Interview: Finlay Calder says don’t read into Scotland’s World Cup warm-ups

Finlay Calder says it will be Scotland's 'greatest ever' achievement if they reach the last four of the World Cup in Japan. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Finlay Calder says it will be Scotland's 'greatest ever' achievement if they reach the last four of the World Cup in Japan. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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As readying yourself for a World Cup goes, it’s not as if Finlay Calder copied Jimmy Johnstone, wearer
of the dark blue No 7 shirt in a different sport. The rugby man did not decide to round off an all-night drinking session with a wee sail during which Jinky was drunk and very nearly sunk. Nevertheless, Calder’s
Scotland losing to a hastily-mustered 
Edinburgh Borderers XV in 1991 was hardly the best of preparations.

The encounter at Murrayfield came 
exactly a week before Scotland kicked off in the Rugby World Cup of that year with David Sole’s men, including the bold Fin, losing 19-13. Despite protestations that this was merely a practice match, The Scotsman
reported, the performance of the team had been “alarming”. There was “no disguising the disappointment” of coach Ian McGeechan. “We should have been professional enough to take on a game like that,” Geech said. Rugby at that time was, of course, still amateur.

The Borderers’ back-row trio of Dave McIvor, Stuart Reid and Rob Wainwright had “plundered an ample supply of loose ball”, the report continued. Now, the breakaway was 
Calder’s domain and he was the all-comers’ snaffling champ of loose ball – what happened?

“Ach I can’t remember a bloody thing about that match,” he laughs. “I never
look back, always to the future. But it was just a contact game, it didn’t really matter. We were ready for the World Cup. Most of the guys from ’90 were there and 95 per cent of the team who’d toured New Zealand and taken the All Blacks to three points. We knew we were a good side.”

“’90” of course was Grand Slam glory year, Fin matching the feat of twin brother Jim six years previously in seizing the great prize. But the World Cup hadn’t been in his thoughts. “I’d actually retired. Geech talked me out of it.” So how did he feel, pulling on the jersey again – was it a good fit or suddenly heavy around the shoulders? “Oh, heavy. I wasn’t sure I could keep up.

“I don’t think the Edinburgh Borderers are around anymore. As the name suggests they were a team of Borders lads who, because of work, couldn’t always get back to their home towns for rugby so they based themselves in the capital. One thing I do remember is their lifelong president, Bill Dickson, who ran the club with his brother
for half a century, joking that the win should qualify them for a World Cup wild card!”

Last Saturday Gregor Townsend’s 
Scotland began the build-up to their World Cup by being thumped by France. Calder shrugs. Rugby in his day and rugby now are “completely different sports,” he says. Not yet professional, his team were entering only the second-ever World Cup. “The great thing about being a Scotland player back then was that three bad matches and you’d still be in the side!” With the intensity of the hits on the park now comes the intensity of the hits off it. “Impossibly grim and hopelessly familiar,” was one reaction to the defeat in Nice. Calder expects the team to perform much better in today’s Murrayfield rematch with Les Bleus and to have a successful tournament – “With a bit of luck they could do what we did and get to the semi-finals.”

It’s good hearing Calder, 62, say these things and being so positive but frankly it’s good hearing him say anything because his cup doth not runneth over with aftershave as a celebration drink. Never one to roll out the anecdotes at the drop of a hat or cap – he won 34 for his country – I’d been pursuing him for a while. “I don’t like talking about myself,” he says at our Turkish coffee-house rendezvous in sunny Leith, and quite often today he doesn’t.

He starts by interviewing me, asking about kids, and when I admit to being a dad-of-four in the mature category he relates the story of David Gallagher, captain of the first All Blacks side to play Scotland in 1905 and one of ten born to an Irish emigre who married a woman 40 years his junior and was still fathering children in his seventies.

