Interview: Jim Telfer on infamous Scotland tour to Argentina

Former Scotland captain and coach Jim Telfer relaxes at home in Galashiels. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Former Scotland captain and coach Jim Telfer relaxes at home in Galashiels. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

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On the train down to the Borders to meet Jim 
Telfer, the front-page headline on a fellow passenger’s newspaper reads: “Don’t fly with me Argentina.” This turns out to be an over-dramatised, overwritten and utterly underwhelming yarn about a TV celebrity’s difficulties boarding a plane, and a far cry from the experiences in Buenos Aires 47 years ago of our rugby legend.

The roughest games. The dirtiest
tackling. The worst cynicism. A straight-arm block which some thought might have killed their man. The genesis of the “99” call later adopted by the British Lions where a whole team engages in simultaneous retaliation. This was Scotland’s expedition to Argentina in September 1969.

And yet it was completely under-dramatised and under-written. Not accorded full test status by the SRU and, with no representative from The Scotsman (or any other newspaper) present, it only received a few paragraphs of coverage. You might think about calling it the forgotten tour, although be careful not to do that in the vicinity of the 76-year-old Telfer’s trim Galashiels home, because he has good cause to remember all the controversies, both on and off the field, when bullet holes in the hotel walls were the very first indication that this would be no jolly.

Telfer the coach has masterminded many of Scotland’s greatest days with the oval ball. And we all know and can recite his “This is your f****n’ Everest, boys” speech to the Lions of 1997. But I want to find out about Telfer the player, captain and back-row stalwart because he reckons the rallying cry he delivered in ’69 topped even that one.

This was necessary, he says, for a very good reason. “For the first time in my life I’d just seen grown men crying,” he tells me. “Not through cowardice but because of frustration, injustice and hopelessness.”

While his wife Frances fetches the tea and a selection of Borders biscuits, 
Telfer confirms he has properly retired from rugby since giving up coaching Melrose under-18s. “Fifty-one years,” he says, “where did the time go? I remember when that other nutter, Bill Dickinson, came over from Ayrshire to coach Selkirk. ‘How old are you now, Bill?’ I said. ‘71’, he said. ‘What a stupid old fool you are,’ I said. But I was still at it at 75!” While no longer involved, though, the passion for the game burns bright.

Telfer stresses that Argentine 
rugby has changed, and for the better. The crowd at Murrayfield for today’s autumn Test should see progressive, flair-filled play. In ’69 it was all about their forwards – “Big blokes, big steak-eaters” – who were well-practised in the darker arts.

I’m armed with yellowing cuttings of what reports were published back then, with those in our paper being accompanied by Emilio Coia caricatures of a bull-necked brute preparing to launch a pass only instead of the ball he’s holding an opponent’s head which has come detached from the body. This probably didn’t seem so funny in ’69 on account of not being so far wide of the mark.

The only photograph I could find is of the players arriving home, some wearing ponchos and gringo hats and holding cuddlier versions of the puma than the ones encountered in Argentina. Telfer’s first words after touching down at Turnhouse Airport were: “How did the Borders teams get on at the weekend?”

He laughs when I read them back. “I didn’t get a poncho,” he confirms, “but I came back with an onyx guitar. Lovely it was, too, until one of my brother-in-law’s kids ran into it and it smashed.”

Maybe you won’t be surprised that, for Telfer, there was no funny cape. You think of him as having been a hard man, perhaps – hardest of the hard. “No I wasn’t,” he says plaintively. “That was a myth. I knew the laws of the game and maybe ways round them. I was smarter than the average bear and I could look after myself.”

Certainly he had to do that on 1969’s excursion although, unlike some in the dark blue party, he was already tour-hardened.

“I’d been to New Zealand with the Lions in ’66, South Africa with the 
Borders in ’67 and then back to South Africa with the Lions the following year. The itinerary was four midweek district games and two against Argentina and, although these weren’t rated as proper Test matches, we would still be playing for our reputations.”

