Norman Mair had one of the finest rugby brains I ever encountered. When I was coaching Scotland I used him as a sounding board because we would talk about things. He would look at teams and give me a heads-up about tactical ploys he had noticed.
All of the articles we did together I really enjoyed doing. We would have a two hour conversation, once a week at least. I know Carwyn James, the British Lions coach, used Norman ahead of the 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand to assess players. I also talked to Norman about young Scottish players coming through who I hadn’t seen, or he’d say to me: ‘go have a look at him’.
I don’t think he ever got the credit from the Scottish Rugby Union he deserved for making sense of Scottish rugby. He was not only a very clever man, he was also astute. That’s why conversations with him were so fulfilling. He was someone whose company you wanted to be in. I saw him as a good friend. You could talk things through with him.
He would never compromise any confidentiality. If some of the SRU selectors knew some of the conversations I had with him, they would have panicked! He never ever misused or misconstrued a confidence. You could trust him implicitly.
Whether it was a Scottish player or an opposition player – I know Gareth Edwards and Gerald Davies said this to me – the piece they wanted to read was Norman Mair’s preview of the international match in the Saturday morning edition of The Scotsman.
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He was the outstanding Scottish sports journalist. He and Bill McLaren personified all that was good about Scottish rugby. Norman was a literary genius. He could effortlessly make comparisons with issues that were happening in other sports. He had that breadth of knowledge.
When we were discussing candidates for the Scottish rugby Hall of Fame we would be talking about Scottish players at the beginning of the 20th century and the end of the previous century. Norman was able to inform us about the impact those players had on the Scottish game. So, really, in historical terms he knew the entire timeline for Scottish rugby.
That knowledge is lost and it’s tremendously sad. We had been looking at doing a rugby book on tactics together and how we felt the Scottish game had evolved in the 20 odd years I was involved in it. That was in 2005. I think a load of my notes will be in his garage somewhere. We always felt we would get together sometime and make some sense of them. However, it is not to be. It was a thing we always talked about – doing a purely tactical book, because he was such an interesting man to discuss things with.
When I first came in to the Scotland coaching set-up I was coaching the Scottish A team, and we were playing in Italy – Jim Telfer was still a selector then and not coaching, while I was responsible for the A team. We were actually playing the full Italian side and beat them, although that’s by the by. But the night before the game we were in a hotel in Benevento talking rugby after dinner. The conversation went on until 3am. It was just the three of us – Jim, myself and Norman. Norman’s input was stimulating. He would take you on and lead you places you hadn’t expected to go.
I had been in coaching by five or six years at that stage and to be able to discuss things with such a fount of knowledge definitely helped me as a young coach coming into the Scotland set-up. He always encouraged me to try some of the ideas I had, particularly ones which were slightly different.
Norman’s opinion was respected by Jim and myself and all the people directly involved in the game at the time.
In press conferences after games Norman never asked a question. Instead, he always spoke to you after it was finished. He would follow you out of the room and he would conduct his own ‘mini press conference’ in a corridor somewhere. He would get his own ‘exclusive’ interview. The questions he would ask were so different to the ones you’d get during the official press conference. The only other time I felt like that was in New Zealand when journalists would ask you questions that were completely different, because they were so steeped in the game. After internationals I sometimes nearly missed post-match receptions because I had been talking to Norman for so long in a lobby somewhere
You knew he had an understanding and an empathy with what had just occurred in the game. The nicest thing was coming in after an international where things had gone well and looking up to see Norman at the back of the room where the press conference was being held. He would be standing there with a little smile on his face and a thumbs-up sign.
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