Interview: Craig Chalmers on his rivalry with Gregor Townsend

Craig Chalmers, one of Scotland's Grand Slam heroes, isn't involved in rugby right now and instead works for a security firm.  Picture Ian Rutherford
Craig Chalmers, one of Scotland's Grand Slam heroes, isn't involved in rugby right now and instead works for a security firm. Picture Ian Rutherford
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I am reading Craig Chalmers, now exiled in London, the headline from the back page of The Scotsman, four days after the performance rated by some as one of the worst ever. It isn’t “Desperate Dark Blues place faith in witch-doctor” or “Madame Zsa-Zsa, fortune-teller, answers urgent Scottish call” or “Murrayfield Turns to God in the hope He can point the way towards victory and, if He’s not too busy, play No 8”.

Rather, it speaks of a remedy familiar to anyone with an interest in top-level sport: “Beaten Scots meet psychologist.” Not “submit to” or “surrender to” or “ply with drink in the last-chance saloon”; simply “meet”. Athletes of all kinds do this now, it’s no biggie. Still, they didn’t have shrinks in Chalmers’ day, did they?

“Actually, we did have a few sessions,” he says. “If you buy into them they can work. One of them was just after I’d 
lost my father, which was a pretty 
horrendous time, and I think it did me some good.”

Bryan Chalmers died of a heart attack watching his son play for Melrose at Hawick. “Near where I knew Dad was standing there was some sort of incident,” he recalls. “It seemed like someone had collapsed and I remember thinking Dad could be useful as he knew about first aid. I was turning round all the time but couldn’t see him. I was getting worried but kept playing. Then at the end a big arm was put round my shoulder and I was told what had happened.”

That was Chalmers’ second experience of a psychologist. The first, he says, was a whole lot more bizarre. “In the days of the old Five Nations one country would have a free Saturday. We were up in St Andrews for what would probably be called team bonding now. A few of us had met this guy previously so I knew what to expect. In our hotel he got us all in a room and told us to close our eyes. ‘Can you see the stream?’ he asked. ‘How are we going to get out of the forest?’ I must confess that I sneaked off. England vs Ireland was on telly next door. I tiptoed out of the make-believe woods and out of the room. No one knew I was gone!”

Though he’s already admitted psychological help had done him some good, that last anecdote won’t surprise many who encountered Chalmers when he was Scotland’s stand-off.

He wasn’t really the sort to be plagued by self-doubt. He wasn’t really short of an opinion.

And, after he hung up the boots, such feisty forthrightness once resulted in him spending a night behind bars.

In a career of 60 caps, he had a lot to be cocky about. He’s a Grand Slam immortal, one of the slow-striding heroes of 1990 who flummoxed England, already on the pitch and prancing through their warm-up jerks, and then got them down a dark alley and did the needful to claim the great prize.

So how often does he think of the Slam? “Usually at this time of year, and especially when the fixtures give us England and France at home. And it’s nice when someone says: ‘You won the Grand Slam, didn’t you?’ I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of talking about it.”

This year provides such a sequence but despite plenty of optimism and a fair bit of over-excitement beforehand there will be no Slam, not after Cardiff and last Saturday’s mauling. Chalmers,
like everyone else, felt dreadfully let down by the defeat. “It’s become a bit of a cliche for us, hasn’t it? We go into 
the Six Nations with a great deal of hope only for it to be dashed in the first weekend.

“This one was doubly bad because of how poorly we played. There was actually a feeling in Wales that Scotland were going to come down and win. But a lot of our big players didn’t turn up, we were too loose, it was a car crash. Yes, we had injuries and so were missing some key men, but that’s no excuse.”

Chalmers, 49, echoes the view that the Welsh always knew how Scotland were going to approach the game – “Wide-wide” – and wants the team to have more than one gameplan at their disposal, but he doesn’t want to be over-critical of coach Gregor Townsend. “There is structure in what he does, there is reasoning. Gregor’s a clever coach. He’s done a great job at Scotland so far. Last Saturday was very unfortunate but I do think he’ll get it right in this tournament.”

