Interview: Former Scotland flanker John Jeffrey

Jeffrey prepares for Pierre Berbizier's tackle in the Scotland v Barbarians match at Murrayfield in September 1991. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Jeffrey prepares for Pierre Berbizier's tackle in the Scotland v Barbarians match at Murrayfield in September 1991. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The legendary Scotland flanker’s key World Cup role has taken him away from home but the land and playing for his country are in his blood

As we scrunch across the drive to a knotty tree straight out of a fairytale, John Jeffrey points to the furthermost peak of the Cheviot Hills and says: “That’s England.” Where we’re standing, though, couldn’t be more Scotland if it tried.

A delighted Jeffrey and Gavin Hastings leave the field after their 1990 Grand Slam triumph over England. Picture: Alan MacDonald

A delighted Jeffrey and Gavin Hastings leave the field after their 1990 Grand Slam triumph over England. Picture: Alan MacDonald

To spend the morning on Jeffrey’s farm is to be given a flavour – but only that because we mere mortals can get no nearer – of what his life was like as a rugby player, jousting with the Auld Enemy. Bony flanker, bonnie fechter – few performed with more passion and disregard for their own safety in those contests. They used to make him sick beforehand, throwing up being his pre-match routine, and very often afterwards as well. “I was a loser five times at Twickenham and maybe you won’t be surprised to hear me say this but all games we could and should have won.” Further souring his demeanour was Twickers itself. “I hated the place. Too snooty, too colonial.”

The Cheviots, the Shark and the Black, Black Mood. Jeffrey – aka the White Shark – might sound like he’s auditioning for a reworked version of a famous piece of Scottish radical theatre but on this glorious late summer’s day he’s smiling and laughing and raving about England’s World Cup. He’s even heard that Twickenham is not as stuffy or as corduroy as it used to be. “What a wonderful tournament it’s been. We got all the hype beforehand about the number of tickets sold and how good it was going to be commercially but I only care about the rugby and the games have been fantastic.”

Jeffrey had been washing down a thumping great piece of farm machinery when I arrived at Kersknowe, near Kelso. “Mixing with the hoi polloi in the posh seats one day, cleaning away shite the next,” he jokes. He’s been well looked-after, as befits a legend – 40 caps, two World Cups of his own, one Grand Slam and umpteen back-row breakouts, straw hair bouncing. And he’s enjoyed pulsating matches, impressive stadia, packed crowds and organisation which has been friendly and slick.

“My favourite story so far has been the South African guard-of-honour. The Springboks fans must have been shell-shocked by that defeat to Japan but on the journey from Brighton back up to London they bought the Japanese beers and then clapped them off the train.” His favourite stadium? It might be Wembley. “I’d never been before. When we won at Wembley at football sadly that’s not me in those great old photos of fans sitting on the crossbar. But it was great to see my sport being played there. Wembley Way I remember as a kid from the FA Cup final on TV. It looked amazing with 79,000 rugby supporters thronging it.”

Former Scotland and British & Irish Lions flanker John Jeffrey runs two mixed farms near Kelso. Picture: Esme Allen

Former Scotland and British & Irish Lions flanker John Jeffrey runs two mixed farms near Kelso. Picture: Esme Allen

From Brighton, Gloucester and London, wearing the hat of World Rugby’s referees’ chief on top of his fan’s bunnet, Jeffrey moved on to Leeds where he met a hero: “Hot Shot himself, Peter Lorimer, and he told me that rugby had brought 1,000 seats at Elland Road back into use. For football they’re always out of action because of segregation but in the Scotland-USA game the supporters could mingle freely.”

Ah yes, Scotland. To top off the RWC experience thus far, JJ has seen the successors to his 1987 and 1991 teams make a fine start. “Ten points from our first two games? Against so-called lesser teams when we’re usually poor? I’d have bitten your hand off for that beforehand. How many tries did we score in the whole of the pool stage in 2011? Two or something pathetic like that, and yet here we stand with ten.”

Before going back over the hills for today’s game against South Africa at another famous football ground, St James’ Park, Jeffrey has been catching up with both farm and family at the 1,100 acres he leases from the Duke of Roxburghe. He’s never lived anywhere but this house and his two daughters tell him they don’t ever want to move either. You can understand why.

