Interview: Jim Calder doesn’t know if 1984 Slam-winning try was legal

Maybe you weren’t there at the time. Maybe you’ve only been afforded the briefest of glances at the records for Scottish rugby from the 1980s and the start of the following decade. In which case you might be wondering: were Jim Calder and Finlay Calder really twins?
Now 61 and a head-hunter, Jim Calder was the try-scoring hero of Scotland's 1984 Grand Slam-winning team. 
Picture Ian RutherfordNow 61 and a head-hunter, Jim Calder was the try-scoring hero of Scotland's 1984 Grand Slam-winning team. 
Picture Ian Rutherford
Now 61 and a head-hunter, Jim Calder was the try-scoring hero of Scotland's 1984 Grand Slam-winning team. Picture Ian Rutherford

You might wonder this because one of them – Jim – played his entire, glorious international career when the other was nowhere to be seen and the moment he stopped, Finlay suddenly appeared to embark on his own international career, equally glorious. Given that they were never glimpsed on the park together at the same time, I suggest to Jim that maybe they were really one and same man, one flank-forward, one superhero, who would nip behind the Murrayfield clock to don the thick dark blue cloth and a pair of really tight shorts for the daring mission of winning Scotland a Grand Slam, twice.

Jim laughs at this, suited up for Edinburgh’s George Street and grey-haired now, though in the collective memory, foraging on his knees for the cause, those locks will forever be long and brown. No, he says, they’re different people with different personalities and temperaments.

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Jim, hero of 1984, is the placid one whereas that’s maybe not a word you would use about Finlay, 1990 immortal. YouTube Jim and among the suggested clips Finlay butts right in – quite literally. And the time he put the heid on the All Blacks’ Sean Fitzpatrick is almost as notorious as his stiff-arm smash on Ireland’s Jim Staples.

Calder chuckles again: “Ten years after that one, eve of international in Dublin, our older brother John was in a taxi and the cabbie said: ‘You boys used to have a right dirty bastard playing for you. Whatever happened to him?’ John guessed who he meant. ‘I’m not really sure,’ he said. ‘But I know the family. A rum bunch’!”

There was a funny postscript to the Fitzpatrick incident, too. “Sean went down quite easily, didn’t he? Well, we were all playing golf at Loch Lomond, a charity event. Fin had got there before me, Sean too. I turned up and saw Sean with this whopping Elastoplast on his face. I thought ‘Oh no, what’s my brother done now?’ Turned out Sean had merely cut himself shaving.”

So Jim, are you saying you never clobbered anyone, that you were placid even in the heat of battle? “Not always. I was playing for Stewart-Melville 2nds at Union Park wondering when the hell I was ever going to get to Murrayfield and Scotland. This wee Corstorphine scrum-half had been yapping away from first whistle, really getting on my tits, so I smashed his face on my knee.”

Calder’s game these days is headhunting not head-bashing. Now 61, as is Finlay of course, he’s seen two sons follow in his normally compliant footsteps. A British Lion, he turned out 28 times for Scotland, most notably in the ’84 Slam decider against France, when the final act was him looking up at the referee, willing the official to allow his try to stand, after which joy was unconfined.

France were also the opposition for Calder’s debut in ’81 so you can imagine he was pretty pleased that day as well, especially since the Scotland dream dated from way before Union Park, and indeed went all the way back to the field in front of the family home in Haddington, East Lothian where his farmer dad had erected a set of junior rugby posts.

“We four boys – Fin and myself, John and our other brother Gavin – played two-a-side games with full-on tackling morning, noon and night. At first Fin and I would be paired off with an older brother but then we thought: ‘Maybe we can take these guys.’ It still rates as probably the highpoint of my whole career when we beat them for the first time.

