The age of Telfer

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IN THE near quarter-century since 1980, Scottish rugby has been dominated as never before by one man: Jim Telfer. Future historians of the game will call this period "the Age of Telfer". He didn’t, of course, coach the national side throughout the 23 years and it was only in the early 1990s that he became Scotland’s first director of rugby.

He did not always have his way and he did not invariably meet with success. But he guided, inspired and at times commanded almost everything of significance that happened. Some resented him, some feared him, but nobody could ever doubt his commitment to keeping Scotland in the upper echelons of world rugby. Only the most blinkered or parochial could suppose that this was an easy task, or that Scotland belonged there by natural right, simply on account of its history.

Telfer had had a distinguished career as a player, winning 25 caps between 1964 and 1970 and being left out of the side only when injured. He went on two Lions tours - to Australia and New Zealand in 1966 and South Africa in 1968. The first of these was the most important influence in his rugby life. For him, New Zealand offered both a model and a philosophy.

He returned convinced that Scotland could not hope for more than occasional success if it failed to develop a national style of play as recognisable as that of the All Blacks. At that time this was based on a combination of forwards playing a driving and rucking game, and individual flair in the backs. Rugby has changed greatly since then, adapting to revised laws and new thinking. It is a mark of Telfer’s quality that he has been ready and able to change his appreciation of what was needed. The 1999 Scotland team, which he helped to coach and which won the last Five Nations championship, played in a different way from the 1984 Grand Slam team that he coached, yet it retained many of the same essentials.

Telfer became a rugby player by chance of geography, growing up between Melrose and Galashiels. There was no rugby tradition in his family. "If I’d been brought up even 20 miles away, I probably wouldn’t have played rugby," he has said. His awareness of the narrow base and restricted geographical area from which, for more than 100 years, Scottish rugby drew its players, was instrumental in one of the most important innovations of the past two decades: the appointment of rugby development officers now to be found working all over Scotland.

Telfer succeeded Nairn McEwan as national coach in the autumn of 1980 and did so with a very clear idea of how he wanted the team to play. In some respects he was fortunate to take over then. The establishment of the national leagues in 1973-74 was beginning to bear fruit. The standard of club rugby was higher than ever. The district championship had become more meaningful, even though too often games were played in foul conditions in December. Players were more accustomed to experiencing pressure in matches where the result really mattered.

One consequence was soon apparent. Fewer players were selected from English clubs to represent Scotland. For the first time since before the First World War, the domestic game was producing an adequate number of players of genuine international class. Telfer inherited a team of considerable potential. Irvine and Renwick were still there and were still great attacking players. At half-back, John Rutherford (Selkirk) and Roy Laidlaw (Jedforest) had begun the partnership that would lead to them establishing a world record of appearances and make them, in the mid-1980s, the best pairing in the northern hemisphere.

Keith Robertson (Melrose) was an elusive runner at wing or centre. The lightweight David Johnston (Watsonians) was as fast a midfield back as Scotland had ever had, and they would soon be joined by the young Roger Baird (Kelso). Up front, if Scotland lacked a dominant partnership at lock (though Alan Tomes of Hawick was a fine player), there was an outstanding hooker in Colin Deans (Hawick) and a mighty tight-head prop, lain Mime (Heriot’s FP). Throughout the 1980s there was to be almost an embarrassment of riches in the back-row - David Leslie, John Beattie, lain Paxton, Derek White, the Calder twins, Jim and Finlay, John Jeffrey, Derek Turnbull. The question was, who to leave out?

Nevertheless, improvement was gradual as newcomers found their feet in international rugby and Telfer concentrated on tightening the defence, encouraging Rutherford and Laidlaw to regard themselves as auxiliary flankers.

In 1981, the Welsh and Irish games were won at Murrayfield and the French and English clashes lost narrowly away. That spring, Scotland toured New Zealand. Both tests were lost, though the margin in the first was only seven points, 4-11. That autumn, Australia were beaten at Murrayfield. It was to be the last home victory over one of the big three from the southern hemisphere until South Africa were defeated in November last year. No one would have predicted that then, or the fact that, in the late 1980s and 1990s, the gulf between north and south would deepen and widen.