And when I try to wrest back control of the discussion he tells me about Gallagher’s
opposite number at Inverleith that day, David Bedell-Sivewright: “What an extraordinary fellow. He was actually known as ‘Darkie’ Bedell-Sivewright who captained the Lions as well as Scotland – a surgeon who boxed after rugby and became heavyweight champion then went to war and died at Gallipoli. He was incredibly strong. Legend has it he once rugby-tackled a horse on the Mound. What killed him was septicaemia. This giant of a man was felled by a tiny insect.”

Hang on, didn’t Calder bring down runaway steeds to shape himself as one of Scottish rugby’s most ferocious competitors? He smiles at this, a crinkly-eyed, bashful grin. His job was to make merry mayhem and he did it brilliantly but typically wants the praise spread around, in this instance to back-row blood brothers John Jeffrey and Derek White. Calder was once lyrically described as looking like “an athlete carved by primitive man… all rough edges with a haircut of iron filings”. He’s white-haired now but the passing years have not diminished his epic confrontations with Sean Fitzpatrick of New Zealand, Jim Staples of Ireland and Nick Farr-Jones of Australia and just listing these clashes invokes a shudder. So come on, then, did he enjoy the rough and tumble? “Honestly? The truth? Of course, aye!”

With their other brothers John and Gavin, Fin and Jim in boyhood played two-a-side rugby from dawn til dusk at the family home in Haddington, East Lothian. “It’s reckoned that 10,000 hours of practice are required for a sporting career. The paddock was where Jim and I got ours. Dad put up junior goalposts and was a lovely, gentle influence on all of us.”

The twins are “very, very close”, he says, but “totally different”. How so? “Well, Jim is a consummate man. The two of us could be in a room of 100 folk and I promise you they’d all be queueing up to talk to him but they’d be nervous of me. That’s actually happened. While he’s been the centre of attention I’ve been sat on my own – quite happily, I might add.”

Fin is certainly the more fiery character,
not shy about voicing his opinion that 
Flower of Scotland is a dirge and an anti-English rant. “I’ve never sung it,” he says, “and as soon as I hear it on TV I turn the sound right down.” At the ’91 World Cup, he chastised those team-mates who cheered on Australia in the final against England while wearing jolly-swagman hats. “That wasn’t too clever and I think the boys who did it realised that later.”

For a man who doesn’t live in the past, dad-of-two Calder has a helluva lot of anniversaries either just happened or upcoming. It’s 30 years since he captained the Lions to victory in Australia, the first time the tourists overturned an opening-Test defeat. That’s a tour which sits somewhere below the triumphs over bigger beasts New Zealand and South Africa. There was no reunion this time, many of the participants still being busily involved in the sport, but Calder is in regular contact with his men. “I speak to Dean Richards most weeks. It’s a little-known fact his mother’s a Weegie – stands only 5ft 2ins, would you believe – so he could have been in our team instead of bashing in Scottish heads for England.”

He’s surprised the ’89 expedition is sometimes overlooked but, self-effacingly, doesn’t really mind this. “I could respectfully point out that Australia two years previously played one of the all-time great games, beaten in the semi-finals of the inaugural World Cup by France when [Serge] Blanco went over in the corner, and two years after our tour they won the next World Cup.”

The tour was hardly without incident, kerfuffle and the odd screeching headline. “After we lost the first Test the Aussie crowd at the next midweek match were laughing at us. They bayed at us as we got off the bus for the second Test and we all decided: ‘No more’.” That game became known as the Battle of Ballymore.

From it, an almighty mass pagger still bounces around YouTube as slug-happy evidence of rugby when cards were rare and sin-bins non-existent and, at one point, Calder is glimpsed lying on top of the flattened referee.

“I was trying to break it all up!” he protests, recalling Aussie reaction to the Lions’ muscular approach. “There was one headline which called us the ‘Atavistic Apostles of Anarchy’. Great, eh?! There was also a report where, because we had three policemen in our side [Dean Richards, Wade Dooley and Paul Ackford], it was said that we’d done to the Wallabies what happened to Pakistanis and punks back in Britain. It seems that in Aussie sporting folklore the two most-talked about captains are Douglas [‘Bodyline’] Jardine and yours truly. We were bad men!”

