Interview: Scotland rugby legend Jim Telfer

Jim Telfer is still a keen follower of a game where he was always at the forefront. Picture: Gareth Easton
Jim Telfer is still a keen follower of a game where he was always at the forefront. Picture: Gareth Easton
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IT IS the single most successful sporting franchise in the recorded history of sport. Going back to their first-ever game in 1903, the New Zealand All Blacks have won an astonishing 78 per cent of all their matches. And, like a decent malt, they are improving with age. In recent years they have pulled up those famous black socks and, under their previous coach Graham Henry, the Blacks reached an 85 per cent win ratio. Since Steve Hansen took over the reins following the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks have lost two games and drawn another couple to reach 90 per cent success.

By way of comparison, the teams playing under Sir Alex Ferguson, the most celebrated football manager the UK has ever produced, won 58 per cent of their matches, the sort of statistic that would be viewed as catastrophic by the Kiwis who visit BT Murrayfield on Saturday.

Scotland’s record against them needs to be viewed in that light. While still without a win, the Scots have at least earned two draws against New Zealand and Jim Telfer had a hand in both. He was a fresh-faced 24-year-old flanker in 1964 when the teams slugged out a 0-0 draw at Murrayfield and he coached the 1983 side which earned a 25-25 draw.

In his time coaching Scotland, Telfer was accused of slavishly aping the All Blacks. If you are going to imitate anyone, it might as well be the best, but he never managed to beat the opposition he so admired either as player or coach. So, does that failure haunt the Telfer’s every waking moment, as some might imagine?

“No no,” he assures me from his home in the Borders. “You tend to remember the victories more than the defeats. As regards the All Blacks, we took some beatings when I was around but I never felt disgraced and I always felt we had been beaten by a better team. As regards the record of never beating them, these things happen. Scotland have never beaten them, it may happen some time soon, I don’t know. I’ve just accepted it and, hopefully, we can get closer to them.

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“In 1964 it was a pretty dour game at Murrayfield. I sort of prevented a try by diving on the ball close to the Scotland line and Colin Meads kicked me a bit in the back as he drove over and he was penalised and we got out of jail. A nil-nil draw seems dour and it was pretty dour but we at least kept our line intact. They had Don Clarke and people like that playing, Wilson Whinnery, it was a good team.”

In a near-perfect example of the rollercoaster nature of sport, Telfer coached the 1983 Lions Tour to New Zealand when the team was was blackwashed 4-0. He returned disillusioned and disheartened, not least about his own abilities as a coach. He had no intention of coaching Scotland that season until the players, John Rutherford to the fore, changed his mind. The draw just months later was probably the closest Scotland have come to beating the All Blacks, with Peter Dods’ touchline conversion sailing agonisingly wide.

“There is a wee bit history in that,” Telfer says. “They [New Zealand] came over with about six or seven top class players not there. I have a feeling that some of them didn’t bother touring, there were certainly some people who did not come. Stu Wilson was the captain but, in the Lions series, it had been Andy Dalton, who did not travel. So it was a weakened All Blacks side but that is their prerogative. Certainly, on the day we fought them tooth and nail, point for point if you like, and that is the only way Scotland will have a chance, if they can match point for point, try for try and be in the game with ten of 15 minutes to go.

“In the recent past we have been beaten at half-time but, in 1983, we were always in the game. There were a few Lions playing for Scotland that day and they took no prisoners. They were obviously delighted to get the chance to play the All Blacks so quickly after having been beaten in New Zealand and players like Colin Deans and Iain Milne, who had not been selected for the Lions, had a point to prove.”

Telfer’s point about being well beaten by half-time is well made. In eight meetings between Scotland and New Zealand in this new millennium, the average score is 44-10. That would be damning at any time but especially so in light of what Ireland came so close to achieving this time last year when only a late, late try by replacement Ryan Crotty prevented Dublin’s many bars running dry as fans celebrated what would have been their team’s most famous victory.

Ireland are coached by Scotland head coach Vern Cotter’s former Clermont sidekick Joe Schmidt. Is there any chance Scotland can, at the very least, give the crowd something to shout about on Saturday?

“I think it would be tremendous if Scotland were leading with two minutes to go,” says Telfer. “But Ireland were a better team than Scotland at that time last year. They were really up for it and New Zealand were not. I think it was the last game of the All Blacks tour and I think they were tired and they probably took it a little lightly – not complacent, but they were probably thinking of home. They got a fright that day. The thing about the All Blacks and why we haven’t been able to beat them when we have beaten the other two teams [Australia and South Africa] is that they are consistent. It doesn’t matter what the weather conditions are. Normally when we have won [against the big teams] the weather has been atrocious but the All Blacks revel in atrocious weather just as much as we do. They have that consistency of performance that we don’t always see from the Wallabies and the Springboks.

“I am not telling the coaches or the players what they should be doing, but from my point of view we could have as good a scrum and lineout as they have so we should decide before we go out that we are going to win our own ball. The problem with Scotland in the past has been that we haven’t retained the ball long enough. If we are to have a chance of beating the All Blacks, we need to get possession and then keep hold of the ball, not give them any turnovers.

“That may be difficult but I don’t think that they are so formidable as people think or as formidable as they have been in the past because some of the players are getting on a bit. [Richie] McCaw still plays very well but their strength is in the front five at the moment, especially the second row who are long, rangy players and can do things in midfield. But they have been beaten sometimes in recent years at the breakdown by teams that have really competed there because they, the forwards who should be winning the ball, want to be somewhere else.”

The veteran coach is surely correct that prevention is better than cure. Stopping the All Blacks at source – ie the breakdown – is infinitely easier than halting the likes of Sonny Bill Williams or Julian Savea once they have a hurry on.

“We shouldn’t lack spirit,” Telfer continues “and we shouldn’t let the score run away because we are as good in defence as any team in the northern hemisphere, so if we get a good start we need to keep it going because they can win games with 25-30 per cent of the ball. They will always play rugby and we can’t sit back and watch them because they will always be positive. That is why I am a great advocate of the All Blacks, I admire how they play. They are so inventive they are always half a step, if not a full step, in front of everyone else including England, who could be a great team. Everyone is trying to catch up and they need to catch up quick.”

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