Interview: Kilted Kiwi John Leslie just wanted to do Scotland proud

It is 5am in Edinburgh but early evening in Dunedin, New Zealand, when the retired stunt-double wife of Scotland rugby hero John Leslie brings our conversation to an end. “Honey,” she shouts through from another part of the house, “are you doing the barbie now?”

John Leslie breaks clear to score Scotland's opening try after only 10 seconds in the 33- 20 victory over Wales in the Five Nations at Murrayfield in 1999.

Leslie’s better half Carmel was a stand-in for TV’s Xena: Warrior Princess
whose kick-ass routines in a fantasy version of Ancient Greece involved leaping into the air above a foe, somersaulting once and crashing down on top of the poor wretch, although I’m sure this isn’t the reason he quickly accedes to her request. Judging by the wails of his kids, they’re bored, hungry and hot – where he lives it’s 30 degrees in the shade right now.

“Sorry, mate,” he says, “but listen, I love Scotland. I’d forgotten this was an anniversary year until you told me. I’ve fallen out of touch with those guys. In the social media age there’s no excuse for that so I must send a few messages. Is there going to be a reunion at all? … ”

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“Those guys” are the rest of the dark blue team who won the last-ever Five Nations 20 years ago when there was something of the comic-book adventurer about Leslie as well. Eleven days after pitching up here he was claiming his first Scotland cap. Ten seconds into the championship opener he was plunging for a try – “Still the fastest in tournament history, right?”

Then, his mission completed as a kilted Kiwi, when the tall, dark, handsome centre zoomed back across the sky from whence he’d came, the reaction was similar to that of the backwater beneficiaries of a visitor with mystical powers: “Just who was 
that man?”

In John Leslie’s story – and that of his younger brother, Martin, the flanker, and another member of the Class of ’99 – we must start with “Who was the grandfather?” This was Andy Leslie Snr, originally from Linlithgow who played football for Linlithgow Daisy, forerunners of the Rose, emigrated to New Zealand, married a fellow Scot out there and, in 1932, returned to Scotland and Hibernian. He made ten appearances for Hibs, at that point struggling to deal with Albion Rovers and Bo’ness in the old Second Division, and scored four goals. He returned to New Zealand with the nickname “Pudgy” which seemed to be no impediment to him winning four caps for the national round-ball team.

Andy jnr, son of Pudgy, opted for the egg and made it all the way to the All Blacks as the mid-1970s skipper of a XV featuring the talents of Sid Going and Grant Batty, who trounced a touring Scotland in Auckland during a ’75 monsoon, then delivered the classic post-match quip: “This has been one of the greatest days in New Zealand swimming.”

Andy jnr’s sons desperately wanted to sport the silver fern on their shirts, too, and our man, now 48, seems to have been especially unlucky this didn’t happen. “I had my heart set on it when I was with Otago and tried as hard as I could but just didn’t get that break,” he says. “By then I was 28. I wanted to keep enjoying my rugby and the chance came to move to Japan [with Fukuoka Sanix Bombs] but I was going to have five months to kill before heading up there. Then Jim Telfer got in touch. Would I like to play for 
Glasgow [then Caledonians, now Warriors]? I turned out in one game and then suddenly I was running out at Murrayfield with Scotland. It was 
crazy. It was amazing.”

Well, Leslie’s debut against South Africa two months before the Five Nations wasn’t quite that straightforward. Kilted Kiwis was the Sunday name for New Zealanders who could present sepia images of their stern and stoic Scottish grannies at the gates to the national stadium and, under new eligibility rules, qualify for a game. Others dubbed them mercenaries.

“I put my foot in it,” says Leslie, recalling the first time he spoke as a new cap. “I answered some of the questions from the media in a prickly way and I shouldn’t have done. I was just naive. One of the questions was something like: ‘Do you feel Scottish?’ I couldn’t really comment on being a Scot because I’m not. I mean, I am, but I didn’t think after just 11 days in the country I could tell this reporter who’d probably lived in Scotland all his life what being Scottish felt like.

“As a result, I got painted as being a bit ungrateful for the opportunity to win a cap and I was really horrified by that. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. I was trying to come across so stoked and honoured and so loving the opportunity to play for Scotland and so grateful for it. Big error.”

Sean Lineen was the original Kilted Kiwi and he achieved a Grand Slam with Scotland whereas fellow antipodean Dan Parks did not. Now Parks alone could not be held responsible for that but on one occasion he was booed onto the Murrayfield pitch and booed off it ten minutes later, and you won’t guess the crowd’s reaction to him missing two kicks. The stadium prides itself on being sophisticated and a cut above the football rabble but that was a long, long way from its finest moment. Then there was Brendan Laney whose elevation to the team provoked such consternation that coach 
Ian McGeechan quipped that, being responsible for selecting the player, he would probably end up being hung from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle.

Leslie knew the “Call yourself 
Scottish?” challenge would present itself; he just wishes he hadn’t dropped the ball. “I was elated at having the chance to play for Scotland and get a taste of big-time international rugby because I thought it was going to pass me by. Dad was thrilled and so proud. He thought it was the best thing and so did I.”

Traditionalists may insist on a pure, haggis-fed Scottish XV but they’re also partial to a winning team. Leslie helped in the creation of one with the most sensational of introductions. When the real ball was up for grabs straight from kick-off against Wales, he did not fumble it.

