Interview: Grand Slam hero Derek White on Jim Telfer - ‘These days you’d call it bullying’

It was Scotland vs Ireland in a different age – back when we used to thump them regularly, rather than they us – and the lolloping lofty pine of the Dark Blue back row had undergone one of those extended spells of soulful introspection which were typical of him and he’d arrived at a decision. “I’d had enough,” recalls Derek White, “and I told JJ that after the game I’d be jacking it in.” So what happened? Fellow breakaway man John Jeffrey and the rest of the team got to look on and cheer as the big man crashed over for two tries.

Derek White drives forward during the 1991 World Cup quarter-final win over Western Samoa at Murrayfield. Picture: SNS
Derek White drives forward during the 1991 World Cup quarter-final win over Western Samoa at Murrayfield. Picture: SNS

If he’d stuck to his guns, the others would definitely have tried one last time to talk him out of quitting. But it wasn’t White’s celebrity as the hero of the day which persuaded him to change his mind. He simply concluded that he might be doing something right after all. So Jim Telfer was pleased, yes? The coach must have congratulated him at the final 
whistle, a big, bashed-ear-to-bashed-ear man-hug between master and pupil? “Not likely!” he laughs.

The relationship between Telfer and White? It’s complicated, as they say in 
romcoms, although who takes the Jennifer
Aniston role given that I don’t think yon bonnie actress has ever smelt of Ralgex, I’m not too sure.

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But that Lansdowne Road victory and White’s plundering were absolutely crucial. Without them, no Grand Slam.

Of all the heroes of 1990 maybe White, now 61, is the most shy and retiring. He was a forward not a back, therefore involved in the dirty work that’s so important but often goes unnoticed by the untrained eye. He was a forward but not David Sole, Captain Headband, or JJ or Finlay Calder, the far more conspicuous white shark and angry rhino of the breakaway unit. And for a long time he’s been exiled in England, way down in Hampshire which is where I find him, a lab technician-turned-financial adviser, after Calder passes me his number with what I take to be a firm character recommendation: “Deep man.”

We’ll get back to 1990 shortly – there are only 170 days until the 30th anniversary, after all – but first let’s talk World Cups and Samoans. This is the current Scotland team’s challenge in Kobe on Monday, just as it was for the White-era XV in a quarter-final of the ’91 tournament. The Scots enjoyed home advantage at Murrayfield in a competition spread round all of the Five Nations and the opposition back then were known as Western Samoa, although there was nothing reduced about them.

Says our man: “We were wary because they’d caused a shock in the groups by beating Wales at Cardiff Arms Park and only losing 9-3 to Australia who went on to win the cup that year. They were a big, dangerous team. They had players who would go on to play not just rugby league and in world XVs but would win caps for the All Blacks – guys like Frank Bunce and Timo Tagaloa and Stephen Bachop.” They also had Brian Lima, nicknamed “The Chiropractor” because of the shuddering hits which supposedly re-arranged the bones of his victims, and Mathew Vaea who would manage Samoa at the 2011 World Cup only to end up being censured by his home village for treating the tournament as a holiday. The fine? 100 pigs.

“But we had Gav [Gavin Hastings],” adds White. “He kind of semi-joined us in the back-row, involving himself in real rugby for a change! But he played a blinder, charging into the Samoans every chance he got. Maybe him being this auxiliary flanker confused them. They were as tough as we’d been expecting but we eventually got control of the game, kept it tight, didn’t allow the Samoans to prey on guys who’d become isolated and I’m pretty sure JJ scored a couple of tries.”

He did, but what a contest there was between the two blond-thatched members of the Scotland pack over who could cross the whitewash most often. The private battle ended 11-each. “JJ had already retired by the time I drew level with him in a match against England [Murrayfield, 1992]. He was working for TV that day and when I was walking back after my try I spotted his daft haircut in the commentary-box. I was grinning away and wanted him to see me but he had his head down. I’ve always thought he was watching an action-replay hoping my try hadn’t been legitimate!”