Townsend, of course, was Chalmers’ great rival during the 1990s. They both desperately wanted to be No 10. It was a fierce contest which would leave one of them elsewhere on the pitch or on the bench from where they would declare: “I’ll be back.” They very often were, and the pair tugged at the shirt like it was the must-have garment at a never-to-be-repeated price in the January sales.

The eternal struggle was portrayed as pragmatism (Chalmers) vs romanticism (Townsend). One liked to kick, the other to flick. How did Chalmers, originally billed as the “new wunderkind of Northern Hemisphere rugby”, feel when a newer, younger and, some would contend, sexier rival appeared on the scene? Did he stick pins in a Townsend doll every time one of those flair-filled flourishes thrilled?

Chalmers laughs at the memory of their duel. “I was glad he was around, honest! You need guys to push you and Gregor was a great player. He was the youngster who came through and the fact he was Gala and I was Melrose 
added extra spice to the rivalry.

“He got his first cap when I broke my arm at Twickenham [1993]. He was quite naive, trying to run and play all the time. Reading the game and kicking, he probably wasn’t as good as me but he’d make 30, 40-yard breaks more often than I did.”

Pragmatic vs romantic is a debate that’s just been revived. The mission statement from coach Townsend for this Scotland has been “organised chaos” but Greig Laidlaw replacing Ali Price at scrum-half for tomorrow’s Murrayfield clash with France is expected to bring slightly more organisation and slightly less chaos.

Chalmers bristles at the suggestion he was always the conservative option. “Playing for Melrose you got a lot of the ball. Sometimes the coach you have dictates how you play. I could attack the line and make breaks – just not as many as Gregor – but I could control a game. Maybe there’s conservative and there’s loose – or suicidal!

“Gregor would do something amazing and the next minute something ridiculous. He was unpredictable but it was exciting to watch, like his Scotland team right now. We respected each other and I don’t think we ever fell out although the other guys would try to wind us up. If Gregor did something daft the Damian Cronins of this world would go: ‘Get Chick in here.’ Then the opposite if I cocked up.

“We had some good games together. The best of them were probably in 1995 and especially when we won in Paris
for the first time in ages and Gregor pulled that rabbit out of the hat with his popped-up pass to Gavin [Hastings] for the crucial try. That was him playing outside me; I didn’t really enjoy it the other way round. I remember a sequence of games where I think I got the sum total of two passes. That was after he’d finally finished with the ball!

“In 1999 [when Scotland won the last-ever Five Nations and Townsend touched down in every game] I had to watch all that brilliance from the bench. That was tough. Did I ever want Gregor to have a bad game? I’ll admit it: I did. I wrote this in a newspaper 
column once and got into trouble.

“Obviously I didn’t want that to happen at the expense of Scotland and for us to lose but I was being truthful. I don’t believe a player who’s just lost his place means it if he says to the other guy: ‘Good luck, I hope you have a great game.’ If he claims he does he’s lying through his teeth. I remember asking Jim Telfer: ‘If PC Brown nicked your jersey would you want him to play well?’ Strangely he didn’t reply!”

Chalmers played nine times against tomorrow’s opponents, winning just three. From the highs of ’95 (“A lot of champagne was drunk that night – on the SRU tab”) he returned to the French capital two years later and was poleaxed by Christophe Lamaison, ending up in hospital. But there was an even more painful encounter sandwiched between these games – the desperate 22-19 defeat in the quarter-finals of South Africa’s World Cup.

His first test came against Wales in 1989 shortly after his 20th birthday. The night before at the Braid Hills Hotel he roomed with Iain Milne (“The oldest and the youngest, the biggest and the scrawniest”). On the bus to Murrayfield Keith Robertson proffered advice (“He told me the game would go quickly, so enjoy it”).

Our man wasn’t nervous, although the rap on the changing-room door two minutes before kick-off was a jolt (“Christ, this is it!”). He went out, and after a “good shoeing from Phil Davies at the bottom of a ruck” he scored a try and dropped a goal in a fine debut. And the post-match? “I couldn’t drink because Telfer ordered me down to Melrose for Sunday training as usual, 10am sharp. That’s a joke: I had a very good time that night but, because I was young, could ride out the hangover. Jim said: ‘Aye, so you have a cap now, Chalmers, but don’t forget that all these other boys here helped you get it.’ That was Creamy and I had total respect for him.”

