Former Scottish captain Jim Telfer remembers victories and violence

Scotland v Springboks at Murrayfield in December 1969. Picture: TSPL
Scotland v Springboks at Murrayfield in December 1969. Picture: TSPL
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BEATING South Africa once is an achievement but only one Scotland internationalist knows what it feels like to captain a side to a back-to-back triumph and he believes it can be repeated this weekend.

The Springboks have been associated with historic days in Scottish rugby, occasions Scots will enjoy recalling and others we would prefer to leave languishing in dusty history books. Big scores, near-things and a tumultuous period when apartheid was taking hold in South Africa and sparking revulsion wherever the national team travelled are just some of the memories entwined with a fixture that dates back to 1906.

Jim Telfer steered Scotland to victory in 1969, the only “double” coming, as it did, after the 1965 win (see this week’s ‘Framed in Time’ match report), and he recalls vividly the scenes as he played for the South of Scotland against the Boks amidst anti-apartheid protesters at Netherdale and then led Scotland onto Murrayfield, with tensions bringing a heavy police presence.

He remembers fondly the unexpected 2002 win, recalls with a heavy shake of the head the humiliating 68-10 loss in 1997, Scotland’s biggest defeat in the fixture, at a time when he was working inside Murrayfield as the SRU’s Director of Rugby. That was particularly painful coming just months after Telfer’s career highlight of coaching the British and Irish Lions to a Test series win in the Republic alongside Ian McGeechan, still the last Lions series victory.

“When it comes to the on-field stuff and the challenge that the team will face this weekend,” he began, “not a lot changes with South Africa, but when you look back 40-odd years we certainly do have some history with them.

“The team we played in 1969 was not the strongest – they never won a Test match on that tour – but when you look down the team-list now there were some big names there. Dawie de Villiers, their inspirational captain, was withdrawn for some reason before the game at Murrayfield, but they had a good back row of Tommy Bedford, who went to Cambridge University, the Namibian Jan Ellis and Piet Greyling, who was a big Afrikaaner.

“Fritz du Preez was an excellent second row and prop Marais a very good ball-playing forward who went on to captain the Springboks, but we did well in the scrum and lineout, stood up to their pack and that set the platform for us. They had good backs too, Piet Visagie at stand-off, Dirk de Vos, a decent scrum-half and wings Syd Nomis and Gert Muller, from Stellenbosch, who were quick. But we had a good pack, with guys like Ian McLauchlan, Frank Laidlaw, Sandy Carmichael, Peter Stagg and Gordon Brown, and Rodger Arneil, and backs like John Frame, Chris Rea and Ian Smith.

“The thing that made that tour different was the environment that Bok squad found themselves in. The protests over apartheid were in full flow by the time they arrived here and I think the players were a bit spooked. It got really hostile towards them in Scotland and I remember in Galashiels we were even told by the police that we, the home South team, had to walk the mile or so down to Netherdale because if we got on our bus it might be stoned.

“Police were everywhere at the ground. There were thousands of protestors and we were even spat on as we ran down the steps and on to the pitch. The South Africans were quite a young team and were taken aback by the intensity of the hatred and it must have been tough to focus on rugby.”

As for the game, Scotland took advantage of a change in style at lineouts which the Boks struggled with, where the hooker took over throwing-in duties from the winger. Visagie opened the scoring with a penalty, but Ian Smith replied in kind and then finished off a fine break by centre Frame by coming into the back line – still then a novel idea – to score for a 6-3 win. It should have been more but Smith, the London Scottish full-back, missed five penalty kicks at goal.

And then South Africa became sporting exiles, banished from world rugby as the apartheid policy of racial segregation sparked widespread violence. Most of the developed world showed its disgust and banned any association in sport with the country.

When South Africa eventually emerged from that dark period in 1994, Scotland was an early port of call. The Springboks were invited to open the new Murrayfield Stadium and rebuilt West Stand and they took the Scots by surprise. The Boks won 34-10, five tries to one, and would go on to host a magnificent Rugby World Cup in 1995, where rugby was used by Nelson Mandela to unite the new Rainbow Nation.

In rugby, the Boks became a dominant force and, despite losing to the Lions in 1997, with world-class pair Percy Montgomery and Joost van der Westhuizen spearheading a new era, they flexed their muscle at Murrayfield 15 years ago with a stunning display of power, pace and skill to run in ten tries to Scotland’s one in a 68-10 win over Rob Wainwright’s men.

A Scottish team with fewer exalted caps took revenge on an inexperienced Bok side in 2002 with a 21-6 win in poor weather, Budge Pountney and Nikki Walker scoring the crucial tries.

South Africa gripped the next two Murrayfield meetings, winning 45-10 in 2004 and 27-3 in the pre-World Cup Test of 2007 and edged a tight affair 14-10 in 2008, but they came unstuck two years ago when Scotland used the memory of 2008 to turn the tables in a 21-17 win.

“If I was coaching now it would be easier to put a team together to beat them than it would the New Zealanders,” said Telfer. “In some ways, Scotland have kept up with the Springboks, certainly physically, whereas New Zealand look for different ways to attack, South Africa just keep running at the opposition and believe that if they do it long enough, and the angles of running are there, it will eventually bring tries, and mostly it does.

“I wouldn’t look back now to 1969 for inspiration, but to that 2002 game, and two years ago, because they haven’t changed much. But don’t underestimate South Africa’s power and their will to win. It’s as great a will to win as New Zealand and they are spurred on by the fear of failure, in a way that few other national sides outside the All Blacks are.”

Telfer was a guest of the Outward Bound Trust before last week’s Test, where he heard about the value of Scottish schoolchildren experiencing challenges outside their normal environment, and he insists that, for Scotland to beat South Africa in a second successive Test, the challenge remains the same as 43 years ago – a commitment among players to step outside their comfort zone.

He added: “We have a pack that could match the Springboks; a better front row in my opinion, very good, physical locks and a good back row, and I think Mike Blair and Greig Laidlaw will get South Africa turning and cause them problems.

“We need to get our back three into the game more, particularly Stuart Hogg, but if I was a betting person, I’d say it was a 50/50 game.

“The key, as always, is to match them physically. That is the common link, I’d say, looking back at all the victories we’ve had against them, and this team is capable of that.”