How did White score so many? Modestly, as about most things, he says: “As a No 8, peeling off the base of the scrum when you’re playing with a set of forwards as good as these guys were, I should have been able to bag a few tries. Even if I didn’t score myself, that move would normally set up other possibilities. It still does, in my opinion, although in rugby now for some reason it’s massively underused.” Press White further on what made him so effective and 
frequently so lethal and he’ll eventually
admit to having “soft hands for collecting
the ball and fairly quick feet for being 
6ft 4ins”.

Growing up in Dunbar, he followed his big brother Alastair into playing rugby for the town high school, loving it right away. He progressed to Haddington and then made the quantum leap to Gala; what a culture shock. “It was rugby, but not as I’d known it. Just so much more intense. Gala had a terrific pack with David Leslie and Jim Aitken among six or seven internationalists and I started on the bench. But covering five positions someone was always in the wars so I got plenty of action. Games against Hawick were the fiercest, a bit like Celtic vs Rangers. They were my introduction to the dark arts of rugby. I encountered Alan Tomes for the first time at the bottom of a ruck, needed five stitches to the back of my head and decided: ‘I really hate that guy.’ But I got to know him later on tours and what a smashing fellow he is really!”

In a 44-cap career White seemed the closest Scotland had to a gentle giant and hardly the type to get his retaliation in first. “That’s probably true. I could look after myself – you had to – but I didn’t go looking for a fight.” In the Grand Slam showdown against England, however, he took exception to Jeff Probyn using Sole as a doormat. His punch missed its target, hitting JJ instead. “Woops, wrong Jeffrey!” was his quip, one of the top-five best from that momentous day.

White’s service to Scotland began in March, 1982, winding up in March, ’92. “David Leslie broke his leg in a game before Scotland were due to play Ireland. He’d have been certain to play and I was very upset for him. The Gala coach Johnny Brown said to me: ‘Don’t worry too much, you could be winning your first cap now.’ I didn’t believe him, didn’t think that was ever going to happen, and sure enough Eric Paxton was selected. But the poor guy was made the scapegoat for a defeat and I was chosen for the next game against France.

“I was so nervous. David Johnston was my room-mate at the Braid Hills Hotel and he knew the routine and was a pretty cool customer anyway and I don’t think he rose until 10.30 in the morning. Me, I was skulking about reception from 3am not able to sleep, not knowing what to do with myself and having read the same old golf magazine cover to cover about five times.” The match marked the last-ever appearance of the old Murrayfield scoreboard opposite the main stand. White’s second appearance would be the classic 34-19 victory over Wales in Cardiff, the game where the team-talk at the country hotel resembled operational guidance for an SAS mission: “Get in, do a ruthless job, get out.”

So our chat comes back to Telfer: fire-and-brimstone preacher, dressing-room screecher, coach, legend. There’s a soft sigh from White: the same questions, the same fascination, but no wonder. Telfer, invited to pick his all-time favourite Scottish team, always names White first and yet back in the day he made his life hell. What was that all about?

Tom English’s book about the Slam, The Grudge, begins with a chapter entitled The Final Beasting and recounts in eye-popping detail how three days before the showdown, Telfer had the other seven forwards trample over White. No actual eyes were popped but his team-mates were to pretend he was an Englishman and they were to ruck him clean out of the path which would lead them to glory.

“It was something like that,” chuckles
White. “Depends who you speak to.” Indeed it does. Damian Cronin told me a few years ago that Telfer whacked White to the ground to commence the sacrificial session.

“I think Jim thought I was lethargic, lazy even, and needed pepping up. I mean he was ferocious with us all but I just seemed to enrage him. The backs got it worse than the forwards, the back row got it worse than the front five and I got it worse than the 
other two.