The 1982 season began with a dull draw against England on a bitterly cold January day, which followed two months of severe frost. There followed a poor performance in Dublin, where Ireland won their first Triple Crown since 1949. Rutherford scored the only try of the game, and both Irvine and Renwick missed a number of penalties. France, however, were beaten 16-7 at Murrayfield, the home team having made a habit of winning Scotland-France matches.

And so to Cardiff where Scotland hadn’t won for 20 years, and Wales had not lost a championship match since 1968. For 20 minutes they didn’t look like losing this one, till a misdirected kick into the Scottish 22 was fielded by Roger Baird, who boldly ran the ball out of defence. Challenged on the halfway line, he passed inside to lain Paxton, who made it over the 22 before passing to Jim Calder who scored. What followed was extraordinary. Scotland scored five tries and won 34-16. That first try sticks in the memory. So, too, does David Johnston’s - a classic outside break which left the defenders clutching at the air.

Scotland then toured Australia and won the first Test, the only away victory against any of the big three in our history. After this, the 1983 season was a disappointment, with only one victory, though that was at Twickenham in the last match. It was the first Calcutta Cup win since 1976 and only the second at Twickenham since the 1939-45 war. There were extenuating circumstances. Telfer had temporarily relinquished the coaching job, having been appointed the Lions coach in New Zealand the following summer. Irvine was injured and didn’t play for Scotland again. Rutherford, too, missed the first three matches of the championship, returning only for the England game. But the season was undoubtedly a let-down.

That spring saw a noteworthy event: the centenary of the Melrose Sevens, Little - disgracefully little, some might mutter - has been said about sevens in this brief history. This is partly because the game does not lend itself to what is necessarily a chronological account. But the importance of the short game, particularly in the Borders, cannot be denied. It is part of the fabric of the region’s life. Though sevens has now become a world game, in which, sadly, Scotland has failed to distinguish itself, a good Borders tournament remains a particular joy. This is partly on account of the intimacy of the setting because sevens is not only the short game, it is also a small one, and this aspect is lost in the great international stadiums.

The 1983-84 season offered a sharp contrast to the preceding one. It was Scotland’s best since 1925, bringing only its second Grand Slam, and before that, in the late autumn, a draw with the All Blacks 25-25. The Grand Slam was won by a team that benefited from consistent selection - 12 of the team played in all four matches. They were the best coached side, playing in a style that had become natural to them.

If Jim Telfer’s return was inspirational, so was the captaincy of veteran Gala prop Jim Aitken. Then they had the best halves - Rutherford and Laidlaw - in the championship and the best back row in Leslie, Paxton and Jim Calder. The first match in Cardiff was narrowly victory; the second and third, against England and Ireland, were won with great authority; the decider, against France, also going for a Grand Slam, was a nailbiting titanic struggle. France were ahead for most of the game and, for the first half-hour, threatened to overwhelm Scotland. But though one try was conceded, the defence held firm and gradually the balance of the game swung. Peter Dods, the Gala full-back, kicked four penalties to make the score 12-12, and then, following a Rutherford kick to the corner, the French made a mistake in the line-out, Jim Calder collected the ball and dived over the line. The final score was a well-deserved 21-12: a triumph of character and hard-tested technique.

That season offered the conclusive justification of Scotland’s conversion to league rugby. Of the 20 players who took part in the Grand Slam victories, only two played their club rugby in England, and one of these, Bill Cuthbertson, had only recently moved from Kilmarnock to Harlequins. This was in marked contrast to the makeup of the sides that won the Grand Slam in 1925 and the Triple Crown in 1938.

The composition of the team also reflected the strength of Borders rugby and the dominance of Borders clubs. Twelve of the 20 players used were from the Borders, and all the clubs that then made up the Border League were represented, except Langholm. In fact, at this point, after 11 seasons of the national leagues, only Heriot’s in 1978-79 had broken the hold that Hawick and Gala had on the title, while in the district championships, the South had only once since 1975-76 failed to have at least a share of the title.

