ALAN Tait is a changed man. I’ve known him for a long time. Not very well, admittedly, but well enough to know that the Alan Tait of old was not a man haunted by self-doubt – the pair were not even Facebook friends. Instead “Taity” was an effervescent, buoyant character who was pretty sure of his own abilities and it is easy to understand why.
As a player he’s won rugby league titles with Widnes and rugby union titles with Newcastle. He scored 17 tries in 27 rugby union Tests for Scotland or 18 tries in 29 Tests if we include his two (victorious) Lions internationals. Add in his Great Britain rugby league matches and his record reads 24 tries in 45 Tests. Splice on his Scotland rugby league record and his final international stats are about 30 tries in 49 Tests. “About 30” because he honestly can’t remember exactly how many tries he scored for Scotland in the 13-man code.
Hell, to cap it all his prescient parents even named him Alan Victor Tait, as if they knew their boy was born a winner. So what changed him? In two words, Newcastle Falcons.
Tait was head coach from 2009-12 before being shown the door by the new owner Seymour Kudri, who brought in Dean Richards to replace him.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Tait then suffered the indignity of several players trumpeting to the press that things were much improved, an unnecessary kick in the teeth to the Scot who was already being measured along the horizontal axis.
“I did take a big knock. It took me a good six months to get over the Falcons. I was a broken man, there is no doubt about it,” says a subdued Tait. “I tried everything I could to keep Newcastle Falcons in that [Premiership] bubble and then you put a lot of blame on yourself. You beat yourself up. It’s something I’ve talked about. Players have people to talk to but the coach gets the sack and in rugby union it’s something we need to look at, looking after coaches, because they have no one to talk to.
“You get the sack and some coaches are lucky and go straight into another job and crack on but I was unlucky. I was way out of the way in the Scottish Borders, out of mind, out of sight and, honestly, six months flies by and two years has gone by and before you know it you are two years out the game and you wonder if you’ll ever get back in.
“I tried my damnedest and so did the players. There were a couple of players, I’ve said, let me down with things they came out with that went on at the club after I left. But that’s part of being a coach, you learn that these players you look after can turn around and stab you in the back. It was my first experience as a head coach, it was a bit of a shock to read the comments, but now I understand it, it’s just part and parcel of it. As head coach you just have to take it.
“I do speak to a lot of coaches still, there are still plenty I can pick up the phone to, so I know I wasn’t a hundred miles away with what I was doing at Newcastle, just a lack of a few players and a bit of money. I believe much of my [rugby] philosophy is still intact and it’s just about getting back on the wagon again.”
That wagon is Scotland’s age-grade rugby, which has been given a huge boost with plans for four regional academies sponsored by BT. The BT Caledonian Academy has already opened in Aberdeen, with three more to follow in Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Borders. While Tait insists that he won’t manage the latter, despite still living in Kelso, he is concerned that the former powerhouse of Scottish rugby is in desperate need of a radical makeover. Tait is involved with the Scotland under-18s, whose 40-strong squad boasts just two Borderers.
“I watched them play matches and the players simply weren’t fit enough”, says the man who looks much the same as he did in his playing days. “The Borders is lagging behind the other regions and I find that disappointing. We’ve got to do something about it because the other teams are all looking properly conditioned.”
Tait’s exact role with the SRU is loosely defined and evolving, he says, on a weekly basis and he is deeply grateful to be given a second opportunity.
He seems perfectly content with his lot coaching Scotland’s best young prospects, despite having had not one but two stints as assistant coach to the full national side, first under Ian McGeechan (2000-03) and again under Frank Hadden (2005-08).
Having played his last Test at the 1999 World Cup against New Zealand at Murrayfield, Tait hung up his boots one year later and jumped straight into coaching on the 2000 tour to New Zealand – a tricky place for a defence coach to earn his spurs, especially one who had only just quit the players’ dressing room. Might he have taken the step into coaching too soon?
“It’s hard to say really,” replies Tait. “How do you get into coaching? It was all fairly new. The chance to coach at national level... I am not one to turn down a challenge and that’s what it was.”
Unwanted by Matt Williams when the Aussie took over in 2003, Tait was brought back on board by Hadden and it was probably his most productive time. He was working with several world-class players while winning a few big games and making the last eight of the 2007 World Cup in France, where the team lost a nail-biting quarter-final to Argentina.
If Tait isn’t quite advising Cotter to imitate Hadden’s wide/wide game, the former centre does believe Scotland need a style of rugby to hang their hat on and, unsurprisingly, it does not include juggernaut forwards running through brick walls.
“I get on really well with Frank,” says Tait. “I still do. His ideas of rugby definitely have lots of pluses in what he was trying to achieve and I appreciate that now. I even took some of his stuff to Newcastle where a bit of our gameplan was Frank Hadden’s style of rugby because I believe there is a place for that type of game.
“It definitely up-skills the players when they get to use the ball in the hands. I like to see big forwards pass the ball and encourage them to do so and that was part of Frank’s philosophy. Unfortunately the Premiership doesn’t quite see it that way. They like to run over the top of people.
“South Africa and England have massive big forwards rumbling up the pitch. If we [Scotland] don’t have them we’ll have to do it a different way. I’ve sat with Vern [Cotter] and I’ve listened to him talk and and I’ve watched some of the sessions and I’m pretty excited. Let’s get quick ball, let’s get things moving. I think he’ll go that way. We’ll try and get a quick style of game and, obviously, to get a quick game you have to get quick ball. Every defence coach in the world is trying to slow ball down so it’s how we take that contact and present the ball and get it away that will be key for us in forging an identity.”
The old enthusiasm bubbles up as Tait gets animated about the sport he loves, only the old cocksure, confident Taity has gone, replaced by an altogether more considered character. Looking back on a long career, as both player and coach, does he have any regrets?
“I’ve just got to 50 this year and maybe it’s a life changer,” says Tait, who has anticipated the question. “I was a stubborn person. I am stubborn and I probably should have listened to people more than I did. I wouldn’t say that I stopped guys from getting opportunities. All the guys who worked with me would confirm that I never, ever stopped them from doing what they wanted to do but no one ever stopped me either.
“I should maybe have had someone there, an older coach to tap me on the shoulder and say: ‘Hey fella, I think you need to rein it in a bit and try this instead’. That’s probably my greatest regret.”