“The training I actually enjoyed. It was hard but it needed to be. What I didn’t like was sitting in a room with him back at the Braid Hills. He’d start off very calm, very measured but then just completely lose it. He’d explode. No 8 was Jim’s position when he played so maybe I was always going to come in for special attention, all the more so because my demeanour would wind him up. These days you’d call it bullying. And the modern rugby players simply wouldn’t stand for it.”

Did he ever snap? “I felt like it sometimes
but if I’d told him to eff off that would have been me out of the team. Packy [Iain 
Paxton] was sitting there and so was John [Beattie]. They could have replaced me in a heartbeat.”

What was it in the Scottish spring water that enabled us to produce so many great breakaway guys? There was one notable game – against Wales in 1987 – when Scotland went with five who’d all played No 8 for their clubs: Packy, Beattie, Calder, JJ and White. What’s the collective noun for No 8s? The Irish comedian Dave Allen – who came up with a “brace” of dentists and a “flock” of Indian restaurants (think about it) – might have been able to help, were he still with us. “The tactic worked that day,” adds White. “Wales couldn’t cope with our movement and were made to look pretty lumbering. But in the next game the big English pack just squashed us.”

The rivalry between the eights was keen, each aware of the others’ movements. “Earlier on I didn’t go to Heriot’s because I thought Packy and John were going and that I wouldn’t get a game.” I recount a story Paxton told me which White hasn’t heard and which makes him laugh. Feeling the competition breathing down his neck, Paxton thought he’d better up his running routine – Burntisland to Kinghorn, back along the beach through the water, then his mum perching on his legs for proper sit-ups – all of this on Christmas Day. Beattie would later admit to a remarkably similar session in another part of the country. “But then Derek replaced both of us,” said Packy. “He must have been training Christmas morning and afternoon!”

White reminds me that he missed a Slam – the ’84 – during his own spell of non-appearance which lasted five years. But this was a period when he began to have other concerns beyond getting a game of rugby after his wife Audrey was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 23. She would fight the condition for 17 years before succumbing in 2000.

White admits he doesn’t think back to 1990 very often. “Hardly at all, in fact. Only really when guys like you mention it. But the Slam was something of which I’m immensely proud.” What of Telfer, have they since kissed and made up? “Not quite!” he laughs. He’s not the only ball-breaker coach White has encountered, by the way. At London Scottish, Allan Wells wife’ Margot was recruited to put the players through gruelling sprints. “She was brilliant for us, and just as tough as Jim.

“He and I have discussed his methods a few times. He said he only pushed us so hard because he believed we could win.” And he only pushed White the hardest because he didn’t rate anyone higher? “Yes, I’ve heard that. Look, that was Jim’s way and you can’t say it didn’t work. And I must admit that when I went into coaching later I copied him a bit. I was at Marlow and we had a game at Stow-on-the-Wold. I tried out the SAS speech. Unfortunately we went in, got out and lost by 40 points!”

Through it all – the supreme beasting, the ultimate triumph – he made friends for life, not least in Calder and Jeffrey. “We had great times on the pitch, us three, and some pretty good ones off it, too.” Alas White cannot quite confirm one JJ prank: Calder believing he really had been nominated to stand in for the Queen at the opening of the Edinburgh Festival with JJ waiting until he was striding proudly up the Royal Mile in a top hat before coming clean. “But I was on the team bus when it was JJ’s turn to read out the good-luck messages to the guys from friends and family and Fin had slipped in a fake one: ‘Dear John, long time no speak, I’m pregnant. I hope you’re going to do the right thing … ’”

White must be going; he’s getting ready for a trip to the World Cup with his son Andrew. There’s one last tale: “The final few years of Audrey’s life were really tough and after she died I thought I was going to be on my own. But I had to work, our children were still young and needed looking after, so I employed a nanny. That was Theresa and now we’re married which is great.

“And here’s something else which was great. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to get through Audrey’s funeral but then these two weel-kent faces turned up and chased away at least some of the dark clouds. JJ and Fin made sure they were first there that day and I’ll never forget that.”