When he became national coach in 1980, Telfer had said that he would do the job for four years. He accordingly stood down after the Grand Slam to concentrate on his professional career as a school master, which would eventually see him become head of Hawick High. He was succeeded by his assistant, the former Hawick fly-half, Colin Telfer.

But after the champagne came the hangover. The 1984-85 season was a disaster. It began with a heavy defeat by Australia in the autumn and was followed by a whitewash in the Five Nations. There was one bright spot: the South were the only side to beat the Australian Saturday team on their tour. Times were changing. This was the last long tour made by a southern hemisphere country, and by beating all the home nations and winning their own Grand Slam, the Australians showed that they were no longer the poor relations of New Zealand and South Africa, though the latter were excluded from international competition because of the apartheid policies of their government.

Another sign of change was that there was now talk of a rugby World Cup. The impetus came from New Zealand and Australia, both countries being worried about losing players to rugby league. Traditionalists were doubtful. One experienced journalist, John Reed of the Sunday Express, writing in the programme for the Calcutta Cup game at Twickenham just before the International Board was due to consider the feasibility study produced by the Australian and New Zealand Unions, noted that "the clamour of commercialism and the lure of money is in the air ... I remain convinced that a world cup, for all its attractions, will only lead to Rugby Union sliding down the slippery slope to professionalism. A handful of top players, hearing all the talk of millions of pounds from such a tournament, could be forgiven for asking, What’s in it for me?’"

This was prescient. The question would be asked repeatedly, with ever greater urgency, over the next ten years. It was not just the World Cup that pointed the way towards professionalism. The Unions themselves, while resolute in their intention to keep the game amateur, were making ever greater demands on the players. More than ever, international players required very sympathetic and generous employers. At the same time, television was making at least some of them celebrities. They looked at the earnings of stars in other sports and it was natural that they were resentful. Others wondered how they could share in the game’s new wealth. It was only a few years before a Scottish captain would be described as "a cancer on the game", for putting such questions.

In 1985-86, Scotland had another new coach, Derek Grant, the former Hawick, Scotland and Lions flanker, and a new assistant, Ian McGeechan. They also had some new players. Indeed, after a trial in which the Rest completely outplayed the Scotland side, six new caps were chosen for the match against France. There might have been more. Some journalists suggested that Rutherford and Laidlaw had come to the end of their time.

The new caps included the Hastings brothers Gavin and Scott; big, strong and confident, they brought unaccustomed power to the Scottish back line. David Sole won his first cap at loose-head prop, and Finlay Calder replaced his twin brother Jim at flanker. Remarkably, three of these new caps - Calder, Sole and Gavin Hastings - would go on to captain Scotland, Calder and Hastings also captaining the Lions.

That season was a good one that should have resulted in another Grand Slam. France, Ireland and England were all beaten, England by the record score of 33-6. The Welsh match at Cardiff was narrowly lost, though Scotland scored three tries to one and Sole was denied a couple of tries that today’s video referee might well have awarded. It was in this game that the Welsh full-back Paul Thorburn kicked a penalty from 70 metres. The next year saw Wales and Ireland beaten and the matches in Paris and at Twickenham lost as usual. The England one was disappointing because it was a poor match and a poor English team. But the game in Paris was close, and a classic.

Scotland seemed well-prepared for that first World Cup, played in New Zealand and Australia in the summer of 1987. Then things came unstuck. Rutherford, the team’s general and controlling influence, badly injured his knee on an unofficial (and unauthorised) tour in Bermuda. He was patched up, but broke down after less than a quarter of an hour of the first World Cup match against France, with Scotland already in the lead. He never played for Scotland again. That match was drawn, with Gavin Hastings missing a last-minute conversion from the touchline, which, if successful, would have enabled Scotland to avoid a quarter-final against New Zealand, themselves the eventual winners of the Cup.

Although the 1986-87 team did not win a Grand Slam, outright championship, or Triple Crown, it is arguable that it was, nevertheless, better than either the 1984 or 1990 Grand Slam teams. It was inspiringly led by the Hawick hooker Colin Deans, and it played rugby that was both adventurous and controlled. That 33-6 win over England was astonishingly rivalled in my experience only by the 19-0 defeat of Wales in 1951, and the victories in Cardiff and Paris in 1982 and 1999 respectively. Early in his commentary, Bill McLaren observed that "England think they may have a Grand Slam team here". At the final whistle, they had nothing. But they would take formidable revenge in the 1990s.

