Six Nations: Keeping a date with their destiny
TWENTY years ago this week, Scotland started a Five Nations campaign that remains the most tumultuous in 139 years of international competition. Yet when the Championship kicked off there seemed nothing particularly remarkable about the tournament other than England's awesome firepower.
For Jim Telfer, though, this was Scotland's big chance, a confluence of circumstances that could produce the rugby equivalent of a perfect storm. A Scotland side that was "a real battle-hardened group of players, as good as any we've ever had" faced England and France, the two teams they couldn't beat away from home, at Murrayfield. It was also the year after the 1989 Lions tour, when the team which supplies the bulk of the Lions – in this case, England – traditionally underperforms. Several Scots had also tasted disappointment with the Lions and were desperate to make amends.
"The legacy of the Lions loomed large before that tournament," says Telfer. "In 1984 we won the Grand Slam the year after the Lions toured New Zealand, and in 1990 we had the Lions coach (Ian McGeechan], the Lions captain (Finlay Calder], not to mention some very prominent players such as Gavin and Scott Hastings, David Sole, JJ (John Jeffrey], and young half-backs Gary Armstrong and Craig Chalmers.
"There was an air of optimism. We fancied our chances in Cardiff, while Ireland weren't a great team, but we had an appalling record against England at Twickenham and hadn't won in Paris since 1969."
In the amateur era, players from different countries rarely locked horns. Yet nine Scots toured as Lions in 1989, and the experience broke down any mystique about their opponents. "All of the Scottish boys came back knowing that the England, Ireland and Wales players weren't really all that great," says Telfer. "After '89 we knew that we were as good as them, if not better. Players like (Jeremy] Guscott and maybe Rory Underwood were outstanding and we knew we hadn't players of that quality, but we were confident that we could match players like (Mick] Skinner and (Mike] Teague. We had the Lions coach, too, so we knew how the other teams would play. England were very stodgy and predictable, while Ian and I produced a game that was quick and fast-flowing. We knew if we could match England, Wales and Ireland up front that we could beat all three teams."
Telfer, by then a headmaster, had just come back into international rugby after a break of several years but still knew most of the players. "I was looked on as a strict disciplinarian," laughs Telfer, whose beasting sessions on the scrum machines in 1990 became legendary. "I came through the system in 1984, and was asked back. By then I was a headmaster and wouldn't stand for any nonsense. That pack of forwards would have done anything for me. I had the feeling that we had the right choice of players that would reach high levels of intensity every time they played.
"They all knew me: Finlay's first club was Melrose, I coached Derek White as an Edinburgh under-21 player, and knew JJ from the Borders. David Sole was the only one I didn't know very well. My job was to put a bit of hardness into the team; Ian's job was to be the master craftsman. I saw myself as No.2, which was where I wanted to be. I could speak my mind whenever I wanted to."
Telfer had submitted a tactical plan for Scottish rugby in the Seventies that called for Scotland to play a fast rucking game that made a virtue out of its players' limitations. He still believes that the uniqueness of Scotland's style of play was the difference between success and failure in that year.
"We didn't alter the way we played," he remembers. "We played with quick ball at the ruck, moving it away from the breakdown as quickly as possible. Scotland had a tradition of wet weather and small, fast forwards who would get to the breakdown quickly, and backs who weren't particularly skilful but were very brave, so we had a tradition of producing players who played the game at a fast pace. That's why we were the only country in the world where the ruck was absolutely central to the way we played. We couldn't change the way we played because we didn't have the players to do anything else – it wasn't a limited game, more one played at pace where we kicked to get in behind the opposition, frustrated the opposition and took our chances when they came along."
If Telfer had harboured high hopes before the Championship kicked off, he was brought back down to earth with a hefty bump in Dublin. Ireland were a poor team with little star quality, which was reflected in their lack of Lions representatives, with no Irishmen playing in either of the two Test wins. Yet Scotland laboured horribly at a squally Lansdowne Road, failing to impose themselves on their unexpectedly feisty hosts until a second try from Derek White at the death.
"We were lucky to beat Ireland, there's no doubt about that," he says. "The only thing that mattered was that we were ahead at the final whistle, even though that was about the only time we'd ever been ahead. We were seven points down at half-time but we attacked through the back row a bit more during the second half and we managed to win. Ian McGeechan had the flu and didn't go to Dublin so I had to take charge of the team, which was the first time for six or seven years, so we were lucky to get out of that."
It's a familiar Telfer refrain that you learn most in adversity, and there's never been a better illustration of that than the opening match. "By this time the players had a very modern attitude in that they were very self-critical. We had meetings after the game before we went to any functions and discussed how we'd done. David Sole and Gavin Hastings were pretty diplomatic, but folk like Gary Armstrong, Chalmers, Finlay Calder and JJ are pretty near the knuckle when it comes to the truth, so even though we'd won that game we knew we hadn't played well and we knew we had to do better if we were going to beat any of the other teams.
"There were lots of strong leaders, all at the peak of their game. JJ had captained his club, Finlay had captained the Lions, David Sole had captained his country, and Gary Armstrong has been as good a captain as Scotland has ever had, not to mention one of the greatest players ever to pull on a Scottish jersey. Chalmers knew what he wanted, even at 20. David Sole was a very quiet captain, a very reserved bloke, so a lot of the shouting came from other players. Gavin and Scott were very noisy, as were JJ and Finlay."
If the force had been with Scotland in Dublin, they were the recipients of even more good fortune when the French came calling to Murrayfield. First of all John Jeffrey took one for the team and then, as if divine providence had intervened, the winds of change began to blow for Scotland.
"The French had (flanker] Alain Carminati sent off for stamping on John Jeffrey's head when we were just 3-0 up and at half-time the wind miraculously changed direction and really helped us in the second half. After Carminati went off we knew we were going to win. It was just a question of picking up points, and with France a player short and with the wind in our favour we won 21-0.
"Winning that second match was a turning point. We'd won two out of two without playing well, and we started to believe. The players were very honest with themselves and they knew we were in with a good chance. It was very intense because you didn't get a week in between as you do now, and we'd missed out on the first weekend of the tournament. That helped us though because while other teams had to sit out a weekend we gained momentum after Ireland and France, and by the time we went to Wales we really knew it was on."
Even back then, Wales were no pushovers at home. England had absolutely steamrollered Paul Thorburn's side, Will Carling shrugging off five would-be tacklers at Twickenham as Wales weren't just beaten, but humiliated as they lost 34-6.
Telfer knew that the next week, in front of their own, Wales would be an altogether different proposition. And he was right.
"We thought there would be a backlash because the Welsh mentality is strange; they're very introverted if they get away from their shores, but playing at home means a hell of a lot to them, gives them an incredible confidence. You can never take the Welsh for granted when they're at home. It was a terrible game, a real slog, and we won through a try by (Damian] Cronin. We rode our luck again."
This was the point at which Telfer finally let himself believe. He remained cautious, but it was now a cautious optimism. "We really benefited from the fact that we didn't pick up any injuries, so we got better with every game and built in confidence. You could feel this bond developing, especially after we beat Ireland in Dublin. By the time we faced Wales, we had a grim determination and a real feeling that this was our time."
And he was right – it was…
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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