Grand Slam hero David Leslie remains undaunted
A tour of the garden follows during which we inspect the greenhouse and the sunhouse, stopping at the lawn’s edge where a well-chewed tennis ball is thrown for working spaniel Meikle, and he says: “Amazing that he can catch it dropping over his shoulder, don’t you think?” Well, actually, not so amazing: I know someone who used to do that regularly from the back of a line-out, lighting the (dark) blue touch paper for another Scotland attack.
The tour continues, taking in all the natural sun-traps with detail provided on the lateness of the hour at which the fearless flanker and his wife Pamela can linger outside, drinking tea or maybe some port, and I’m thinking: is he selling the house and has he mistaken me for a prospective buyer? No, that’s just daft. Then I’m wondering: do I mention the roof? He mentions it, as we return inside to the sitting-room. “Yes, I’ll show you it later,” he says.
Seven years ago Leslie fell off the roof, tumbling head first 30ft onto concrete flagstones. He damaged his head, neck, back, arms, legs, ribs – “you name it,” he says. Even after survival had been won, it was far from certain he would walk again. But walk he did, accompanying eldest daughter Rebeca down the aisle on her wedding day. Today he asks that I sit on his left because turning to the right is tricky. He’s hardly immobile, leaping up during our two hours together to fetch, variously: the match programme from the first-ever visit to Scotland by this afternoon’s opponents Japan; a letter to his father from Dwight D. Eisenhower; a pair of black leather gloves; photos of his new grandchildren; finally the port bottle. It’s true that after lunch (home-made tattie soup, two rolls each, egg and meat paste, and an empire biscuit) he forgets to turn off the cooker and Pamela – “I smelled it halfway down the drive – are you trying to gas him?” – has to come to our rescue. But lots of men do that, don’t they?
And the old memory-box? “It was knocked about quite a bit,” Pamela confirms, and Leslie, 61, repeats the words of his physician when he was assessed for possible brain damage: “The information I need is in there somewhere; I’m like a computer that’s been pushed off a cliff, that’s all.” But, although his speech can be slow, Leslie is on fine form, telling jokes, impersonating Winston Churchill, making his considered points.
Right away, the architect in him wants to know what I think about the regeneration of Dundee’s waterfront. A new train station exit opened today means you’re greeted by the RRS Discovery while bulldozers continue to attack the remains of municipal carbuncles. “Dundee is unique,” he says. “It’s the only city that faces south, looks over an estuary to a kingdom and we’re blessed, too, with the Carse of Gowrie so we can grow raspberries and strawberries.” Of course, Leslie is pretty unique himself. As an architect, he’s never had a planning application fail. As an architecture student, he was the first to gain first-class honours from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. At rugby, he was the first to be capped from the fourth division.
Leslie won 32 caps and it should have been more. Brave and selfless, he was often injured, but he played every game of the 1984 Slam and his trouncings of Wales’ Richard Moriarty and Jerome Gallion of France have passed into mythology. No one should be mythologised, Leslie will say, but he was voted world player of the year that season and remains the only Scot to hold that distinction. What was his prize? “Ah, I think there’s something, a tankard…somewhere.” And this week brought another honour: induction to the SRU’s Hall of Fame.
He wonders what membership means. Will he, for instance, be able to hang his washing across Murrayfield? “It’s very nice,” he smiles, “although I suppose it might have been given to me because of what’s happened. And I have to say that what did happen, coming through it was ten times harder than what I did on a rugby field. Compared to falling off that bloody roof, playing for Scotland was a piece of piss.”
A sympathy vote? For David George Leslie, who was never a languorous winger and who played the game with such careering intensity? “Okay, maybe ‘piece of piss’ is the wrong phrase and I don’t mean to demean the jersey or the Hall of Fame. But, those games, I could only play what was in front of me. I just did it. And, hey, there were times when I could be a fairly languorous No 8!”
I’ve brought along match reports and other testimonies and safe to say that “languorous” doesn’t figure in any. There is mention of “the piratical figure”, “the manic disregard for danger”, “the sweat-soaked hero too exhausted to celebrate”. Certainly our man with hands on hips and almost bent double, as if unable to move another inch for the cause, is a classic image of the time. Norman Mair, esteemed former Scotsman rugby correspondent, wrote at ’84’s triumphant end: “Leslie’s safe return from some of his more suicidal missions in the loose continues to be a source of amazement and delight.” And Chris Rea, ex-Scotland centre and Mair’s successor, reckoned his commitment and zeal that season made him “rugby’s equivalent of the Hizbollah”.
“Artistic licence!” he roars, disturbing Meikle dozing on his lap. “Crikey, it’s all nice stuff, but I’m thinking: ‘Was that me?’ I don’t think I was suicidal; I was simply going after the ball when it had to be won. I was very aware, in big rugby games, that you had to make the most of yourself, really push it.” Did he relish the physicality? “Not really. I did what had to be done.” Did everyone play like that? “Well, someone like Mike Biggar was just as selfless, but maybe they didn’t.”