The years 1988 and 1989 were ones of transition as the last members of the 1984 team retired or faded away. Laidlaw played through the 1988 season, but clearly missed Rutherford who seemed irreplaceable. David Leslie had slipped into retirement a couple of years previously. Deans followed. lain Milne’s career was brought to an end by a succession of injuries. John Beattie and lain Paxton were discarded, prematurely in Paxton’s case. Alan Tomes at last called it a day and his Hawick club mate Alastair Campbell was another whose career ended early on account of injuries.

Behind the scrum, that had already been David Johnston’s fate, while Roger Baird never fully recovered from tearing his Achilles tendon. The last survivor of the early 1980s was Keith Robertson (Melrose), a brilliant runner at centre or on the wing. Finally, the young Kelso centre Alan Tait, who had made his debut in the World Cup, was lured to rugby league and would not be available again for Scotland till the game accepted professionalism and went open. He was to be sorely missed in the early 1990s.

Meanwhile, on the club front, Jim Teller was coaching Melrose, and a club that had been struggling throughout the decade was setting a new standard of excellence, though this wouldn’t be fully apparent till the 1990s. On the international front, 1988 finished with a Calcutta Cup game that was as drab and boring as any match at Murrayfield since the Welsh one of 111 line-outs in 1963. But the next year Scotland found successors to Rutherford and Laidlaw in the 20-year-old Craig Chalmers from Melrose and Gary Armstrong from Jedforest. Both made such an impression in that first season that they were picked for the British Lions team to tour Australia. It was captained by Finlay Calder and coached by Ian McGeechan, who had now become Scotland’s senior coach. That Lions tour was to stand Scotland in good stead the following Five Nations.

Nobody expected great things of the 1990 side. There were doubts about the quality of the front five in the scrum, though Sole was an outstanding player in the loose. Moreover, it seemed certain that England would be the team of the season. They had an immensely powerful scrum and dangerous backs, among them Jerry Guscott, the outstanding attacking centre in Britain, and Rory Underwood, soon to be England’s record try-scorer. Scotland won their first three matches, however, though all were close and two might as easily have been lost. In contrast, England seemed masterful in their three victories. So they came north for the Grand Slam decider as firm favourites.

The atmosphere at Murrayfield was as intense as it had ever been. When David Sole led his team out at a firm march, their determination communicated itself to the crowd. Flower of Scotland was sung as never before or since. Scotland began at ferocious speed, Calder, in particular, carrying the ball deep into English territory. Penalties were conceded and kicked. But the first storm blew itself out. England took control and Guscott scored a try with ominous ease.

Then came the first of the game’s determining moments. England, camped deep in the Scottish 22, were awarded a penalty. They opted for a scrum rather than a kick at goal. It spoke of confidence, even over-confidence. Another penalty, another scrum; this time there seemed to be disagreement between the England captain, Will Carling, and the hooker Brian Moore as to what should be done. The Scotland defence held. In retrospect, one wondered how the game would have gone if England had kicked a goal at that point.

The second determining moment came just after half time. From a scrum, Scotland broke on the blind-side. Armstrong passed to Gavin Hastings coming up from full-back. He kicked ahead, a beautiful weighted punt. Young Tony Stanger of Hawick leaped high to catch the ball on the bounce and was over the line for the try. It was decisive. England attacked for most of that second half, but the Scottish defence never wavered. It was a famous victory and nobody there could have supposed that we would have to wait ten years to beat the "Auld Enemy" again. All the team were heroes and David Sole had proved himself one of Scotland’s greatest captains. Ironically, he could have been playing for England because he was born in Buckinghamshire and his father was English, but his mother was a Scot and he went to school (Glenalmond) in Scotland.

That summer, Scotland toured New Zealand. Both Tests were lost narrowly, but the second would have been won but for an outrageous refereeing decision. Yet the season following was a let-down. England had their revenge at Twickenham, and France won as usual in Paris.