Now 56, with that shock of hair having finally calmed down and begun to turn grey, JJ retains his boyish features and a natural leanness from always being outdoors and active that today’s gym-bunny pro-stars won’t have a hope of matching when they retire. “Folk ask me: ‘Who does the work when you’re away?’ The three lads I employ full-time would say: ‘The same guys who do it when the boss is here!’ Then there’s Faither, still able to lend a hand at the ripe old age of 89. When I’m not around he reverts to old-school and runs the place the way he did, all spic-and-span with the fences freshly painted. I’ll come back and go: ‘But nice-looking fences don’t make me any money!’”

Jeffrey smiles as he remembers the day he found out his life was pretty much mapped out. “I was 13 and being driven back to school [Edinburgh’s Merchiston Castle] when Mum nudged Dad and he said: ‘Right John, you don’t have to farm if you don’t want to… so anyway… what grand weather we’re having’!” Any doubts, though, were quick to disappear.

It’s long been a tradition for father and son to have an 8am cup of tea together, by which time James will have seen his youngest granddaughter on to the school bus and JJ will have checked on the cows and the day will be well under way. “This morning we’ve been lifting potatoes, finishing calving, selling lambs and sowing wheat and barley, so not too busy. After you’ve gone we’ll be breaking in bulls. Some of these buggers are 900 kilos so it might be a bit of a livelier afternoon.”

Farmers are fond of an understatement and don’t really get too excited by much, but does this one not wish he was shoving some hulking South African props about a rugger field instead? “No, I don’t and that’s because I made a very conscious decision to retire. My knees were giving me serious gyp and I’d lost a yard. My partner-in-crime [fellow back-row marauder] Finlay Calder had been on at me to give up. In the tour of New Zealand straight after the Grand Slam, as we were leading in the second Test, he said: ‘Come on JJ – we should go now. Beating the All Blacks at Eden Park – it’s not going to get any better than this’.” That match, in fact, got worse when Grant Fox kicked six from six.

“When I stopped playing I knew I was going back to a job I loved. Farming keeps your feet on the ground, right down in the muck. But the one thing I miss about rugby is the changing-room. The camaraderie, the mickey-taking, the jokes – I loved all that.” Ah, the merry banter. Such as this tribute from John Beattie: “He made no enemies that I can think of, played with the sort of suicidal brilliant and feverish running which few around him could sustain… but had terrible luck with women.”

Jeffrey chortles. “Well, without going into too much detail, I don’t think it was bad luck all the way. I had my moments, I enjoyed myself. But there were girls I wasn’t going to marry and, let’s be perfectly honest, some who weren’t going to marry me. I was very keen to be married and have kids but I didn’t want to rush into something I might regret. As a result I left it quite late. There didn’t seem to be anyone who would put up with all my foibles and then suddenly there was. I was kind of set up with Anne when a friend of mine invited us both to a dinner party, although as she says, she can’t have been first choice because she only got the call 24 hours before! She didn’t know who I was, which I was pleased about, because it meant she wasn’t going to be impressed by the amateur superstar in her midst.” Being ignorant of his fame meant she also knew nothing of his notoriety and the night he and England’s Dean Richards played rugby with the Calcutta Cup and it got damaged. “Anne reckoned she’d only ever been to one rugby match – the Grand Slam decider, as it happens. And funnily enough she’d always told herself she’d never marry a farmer.”

Okay, this is John Jeffrey and I’m not from Hello! magazine – let’s get back to ruff, tuff rugby. Presumably JJ must have smiled this week when Scotland injury victim Grant Gilchrist was told by his team-mates: “If he wants a shoulder to cry on, we’re there for him.” Surely such touchy-feely remarks, uttered in his day, would have been greeted with hoots of derision.

“Well, when I played it would have been: ‘If you want to get pissed, we’ll come with you.’ Thankfully, my era was before the dawn of sports psychology. Maybe I would have benefited from psychology but I like to think I was mentally strong, as a lot of the guys were. If we’re talking about team-building then I think both my World Cup squads had it in spades.”