“Remember Jim Telfer scoring his try in Paris [the 1969 victory, which wouldn’t be repeated for 26 years]? I used to try to copy it in our field. From the age of eight, when our dad took us to a trial game, all I wanted to do was play for Scotland.” But when the day came, with Telfer as coach, there was a wee tinge of disappointment for 

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“As a boy I used to collect match programmes. I was a bit of a saddo at the kitchen table, poring over them, attaching newspaper reports, cuttings from the [Edinburgh Evening News sports edition] Pink.” It’s a safe bet Calder had a set of felt pens at his disposal, possibly even one of those jumbo propelling jobs. “I’ve committed the initials of some players to memory – AJW Hinshelwood, for instance, will never leave me. I really liked the pen-portraits, little profiles of the players underneath their photographs. So there I was in Paris, no programmes delivered to the hotel in those days but I knew I’d get one at the stadium – with me in it. Our bus had police outriders, very exciting, and there were the programmes. I picked one up, turned to the right page, and there above ‘J H Calder’ was a picture of a bloody thistle! Some balloon at the SRU hadn’t sent over the photo of the only new cap.”

It was tradition for newbies to room with Jim Renwick, elder statesman and inveterate comedian. No reflection on Renwick, but Calder hardly slept the night before the game. He came down for breakfast to find himself having to make small-talk with Telfer, always a challenge. “Had I slept well? ‘No.’ ‘That’s good,’ he said. Early on in the game I tried to make a break. This French bloke grabbed me and tried to rip my balls off! I thought to myself: ‘Welcome to international rugby.’ I decided he wasn’t going to get the ball and he certainly wasn’t going to get my balls. He was being a bit outlandish. There was no attempted castration in club rugby in Scotland. They wouldn’t even do that in the Borders.”

Scotland lost that day and although Calder showed up well, Telfer expressed the hope that the pack could be toughened up for future assignments, going as far as a shout-out for some “mean bastards”. It would be five more years, though, before he could count on Finlay.

Calder describes his relationship with his twin as “always competitive but always close” and concedes: “He was the more natural athlete, most definitely.” Finlay’s speciality was 400m and Calder smiles as he reveals that even the great Olympian Michael Johnson is aware of this. “Stew-Mel are holding Rugby World Cup lunch in aid of stroke victims and Fin, who’s the club captain, thought it would be a great idea to invite Michael as he suffered one last year. He said in his email, ‘I was a 400 man, too’, neglecting to add that his best place was sixth in the Scottish Schools Championship, Under-18s!”

In rugby, Finlay had all the ability but lacked Jim’s drive and commitment. “At the time I’d broken into the Scotland team he just didn’t have the focus or ambition. He’d married young and was working away; his life seemed to be going in a different direction.” Did 
Calder chivvy him into trying out for the national team? “I did, but I didn’t want to chivvy too much – I knew he was good and a threat to my place in the team!”

There was a moment when the chivvying hit home and Finlay acknowledges this. “We were at Heriot-Watt [University] for extra training. It was a wet and windy Wednesday night – miserable. We were running round the perimeter and with half a mile to go I spurted on. Fin, though, just walked it. I was angry with him. ‘You’re useless,’ I said, ‘you stick at nothing.’ I can still see his face. He said: ‘I was knackered – weren’t you?’ I said: ‘Of course I was, but I ploughed on.’ You’d have to say that Fin ploughed on after that. Next time at Heriot-Watt he left me for dead. Bloody hell, I wish I hadn’t said anything!”

Back to Jim, for this is his story. In his jousts with France, Jean-Pierre Rives was captain of Les Bleus. “You couldn’t miss him. In the venue for the post-match banquets – a bit grander than the NB [Edinburgh’s North British] Hotel – he’d be playing the piano. He was a sculptor, he was a philosopher, he had that long blond rock-star hair.

“And I remember standing next to [Laurent] Rodriguez in the tunnel, this 6ft 5in beast covered in Vaseline, and thinking: ‘He’s pretty serious.” France liked to lord it, especially on their home patch, but in ’83, despite another defeat for Scotland, Calder was starting to think they weren’t so big and tough after all. “Ten minutes into that game Rodriguez was writhing on the ground yelling: ‘Paralyse, paralyse!’

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“Really, Rives wasn’t that good,” our man adds, and David Leslie didn’t think so either. For the ’84 showdown for the big prize, this time at Murrayfield, the back-row pair roomed together. ‘As we turned in for the night David said: ‘I’m going to have Rives tomorrow.’ And 
he did.”