Calder may not have welcomed the notoriety, and he points at my tape recorder and winces at the memory of so many press conferences, but he didn’t half like the outcome of that tour. And, just as with the Scottish Lions of 1983 who returned from their sojourn emboldened to claim their Slam a year later, so it happened for the ’90 men.

From both tours it’s written that the Scots shrugged off inferiority complexes to realise that the other home nations were eminently beatable, and from the Australian trek came the belief that our guys were fitter than the rest. Calder agrees with this up to a point but stresses: “The hardest trainer I ever saw was Brian Moore. After one session he got on the ground and did 20 press-ups and 20 sit-ups, then 19 of each, then all the way down to one and right back up to 20 again. Next day four did it with him, then we were all doing it.”

Still, ’90 required something else from Scotland if it was going to result in a Slam: organised chaos. Calder talks about this when I mention his charge right at the start of the game, smashing into the whiteshirted pack when it was gasping for its first proper breath and pushing it back several yards. This sent an electrical surge through his team-mates and the Murrayfield crowd but typically he plays down his role. “We all knew that if we were going to win we had to really unsettle England because they were better than us. England liked structure and to be in control but that day they were met by these… hoodlums!

“I’m not sure we were harum-scarum but England were caught in the glare and didn’t know what to do. The game went into de-structure mode. We needed to have a right go in ’90 and in fact we had a fantastic go. England couldn’t defend because they didn’t know where we were coming from. The truth is, of course, we didn’t know where we were going!”

Immortality would be the final destination. But what about the grumble that he and John Jeffrey spent the entire game, if not their entire careers, being permanently offside? “Ha ha, of course we did! So what? We had to live on the edge to survive and twas ever thus for Scotland. It will be the same for Gregor’s team in this World Cup. We’ll never be good enough to play okay and win, not ever. Scotland always have to play as if their lives depend on it.”

As if, perhaps, the players had “entered a sheep dip of craziness”. This was beaten
England captain Will Carling’s lovely description of what happened to Scots – and he was especially thinking of his opposite number David Sole and our man – when they pulled on a dark blue shirt. He expressed the hope that he could feel as proud wearing his country’s colours as the Scottish players obviously did.

“Wow,” smiles Calder, “I love that and didn’t know Will had said it.” But he’s soon deflecting personal praise and applying destructure mode to the interview again, talking up the bravery of others such as Scott Hastings and the sportsmanship of guys like Mike Teague, another 
of the vanquished: “He’d been with me in Australia; indeed was the player of the series. At the banquet after Murrayfield he said: ‘I knew this was coming, Fin, having toured with you nutcases – and I’m actually quite glad you won’.” Then he brings footballing full-back Andy Robertson into the conversation. Yes, Graeme Souness 
and Kenny Dalglish were great but let’s 
stop wallowing in nostalgia. “Let’s invest everything in the youth; they’re our future in sport and all else. Forget about us 
old gits.”

Regarding the World Cup, Calder has the same attitude: never mind ’91 when Scotland playing all their games at Murrayfield reached the last four, the current team matching them far away in Japan would be the finer achievement – “the greatest ever,” he insists.

But that semi-final loss to the Auld Enemy, Gavin Hastings’ penalty slipping by a post – that was agony, yes? The modest marauder – cussed and contrary, but in good ways – isn’t so sure. “We were never going to be able to ambush them again. England learned from losing the Slam and were better than us.” He gets up to go, admits he’s quite enjoyed rooting around in the past he rarely visits, tells me his phone will be switched off for all looming anniversaries, but admits: “Daft rugby dreams – I still have them, you know. They’re all about anxiety: Will I get to the ground on time? Can I please not let my team-mates down…”

Could he, if required, tackle a horse? Yes, I reckon so.