The ’87 tournament was the first-ever – did that side feel like trailblazers? “Don’t forget that not everyone thought Scotland should go to New Zealand. There was a view that this was an amateur sport and that a World Cup would hasten commercialism. The players, though, were dead keen. It was going to be like a magic tour.” There was still plenty of innocence around. “Straight off the plane in Auckland we went into a training session and Scott Hastings pulled a hamstring so we were a man down right away – where were the sports scientists when we needed them?” There was no opening ceremony desperately trying to borrow from the London Olympics; just a welcome dinner. After, it, Jeffrey led the charge to the nearest hostelry. “The bouncers wouldn’t let us in. ‘Bugger,’ I thought, I’m going to have to use the ‘Do you know who I am?’ line. I pointed out we were all here for the first-ever World Cup. ‘We know, John,’ they said, ‘but this a gay nightclub.’”

But France, Scotland’s first opponents, looked like they meant business. “We flew down to Christchurch with them. They had matching designer leather jackets and were listening to Sony Walkmans – we’d never seen a team do that before. In the game John Rutherford got injured, then Derek White pulled a hamstring scoring a try.” Result: 20-20.

Winning the pool – and avoiding the All Blacks in the quarter-finals – would be whoever got most points against Zimbabwe and Romania. The Scots did their best but France edged them, this despite an astonishing feat by our man. “Against Romania I scored a hat-trick of tries, not that I remember because I was concussed. Eventually the boys got me off. They could see I was gone.”

No psychology, no science and no baseline testing back then, but medical opinion was that Jeffrey would have to miss the quarter-final. Devastated, he wanted to come home, but was persuaded to stay, just in case Scotland made history and won, only for Grant Fox to kick six more. The adventure was over.

In the ’91 World Cup, spread across the old Five Nations, Scotland won all their pool games to stay at Murrayfield for a quarter-final against Western Samoa which was far from a formality. “All islanders were known as headhunters back then; you had to watch out for late tackles and cheap shots. It was probably as well we didn’t play them in the first game of the tournament, like Wales who got beat, although they really thought they could cause another upset. I was out in Samoa last year. Climbed the mountain to see Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave, which was fantastic, and then it was off to church, which is compulsory there. The minister told the congregation: ‘This is the man who cost us the World Cup.’”

And so to the semis and England. With 13 of the Grand Slammers still in the team, Scotland fancied they could beat them again, especially on home turf, although some new tricks would be needed. “We weren’t going to be able to talk England up beforehand or do the slow march. First scrum, we went left instead of our usual right and they were all waiting for us. We were like: ‘How the f**k are they there?’”

But Jeffrey thought the Scots were going to win when, 6-3 ahead, Gavin Hastings lined up a very kickable penalty. We all know what happened next. “It was a dreadful match but that wouldn’t have mattered if we’d got to the final. None of us wanted to go out that night but we forced ourselves. Folk came up and said ‘Hard lines, big man – you did us proud,’ which made losing worse. I remember my defeats more than my victories because I always – always – wanted to win.

“Then it was on to Cardiff for the third-place match. In the Angel Hotel [coach] Jim Telfer called a team meeting and John Allan came along in his disco gear. Jim kept us there for an hour and a half because he wanted us to beat the All Blacks – his great obsession – and then when the rest of us went to put on our disco gear he barred the door. We escaped down the fire escapes and when we kept going out he moved us to a hotel at Bristol Airport, far from any distractions.” Scotland still lost and then lost Jeffrey, too. Whisper it, but he might have shed a tear.

“I’d already made up my mind that the World Cup was going to be my swansong. Only the team knew, which was why I got to lead them out for the England game. Thanking the crowd at the end was pretty emotional.”

And so this World Cup which could yet again pair the Dark Blues with the mob from across the Cheviots. We gaze at the far hill again and JJ laughs. This is pretty much the spot where, previewing a Calcutta Cup clash with Nigel Starmer-Smith, he rendered the TV man speechless by saying that the only problem with the sumptuous location was its proximity to England.

“He didn’t know if I was joking and when we met at Bill McLaren’s funeral he reminded me of what I’d said. I was joking, sort of! I always wanted to beat England when I played and I still do now.

“Middle-age is supposed to soften you, isn’t it? I bumped into Jason Leonard this week and he said that watching England now, he didn’t get upset if they lost. I think I’ve got worse. I’m desperate for us to do well and stuck in the stand I just feel so useless, totally inept.”

He was never that as a player and you can’t imagine that having the White Shark rooting for you is anything less than completely inspirational.