There had been key staging-posts on the road to the Slam. In ’82, the first win in Cardiff for 20 years. In ’83, a victory at Twickenham which hasn’t been equalled since. Against Wales, Calder plunged for our all-time greatest try, though he minimises his contribution to a completely thrilling score sparked by Roger Baird’s dance along the touchline and cranked up to the level of gobsmacking by Iain Paxton’s big-striding yomp.

Against England he might have been inspired/riled by his previous visit to Twickers: “To get to the stadium we had to walk through the car park. The tailgates were coming down for the picnics to begin. An English voice rang out: ‘My goodness, they’re awfully small’.”

Calder scored a try that day in ’81 although Scotland lost. But victory next time would be followed, in the Slam year, by John Rutherford’s wickedly spiralling kicks turning England full-back Dusty Hare into Dusty Bin.

Calder’s Scotland also beat Australia in Brisbane, drew with the All Blacks and those on the Lions tour of New Zealand returned from the campaign with extra belief, even if like Colin Deans and Iain Milne they were overlooked for the Test team. Jim Telfer cranked up the fire and brimstone: “He was like Alex Ferguson but he didn’t do building you up. You had to persuade yourself that he was having a go at you because he rated you.”

In ’84, Scotland first landed the Triple Crown. This was an achievement in itself, as evidenced the following Monday when the humble heroes were back at the day jobs, in some cases 
constructing toilets in public parks, and Calder was in Inverness for 8:30am, a salesman for a medical 
supplier. “That was the easiest day of my working life. The normal hit rate was three consultants, hoping to interest them in my tinctures. That day I saw 15. They were streaming out of the operating theatres all wanting to talk about the rugby.”

Could Scotland go one better and do the Slam? It was tense and tight against the French – a game of “stupefying intensity”, reported The Scotsman’s Chris Rea – until Calder intervened with the most famous possibly-offside-but-who-cares? score in the entire history of Scottish sport. “Was it legal? I don’t know. It could have been Packy [Iain Paxton] who touched the ball in the lineout or it might have been [Jean-Luc] Joinel. If there had been TMOs in those days they might still be looking at that one.

“Rives was opposite me. He wasn’t normally there. Maybe I foresaw what was going to happen. Afterwards Telfer said: ‘Not many guys who would have scored there.’ Then after the epic celebrations it was back to work again, this time at Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital.

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“There was a surgeon, a dear old Dr Small, who knew nothing about rugby. He said: ‘Were you at the game on Saturday?’ ‘Yeah,’ I said and left it at that, not wanting to embarrass him. Ten minutes later, down in the WRVS shop, he caught up with me and offered his congratulations. I guess the receptionist might have said: ‘You silly goat, that was the 
winning try-scorer!’”

Finlay was at Murrayfield in ’84, as he was for all Calder’s games. The twins did play together for Stewarts-Melville, alongside big brothers Gavin and John, and these were proud days for their parents Robin and Betty. Then Finlay got his chance with Scotland and Calder turned into the fan, cheering him all the way to the ’90 Slam.

“There was no jealousy between us,” Calder says. “He was proud of me for wearing the Scotland jersey and then I was proud of him. It would have been wonderful if we could have worn it together but Scotland had a lot of great back-row guys at that time, the likes of Packy, David Leslie, John Beattie, Derek White and JJ [John Jeffrey]. Maybe Fin and I couldn’t have appeared in the same team because as that English fellow pointed out, some of us were awfully wee!”

The twins talk to each other most days. Have they ever seriously fallen out? “Just once, I reckon. We were boys, shopping for Mum’s Christmas present in Jenners. We couldn’t agree on what to get her. That was two lads having spent too long in a hot, posh department store!”

Any instances of telepathy, one sensing that somewhere else the other was in trouble? “The best I can offer is the dream I had where Fin was on fire. When I woke up I phoned him. ‘That’s funny,’ he said, ‘because I’ve got a bit of a fever right now, temperature 105’.

“Then there was the time on a family caravan holiday at Loch Earn when, to the amusement of everyone else, we were yakking away to each other while fast asleep.” What were they talking about? Calder can’t remember, but maybe it was how they were both going to win the Grand Slam…