It took a while to track him down for this interview. Calls and e-mails to the coaching school he runs went unanswered. He says he lives quietly in Dunedin, a city built by Scots. “The streets here are laid out like a little Edinburgh.” Do Scots travellers happen by to remind him of ’99? “Now and again, mate, but I prefer to slip by kind of undercover.” There seem to be lingering traces of self-consciousness over the speed of his selection. “I get that there were grumbles about it,” he admits, “but all I was back then was a guy who wanted to play good rugby.” What is not in dispute is that for the land of his grandfather, and for Pudgy, he did.

“Our grandfather died before Martin and I were born but we knew of his exploits and, of course, that he was a proud Scot. When our father had his career we were little ’uns. Sure, we saw a few clips of him playing but coverage of sport wasn’t like it is now. Rugby was amateur back then and he earned his two dollars a game or whatever and to us he was simply Dad.

“There was a big old box in the house full of all kind of balls, not just rugby ones, and tennis rackets and cricket bats and frisbees. Dad didn’t push us towards rugby; he and Mum simply wanted us to enjoy a healthy, give-sports-a-go lifestyle. But when we went to rugby, sure he was pleased.”

Two decades ago, the portents for Scotland were not good. At the start of the international season a triumvirate of former captains – Jim Aitken, 
Finlay Calder and David Sole,
immediately dubbed the Gang of Three – wrote to The Scotsman expressing concern for the “parlous” state of the game as it struggled to adapt to professionalism and warned that the international side were about to “slide down into the second division of world rugby”.

But out on the grass the Gang of Three, comprising Gregor Townsend, Alan Tait and Leslie, had other ideas. The ’99 midfield were thrilling, full of verve and flair. It was Duncan Hodge’s ill fortune to get injured against Wales, allowing the trio to meld and magic up some great scores for a tournament-record 16 tries. But Hodge it was who kicked off that day and all Leslie had to do was pluck the ball from the air then, with that rangy stride which in New Zealand earned him the nickname “Longshanks”, race for the line.

“It wasn’t that simple, mate,” he laughs. “Duncan and I practised that start all week but couldn’t get it right. Then, on the day, he struck the ball so sweet and I got the jump. It was a move right out of Jim Telfer’s handbook. I loved Jim. He gave me my chance and a lot of say in the team. He wasn’t the most technical of coaches but that’s the kind I like because he didn’t bog us down in detail. Some folks might think him hardcore and a bit rigid but, for me, he was very 
modern, a cool guy and a great motivator. Before that first game he had a lot of funny things to say about the Welsh and how we were going to outsmart them. His whole build-up had been immaculate. We went on the pitch without fear but with a full endorsement to express ourselves.”

Briefly, Leslie reflected on his miss-step with the media. “I was like: ‘Gee whizz, 11 days ago I’d never been to Scotland and here I am about to play for them.’ Listen, New Zealand takes its rugby really, really seriously and maybe I was a bit uptight when I arrived and probably that was why I got offside with some folks. It wasn’t that I reckoned I was ‘the man’, or anything. But I thought I could do well for Scotland, do them proud.” And he did.

“It was a tremendous feeling standing for the anthem. Mum and Dad were in the crowd and my little brother was on the bench, waiting for his chance. Flower of Scotland just has to be the coolest – all my Kiwi buddies love it. The Welsh one is pretty cool, too, and there were 80,000 people that day, going hard. And then after the game, because rugby still had that beautiful element of not having been professional for very long, there was a fantastic celebration and a party which just blew 
my mind.”

Leslie almost didn’t make the second game, against England at Twickenham. Indeed he very nearly killed himself. He explains: “I’d settled into Edinburgh nicely – loved the beautiful city, the cool people – and wanted to see more of the country, so I took a road-trip to the Highlands. The beaches on Lewis were amazing, so I borrowed a surfboard but the waves were really grungy and I got myself into some trouble. Luckily I was able to scramble out of it.”

After that Leslie was glad to get back to the security of the rugby field where in the Calcutta Cup clash
 Martin Johnson stood on his neck. “That wasn’t the worst thing that happened. Seconds before Tim Rodber rammed his knee in my back; that was what dropped me. But the worst thing was that we lost the game. I don’t know how; we were much the better team. Taity scored two 
magnificent tries.”

Leslie loved playing with Tait – “A fantastic player and we had a great combo.” He would find it harder to dovetail with the more mercurial Townsend in later seasons on his way to 23 caps but not in ’99. “We played great hit-and-run rugby that season. We played smart and we let the ball go.” But the championship success was a team effort, exemplified by middle-row Stuart Grimes’ try against Ireland – “Go Grimesy!” shouts Leslie down the phone in recognition of one Scotland’s all-time best scores – and the two claimed by brother Martin in the rout of France in Paris.

“There was another great party after that game and then we had to sober up and wait and see if Wales could do us a little favour against England. Back in Edinburgh, some of the guys went to the Grassmarket to watch that match in a pub. I went to my flat and, when Scott Gibbs crashed over for his try, I was dancing feverishly round my living-room. Neil Jenkins still had to make the conversion – he did – and I grabbed a pair of pants and rushed out to join the team.”

For Leslie a return visit to his adopted country is long overdue. “It’s high time I caught up with those fellas again. I’m so appreciative and so grateful for the welcome they gave me – that was what I wanted to 
happen and it matters to me more than anything. Of course, we became champions which was brilliant but it was because we were such a tight team that we won.”

Right now, though, he must fire up that 
barbie…