The second World Cup, the first in the northern hemisphere, took place in 1991, matches being shared between the Five Nations. Scotland won their pool, though the game against Ireland was close, and then beat Western Samoa (who had shocked the Welsh by winning in Cardiff) in the quarter-final. So there was a Murrayfield semi-final against England. It was a curiously disappointing game, utterly lacking in sparkle. No tries were scored. England won narrowly, thanks to a Rob Andrew drop goal, but not before Gavin Hastings had, quite uncharacteristically, missed a penalty in front of the posts.

The next season saw Scotland maintain its position in the middle rank of the Five Nations. Two wins a season was the norm. Ireland were consistently beaten home or away, but England were too strong, and the succession of defeats in Paris continued, the last win there having come as far back us 1969. At the end of the 1993 season, McGeechan stepped down as coach after 33 matches, 19 of which had been won. Telfer had taken up the new post of director of rugby, with new coaches Richie Dixon and David Johnston.

These years saw the reconstruction of Murrayfield. The East Stand had been built in the early 1980s. Now the old terracing was removed and the ground became all seated. The new North and South Stands were opened for the Irish match in 1993, and the reconstruction of the West Stand followed. Many regretted the transformation of the ground, while admitting that it had been admirably done. Certainly, it is less atmospheric than it was in the days when the West Stand stood alone and the terracing created a gigantic bowl.

The third World Cup came around in 1995, and was held in South Africa, the country having returned to the fold after its transition to majority rule. Talk of professionalism was now in the air. South Africa, Australia and New Zealand had signed a lucrative contract with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television for "Super 12" and "Tri-Nations" tournaments. The dam was beginning to give way.

For Scotland, the tournament followed a familiar pattern: a narrow defeat by France, thanks to an injury-time try, meant that, as second in the pool, we faced a quarter-final against New Zealand and were eliminated. The loss to France was all the more disappointing because in the spring, the long-elusive victory in Paris had been achieved. There, it was Gavin Hastings who scored a try near the end, thanks to a gem of an inside pass from the young Gregor Townsend. Hastings retired after the World Cup. He had won more than 50 caps, gone on two Lions tours, captaining them in New Zealand in 1993, and now rivals Ken Scotland and Andy Irvine as our finest full-back. Townsend missed that World Cup, but, alternating between fly-half and centre, he had established himself as the most exciting and unpredictable Scottish player since Irvine.

Many had expected that summer’s meeting of the International Board would result in the relaxation of the law enforcing amateurism, allowing the game to become semi-professional, with payments for playing still barred, but all restrictions on players’ earnings from off-field rugby-related activities being removed. But, perhaps because they thought such a compromise unenforceable, the board went the whole hog and threw the game open. Some, conscious of the prevalence of "shamateurism" in recent years, thought that rugby had plumped for honesty; others, traditionalists to the core, that it had sold its soul.

For all countries, the change represented a challenge, and there was much argument over how to respond. In England, there was a clash between the leading clubs and the RFU; most of the clubs were quickly taken over by rich men prepared to invest in the game and (mostly) lose money. The argument was over who should control the players. In Ireland, the transition took place smoothly within a few years, with gratifying results at international level. In Wales, all was, and remains, confusion. In Scotland, the argument was fierce and divisive. Essentially the issue was simple. Were the top players to be the employees of the clubs or the SRU? There was really no doubt as to the sensible answer. No Scottish club was in a position to pay the salaries that international players could now command, and there were no philanthropic millionaires queuing up to buy and subsidise any club. It was clear that if players were not contracted to the SRU, effectively becoming SRU employees, few of the best would be found playing in Scotland, and the international XV would soon be drawn almost entirely from English and French clubs.