Telfer has rarely ever held back, either in tackle or anecdote, and his plain-speaking is in evidence today. With pride, he says that while the ’67 Borders were praised for their behaviour, on and off the pitch, the captain of the Cardiff team playing in SA at the same time “had to be helped to his feet to speak at the airport because he was so drunk”. And when it came to 1969, Scotland were not about to make the same mistakes as the Wales team who’d toured Argentina the year before. “They’d come a cropper. The Welsh could be a bit bumptious, and had the audacity to send more or less reserves. We watched film of their games and they seemed to treat the trip as holiday.”

If there had been complacency, however, the atmosphere on the streets would have quickly removed it. The mood in Argentina had grown more doomy since Wales’ visit. The Cordobazo and the Rosariazo were uprisings against the military dictatorship of General Juan Carlos Ongania with strikers being joined by students in the protests, and Rosario, setting for the latter, was on Scotland’s schedule.

“Our party included David MacMyn, a former SRU president, and on the coach trip to Rosario he’d been telling us that when he’d toured Argentina in the 1920s there had been riots in the city. Bang on cue the place exploded again. We were confined to our hotel because the streets weren’t safe. From the roof we could see the protesters setting fire to buses. Woof! Another one would burst into flames.”

I’d been intrigued to learn more about Argentina ’69 ever since Alastair McHarg told me how he was minding his own business on a park-bench when suddenly the cold steel of a 
soldier’s bayonet was prodding into his neck – and a quip from Sandy Carmichael about the Rosario game being delayed for 48 hours “because of snipers – surely a first”.

“That’s funny but at the time we weren’t laughing,” adds Telfer who as well as skipper was in charge of 
training. “It was decided that the team walking to the Rosario game would be the safest option. We went in groups of four in case the military mistook us for a mob.” By then Scotland had lost the first match against Argentina – and centre Ian Murchie. “He was caught by a stiff-arm tackle from Alessandro Travaglini. Argentina were notorious for that at the time and he was lifted clean off his feet. It was awful, the 
worst I’d seen.”

Murchie, who’d scored three tries in the opening two district games, was probably viewed as the Scots’ danger-man. But, leaving them to play on with 14 men, he suffered a dislocated shoulder which finished his tour and also his international career. A few years ago he told The Scotsman how a 
photographer had sent him an image of the block at the point of impact. “My feet had been thrown above my head which was wrapped round Travaglini’s arm,” he said.

“We lost that match 20-3,” continues Telfer. “All through the tour the 
referees were biased. The crowds, kept behind fences like caged animals, were one-eyed and would throw coins at our full-back Colin Blaikie when he had to kick close to the touchline, hitting him on the head.

“After that game was when I saw tears in the room. We were so far away from home. The matches had been violent, topped off by Ian’s injury which had sickened everyone. As captain I’d have been prepared to take my men off the field and probably that wouldn’t have gone down well back at home. ‘Not 
rugger’ and all that.

“But there was definitely a circling of the wagons that afternoon. I said to the guys: ‘Look, no one in the rest of the world is bothered about us. These Argentinian refs are speaking to us in English beforehand then when the matches start and we try to 
query something they’re saying: ‘No comprende’. We’re going to have to sort this out for ourselves.’

“We’d had a setback right at the start of the tour when the late Kenny Oliver fell down a rabbit hole in training and we were denied a replacement. I found out 20 years later this had been the SRU’s doing. That was a kick in the teeth. Their attitude was: ‘You’ve made your bed – lie in it.’” Scotland, though, weren’t interested in assuming the horizontal position.

“I told the team there could be no more backward steps. I looked at the men I had: Sandy, Frank Laidlaw, Ian McLaughlan, Al McHarg and that hard bastard [Rodger] Arneil. I wasn’t sure we would beat Argentina the next time but I was confident they’d give it a right good go.”

Away from the pitch, the tourists were well looked after. “There was a strong Scottish link: Scots had gone out to Argentina and built up the country through banking, shipbuilding and farming. We’re popular the world over when maybe some of the other countries in this union are not. The last time I was in Argentina was the 2001 World Cup Sevens when two teams were booed: Chile just over the border and England.”