Chalmers would be just as unfazed by his Lions call-up just four months later. Ask him if he was worried it was all too much, too soon and he’ll say: “The squad was chosen on merit. But I played the first test against Australia and then was dropped. I’m still waiting for [coach] Ian McGeechan to tell me why. Though there’s the fact the whole midfield were rubbish that day.”

Then came the Slam. By then he was rooming with John Jeffrey. “That was a nightmare. Not because JJ was messy or smelly or anything but being a farmer he was always up dead early. When the alarm went off at six it was me, as the junior partner, who had to get out of bed and put on the kettle. On the morning of the England game he was in the bath when the phone rang. Did I have to run his baths for him? Oh probably, although at least he didn’t get me to scrub his back. It was Ally McCoist on the phone, desperate for a pair of tickets for the big decider.” History made, Chalmers and the rest of the delirious Dark Blues would bump into the footballer during the celebrations when they spilled from Edinburgh’s Carlton Hotel into the Tron Tavern. “Coisty would get into trouble from Rangers for not being at Ibrox that day. In the pub he was being hassled by some Hibs fans but the next minute, thanks to his silver tongue, they were buying him more drink.”

So come on then, Mr Unruffled, what did it feel like to walk – walk – on to the park on 17 March, 1990 and into that seething, politically-charged atmosphere, the likes of which rugby has never encountered before or since? “Oh the noise was unbelievable, absolutely deafening. Obviously there was the backdrop of Maggie Thatcher, the poll tax and how we were supposed to hate the English – but I just wanted to win a game of rugby.”

Chalmers cites two key moments in the match: Finlay Calder being held up by the prime beef of the England pack only for the Scottish cavalry to come racing over the hill and force a penalty – and one of his three successful kicks, out wide, quite tricky. His routine never changed: “Five steps back, three to the side. There were no tees or buckets of sand in those days, kickers hacked a little mound out of the mud. Now the ball is tilted forward but we set it back. We were self-taught and didn’t know anything about sweet spots. I always tried to kick nice and easy and generally did.

“I didn’t hate the English – Will Carling was a mate. And fair play to him: although that defeat was devastating he came to the Melrose Sevens a few weeks later with Harlequins. Afterwards I was having a pint with him in the beer tent when some locals started giving him stick. Eventually Will said to this bloke dishing out some real dog’s abuse: ‘Right, you and me outside, let’s settle this.’ The guy sh*t himself. Will vowed that he’d never lose to Scotland again and he didn’t. But that showed 1990 continued to rankle with him. I’m glad it did!”

Fast-forward a few years to another
instalment of the Melrose Sevens only this time Chalmers couldn’t get into the tent. He was trying to meet up with his wife Lucy, although she’d got fed up waiting and gone home. “John Beattie’s band were playing in the tent and he likes to say I was so desperate to hear them that I ended up in jail. This steward reckoned I’d had too much to drink. I wouldn’t go away and he got the police over. It was embarrassing to have to spend the night in a cell but it saved me a few quid. Hey, we all make mistakes.”

Sam, the eldest of his three sons, would testify to this, having been the first Scottish player to test positive for prohibited substances (anabolic
steroids) which resulted in a two-year ban. Currently taking time out to concentrate on work, Sam hopes to rejoin his brothers in rugby later. “He was under pressure from coaches to bulk up,” says Chalmers. “He got in with the wrong people and made a bad decision which cost him dearly. He regrets it but has done his time, helping with doping awareness.”

For Chalmers, who endured a few more racy headlines as his marriage foundered, life is quieter now. He has a new partner, a young daughter and a job with a security firm. He coached for a while after hanging up his boots and wishes he was still involved in the game. Even though he didn’t exfoliate JJ’s back, Chick may have rubbed up too many in the game the wrong way.

Meanwhile he’s had to watch his old rival rise to the top job. “Good for Gregor,” he says. “We get on well even though we don’t speak that much. I think he can get us a win tomorrow and I hope he does. But I’m pretty sure the records will show that I played 
at 10 more times than him!”