But there was a second issue, even more divisive. A European club competition, sponsored by Heineken, had been launched. Should Scotland be represented by clubs such as Melrose, Hawick, Watsonians or Glasgow Hawks (a recently formed amalgam of leading Glasgow clubs) or by the districts. Many favoured the former, especially officials of the leading clubs. There was something to be said for their view. The club game was thriving, and clubs had well-established support. On the other hand, the districts were also well-established and could, potentially, draw on wider support. It was thought, for instance, that while people from all over the Borders might support a Borders XV, people in Gala and Hawick would not support Melrose, and vice-versa. Jim Telfer had no doubts that the districts route was the best for Scottish rugby, and carried the SRU with him. So the decision went that way, and about 120 players were given professional contracts with Edinburgh, Glasgow, the Border Reivers (formerly the South) and Caledonian Reds (formerly the North Midlands).

But the argument did not die away. For a couple of seasons there was an uneasy compromise, with players appearing sometimes for their original club, frequently to their confusion. Then financial difficulties - the SRU’s high debt, partly as a result of the redevelopment of Murrayfield - called for retrenchment. The four districts became two, unwisely dubbed "super-districts", and half the professional players had their contracts terminated. Some returned to the amateur game, some went to England or France. Telfer had opposed this and remained determined that when finances allowed, there should be a return to four districts. But it was not until season 2002-03 that a third professional team, Borders, was restored, and it will be a few years before the fourth returns.

In view of the uncertainty and bitterness, it was not surprising that the fortunes of the national team fluctuated wildly. There were heavy defeats, especially in the autumn, against southern hemisphere teams. The gulf between northern and southern rugby now seemed so wide as to be unbridgeable. It was true that the Lions won a series in South Africa in 1997, coached by McGeechan and with Townsend starring at fly-half. But Scotland were too often weak, especially up front, to compete on equal terms, and even in the northern hemisphere, England and France seemed to be pulling away from the other countries.

McGeechan returned to coach Scotland, with Teller assisting as in 1990. To strengthen the team, they embarked on a policy of recruiting players with Scottish qualifications (not always evident) from wherever they might be found. This was not new, but was in sharp contrast to selection in the 198Os. The 1990 team had contained one "kilted Kiwi", Sean Lineen, and Anglo-Scots (more Anglo than Scots) such as Damien Cronin and David Hilton, had been regulars in the sides of the 1990s. But now New Zealand accents were often to be heard in the Scotland dressing-room, from such as John and Martin Leslie, Glenn Metcalfe, Shaun Longstaff, and (the most controversial recruit) Brendan Laney.

Success could justify the policy (if not to everyone). In 1999, Scotland won the last Five Nations title, with a glorious victory in Paris. But that year’s World Cup ended the usual way, with a quarter-final defeat by New Zealand in what was the last international of the outstanding scrum-half, Gary Armstrong. An indifferent campaign the following spring was redeemed only by a magnificent and unexpected win at Murrayfield over England, who were thus denied a Grand Slam.

Since then, there has been little to cheer about, not until last November’s defeat of South Africa. The formation of a Celtic League with Wales and Ireland promises well, but so far the Scottish professional teams have failed to make a real mark, either in the new league or in European competition. The standard has undoubtedly risen, but standards have been rising fast elsewhere, in England, France and Ireland, if not Wales. Yet no one can now expect, or hope, that the pattern will be changed. To that extent the clubs v districts argument is dead and club rugby has been adapting successfully to the new format.

In short, there is reason to think that the difficulties resulting from the advent of professionalism are now behind us as we approach a new Six Nations season in a World Cup year. The present Scotland XV has as good a pack as we have ever had, with outstanding British Lions such as Tom Smith, Gordon Bulloch and Scott Murray, and experienced halves, Gregor Townsend and the captain Bryan Redpath. There is also a group of young players, still in the first half of their twenties, who have either already made their mark at international level, such as Simon Taylor, Chris Paterson, Jason White and Gordon Ross, or, like Mike Blair, Nikki Walker, Bruce Douglas, and Stephen Cranston, seem ready to do so.

The outlook, as Telfer moves to retirement and McGeechan to succeed him as director of rugby, is therefore set fair, and would be bright if it wasn’t for the fact that the improvements seen here are also evident in almost every other major rugby-playing country. It will require effort, and some luck, for Scotland to remain consistently in the top five or six of world rugby.

The game is now global. It has come a long way since that first Scotland-England match at Raeburn Place in 1871.