Now Telfer is chuckling; there was another reason Scots were welcome visitors. “Rugby in Scotland, let’s not kid ourselves, is middle-class and on that trip the Argentinians liked that we were Fettes and Loretto and Daniel Stewart’s – at least some of us were. There were lots of functions, high commission, quite stuffy, and they invariably began with one of our hosts asking: ‘Now I went to Fettes – did anyone else go to there?’ They weren’t much interested in my school, Gala Academy. I was an inferior person! Well, you probably know I’m kind of left-wing…

“Where you went to school didn’t matter to us but it did to them. We did have some who were ordinary blokes but while Peter Stagg was hoi polloi and Oxford Uni he was also hard as nails and Arneil was posh and yet a real soldier as well.”

So once the colour of your old school tie had been established, what was the chit-chat at the hacienda barbecues – the political situation, perhaps? “Oh no,” says Telfer. “The Peron era had happened and Falklands War was still to come but the Argentinians we met didn’t want to talk about politics; they probably thought they were above it. They were very well-heeled. In Argentina then and maybe now there were the rich and there were the poor. I 
never saw slums like those in Argentina, not even in South Africa. I was struck by the how high the walls were round the polo grounds. There were nice parks in Buenos Aires but quite often they’d be full of soldiers exercising their horses. I’d see glamorous women in fur coats stepping over great muckle holes in the pavements – that really emphasised the gulf.”

Protocol had to be observed and the younger players like Gordon Brown were tutored in diplomatic politesse. “Don’t mention the Falklands” was the advice, although Broon got confused and didn’t understand why Argentinians were so interested in the Hebrides. On days off the official advice was not to go out alone. “So we went on trips to the cinema and I dare say some of the guys might have fraternised with local women. I was 
married but rugby players are 
players after all.”

Regarding downtime on tours, Telfer himself was a “kipper” and not a “wrecker”. These were the categories given to the Lions of the previous year. A wrecker was the type who indulged in “overgrown public-schoolboy nonsense” while a kipper tried to get some kip. One night the malarkey on a train got so out of hand that the two carriages containing the Lions were uncoupled and left in a siding on the South African veld. Some kippers spoke of being unable to beat the wreckers so ended up joining them. “I never did,” says our man with pride in his chuckling.

Scotland’s stand-off in Argentina was Ian Robertson, the future commentator and, by the Lions’ classifications, a wrecker. He’s reminisced about being severely hungover for training, worked like a dog by a seething Telfer, then told he was walking back to base 20 miles away. Robertson’s response – based on having won some money on the horses – was to announce that having just bought the team bus, el capitan would be the one walking. Having taken ownership of the hotel as well, Telfer could pick up his bags at reception! Telfer laughs saying he doesn’t remember the incident. “Ian was extremely bright, a bit above the rest of us, but out on the field, I’m sure he’d agree, not the 
bravest. I had a nickname for him which you’d better not print. We were diametrically opposed but got on pretty well. A great bloke.”

Scotland won all the district matches on their South American sojourn and were determined to even the score against Argentina in the final game. Telfer remembers his team-talk. “Folk talk about the one I gave to the ’97 Lions but this one was more brutal and, I think, better. The 
captain was the main man in rugby at that time; what you told your men was vital. I said the match would be a battle and one we simply had to win. If one of us got attacked everyone was to go in. That was how the 99 call 
originated.”

The game would be won in the scrum. “Scrums went so low on that tour that Laidlaw was heading the ball back out. The heads of the front rows were right down on the ground and the aggro of those games was such that the second rows were coming through with their boots and those heads were being kicked. It was dangerous.”

But win Scotland did by 6-3 through a Carmichael try and a Blaikie penalty. “I’ve never been disappointed by Scots on tour and I wasn’t that day,” says Telfer. “It was a great victory but unfortunately no one saw it. We came home and the reaction was: ‘Big deal.’

He believes, though, that Scottish rugby grew up in Argentina. “The tour was the making of McLauchlan, Laidlaw, Carmichael, Arneil and Brown who all became Lions in ’71 and it did wonders for McHarg as well. I give Mighty Mouse the credit for hardening up our rugby right through the ’70s after I’d gone. He was a lot tougher than me.”

And what of Argentinian rugby? “In my speech as we left I said it was too cynical and that it had to change. This was translated into Spanish and got cheers. I only found out later that the speech had been heavily edited so it went: ‘Scotland have really enjoyed themselves, Argentina is a great country, thank you very much’!”

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