and representing my country again – because despite this accent there’s not a bit of English in me – was even more special than first time round.”
We’ll get to that but let’s consider the differences, and the conflict, between union and league and how they impacted on Tait. When Alan Jr was making his way in union his father was told he wasn’t welcome in the Kelso clubhouse for the “crime” of swapping codes. “Dad was sine die and, as a result, never saw me play those early games. Later, when he could, he worried he might be a jinx so he watched from the sitting-room – perched right on the end of his chair in front of the telly, Mum always said, and proud as punch.
“I went to league because he’d gone there. One of the reasons he did was being overlooked for a Scotland tour after representing the South. I’d got further in union, won eight caps and played in the first World Cup, but nothing was going to stop me. My last Scotland game had been the 1988 Calcutta Cup. Most folk remember the end of that match for the trophy being used as a ball out on the streets of Edinburgh and I think my old Kelso pal JJ [John Jeffrey] might have been involved. Me, I was safely ensconced in the team hotel with Roy Laidlaw. We were both sat there in our kilts and he told me he was retiring. I said: ‘That’s me done, too.’
“It wasn’t about the money, I just wanted to follow Dad. Lots of people tried to talk me out of going to league, saying I was making a big mistake. I must admit that, in Kelso, I thought I might get the same treatment as my father, with the boys refusing to speak to me again, but they wanted me back up the road for a photograph of the winning Melrose Sevens team and I was right chuffed about that. We’d won it just before I left.”
Tait was part of a big union intake at Widnes – Martin Offiah, Jonathan Davies, Paul Moriarty and John Devereux among them – and trophies and glory resulted. Like everyone else who made the switch, he found league quicker and more punishing. “Your body adapts – in my case, with a little help from the missus. Caroline’s a great cook and she knocked out the lasagnes. I went from 12-and-a-half stone to 14 in three months.” Did he look back over his shoulder at his old marras in union? “Yes, and as I like to tell [Tony] Stanger, he only became a Grand Slam hero because I left. Seriously, though, that was a fantastic achievement by the team. They obviously didn’t miss me too much. But I never thought for a minute I’d be back there.”
And then, suddenly, in 1996, Tait was. A man can only take the punishment of league for so long, no matter the quality of his pasta and the quantity of his gym work. “I was 31 and feeling it. To keep the youngsters out of the [Rhinos] team I’d had to become a fitness fanatic, training on my own, running in the hills. When union turned pro it was a godsend. Newcastle, with the backing of Sir John Hall, had guys like Gary [Armstrong] and Doddie [Weir] and that seemed like the place to go. Funnily enough, I might have stayed in Leeds to switch codes but the union club thought I was finished. Not quite… ”
His father told him he’d timed his comeback perfectly, that he’d be on the plane for the Lions tour, but Tait wasn’t thinking that far ahead. Of more immediate concern were Ireland on another gale-blown afternoon and the resumption of his Scotland career, ten years after winning his first cap. He laughs as he remembers Kenny Logan’s welcome. “He did a pretty rubbish Eddie Waring impersonation: ‘Eee oop, it’s that hard, straight roonner, Alan Tait!’ He greets me like that to this day. But there was this sense of expectancy. I could see it in the way some folk were looking at me. I was going to be responsible for getting them out of the shit.”
In both of their previous championship games, the Scots had been hit by three-try blitzes. This time, at Murrayfield, a storming Tait score would set them up for a 38-10 victory. The old man was right: he would get to test himself as a Lion against the Springboks. “This will be your Everest, boys,” implored Jim Telfer and, along with fellow Scots Gregor Townsend and Tom Smith, Tait climbed it. Then came the 1999 campaign, Scotland’s last success, with Townsend touching down in every game and Tait combining with John Leslie in a swashbuckling midfield to claim five tries of his own.
Back in union, Tait definitely felt cast in the role of “some kind of Superman”. That didn’t come naturally to him and required extra application. “Being a worrier anyway, I really felt the pressure to perform and decided I had to re-double my efforts. I was always in bed by nine o’clock, lights out, no telly, heating off. No one wanted to have to share a room with me and the guys that did still tease me about my routine.”
But with the pressure came privilege. “Second-time around with Scotland was a huge honour. My debut had been replacing John Rutherford after just a few minutes in the World Cup and I hadn’t been expecting it. But getting the chance again was just tremendous.
“Flower of Scotland wasn’t the anthem before but when I heard it that day I’m pretty sure I was greetin’.”