Leslie’s story began a couple of miles from here, in another prim street, and every now and then big brother Roger and the same Chris Rea would let him have a touch of the ball. “Being able to watch Chris progress to the national team meant that when it happened to me I wasn’t daunted. I remember being woken up by Roger to be shown Chris’s shirt from his debut. ‘Ach,’ I said, ‘it’s just like my school strip!’ ” This was Dundee High. Presumably the occasion of Leslie’s first cap in ’75 prompted much rejoicing – cue Bill McLaren – down Mayfield way? “Yes, but it wasn’t like today,” he says. “Back then everyone kept their emotions pretty much under wraps. Also, this was Dundee, a rugby backwater.”
Leslie’s dad died when he was 17. “I played in the street, I played at school, but I wasn’t able to play with father because he wasn’t very well. When he passed away – emphysema, I think – I was really just getting to know him, so that was sad, but you know, some folk lose parents at an even younger age.” Leslie, you see, still likes to keep those emotions in check. The old man was general manager of DC Thomson, the Dundee cartoon empire, and it was a fact-finding mission to the United States in 1953 which produced the Eisenhower letter. In it, the president thanked Leslie’s dad, Tom, for a watercolour of Culzean Castle, having already been gifted use of a flat there for America’s help in WW2. Leslie displays the letter next to some of his dad’s Burns-inspired poetry. “I used to dislike Burns, to rebel against father who loved him, but now I’m a fan too.” He recites the verse without glancing at the wall, to show he can. “Give me a second: ‘When winter’s cauld has gripped the land/And Jack Frost with an iron hand has waved his chill and icy wand/Oe’r loch and burn…’”
We’re back in the sitting-room to resume the Leslie biog – West of Scotland, then Gala – but I’m keen to get back to Dundee HSFP. An old quote intrigues: about the Scotland new boy’s “public-school dandyism”. Leslie laughs. “It was a time when there was a lot of interest in differences, setting people apart, but you know, I used to wear black gloves all the time. As a player I regarded my hands as important implements so I liked to look after them. And now, since the accident, I’m just as keen to protect them.” After his fall, Leslie had to teach himself to write with his left hand. Now gloved-up, he’s stroking Meikle like some Bond villain. “I’m very happy continuing our chat like this.” So what did his team-mates make of the gloves? “Naturally they took the mickey!”
Eccentric? He doesn’t think so, but then he remembers his pre-match routine. “In the changing-room my towel and soap had to be just so, and always Wright’s coal tar soap. Everyone else was pretty slovenly.” He’s a particular and precise fellow, for sure, as well as a complex one. His children’s names all begin with the letter R; all pets with M. But who cares how a rugby force-of-nature is constructed, just so long as he is?
Leslie confesses he can’t remember much about the match against Japan in ’76 when a dark-blue XV – this wasn’t a full international – won 34-9. He jokes that if I returned tomorrow he could and, true to his word, will email me a few facts, such as that the visitors were managed by Shiggy Konno, a key figure in the development of Japanese rugby who trained to be one of the last kamikaze pilots. But Leslie played in many notable games – ’75 vs Wales watched by Murrayfield’s record 104,000, the last Twickenham win in ’83 and a tour of New Zealand where All Blacks chronicler TP McLean rated him the only Scot they’d have wanted to adopt – and none was more notable than the Slam-clinching victory over France. The man rated Scotland’s greatest-ever forward by coach Jim Telfer – something of a father-figure for Leslie after the death of his dad – put in another terrific shift. “After the match everyone was terribly pleased but I was sat on the bench, my usual spot near the shower-door, and Alan Tomes was sat opposite. We were too knackered to do any more than nod to each other: ‘I was there, and you were there.’ ”
Then, after a concerted effort to minimise his own achievements, to stress that the way he played rugby was nothing special, he has another go: “I was brought up on Commando comics. Because my dad worked for the publisher I got them free. And I like to visit war memorials. When I’ve gone to these places I’ve thought: ‘I didn’t do what these boys did, I wasn’t in the trenches.’ These are the brave ones. Next to what they sacrificed, playing rugby was nothing. But I have to say that there were times in games when I did think: ‘I could quite happily die out here. If these boys could give up their lives for the sake of future generations, then I should be prepared to die.’
“I like to think this was quite an intellectual approach. I knew I wasn’t going to die on the pitch, and that regarding rugby my normal brain wasn’t what was required. I needed to get it on to this other plain where I thought I could accept death. I knew that wasn’t going to happen but, when the approach worked it made me think, as regards the opposition and the ball: ‘I can do anything’.”
In 2006 Leslie very nearly did die. He never does show me the spot on the roof but this no longer seems important. “All I can remember about the accident is going up to inspect some tiles. That should have been me there and then. And when I came round in Ninewells hospital, with all these nurses and wires everywhere, I was thinking: ‘I’m not sure I can get through this – just let me go.’ Get through he did – “with your usual grim determination,” says Pamela who’s rejoined us. She’s laughing as she recalls his transfer from Ninewells to another hospital, the Royal Victoria, and how he quickly checked himself out “because you could no longer be given a sea view” – and the mild horror of the medics responsible for his simple aquatic therapy when they found out he’d factored in tumble-turns.
“You were never going to be sitting about going: ‘Woe is me’,” adds Pamela. Leslie laughs. “You should come round more often,” he tells me. “My wife never normally says those kind of things.” I’m pretty sure he’s joking, but it’s as if after all the fine words that have been directed his way, and more often than not batted back, these are the only ones which really matter.
Which of course they are.