Feature: The honest player
At 80 Jim Telfer is at an age when the memories of a life well lived in rugby and beyond are sufficient succour for a man whose place in the pantheon of all-time Lions greats is assured.
His connection with the Lions spans over 50 years and four Tours – two as a player and two more as a coach. His is a towering presence.
To be involved once is an accolade bestowed upon only a fortunate few. Thus his record, along with those of Sir Ian McGeechan and Willie John McBride, will surely never be matched.
His Tours have provided him with both the lowest and highest points of his rugby career. In 1983 he returned from New Zealand after a 4-0 series whitewash – where he had been head coach – totally disillusioned, questioning himself and a system which he felt had left him exposed.
Fourteen years later, the 1997 Tour to South Africa provided him with sporting redemption and complete fulfilment.
When assessing Telfer’s immense contribution, it is difficult not to think of Rudyard Kipling’s elegy ‘If,’ and the factors that contribute to the making of a man.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
That is exactly what Telfer has done.
As a player and coach he never sought aggrandisement or accolades, never had ambition and never shirked responsibility.
He was never anything less than honest and forthright. He remains that same man of principle and innate authority.
He has remained steadfast to his principles and character traits which drove him to the very top in his careers in education as a headmaster and as a rugby player as captain of Melrose, Scotland and the Lions.
For those who might not know him, his gruff demeanour belies a self-deprecating sense of humour and genuine warmth.
Honesty is probably the one word that describes him best. Twenty-three years ago he spelt it out when addressing the Lions squad in that defining trip to South Africa.
“There are two types of rugby players. There’s honest ones, and there’s the rest,” said Telfer.
“The honest player gets up in the morning and looks himself in the mirror, and sets his standard. Sets his stall out, and says I’m going to get better. I’m going to get better. I’m going to get better.
“He doesn’t complain about the food, or the beds, or buses, or the referees. Or all these sorts of things. These are just peripheral things that weak players have always complained about. The dishonest player.
“What’s accepted over there is not accepted over here. It’s not accepted by us – me and you. So, from now on the page is turned. We’re in a new book, different attitudes. We’re honest with ourselves.”
To understand Telfer it is worth delving into his past and upbringing. He is the son of a shepherd in the Scottish Borders – once described as the Debatable Lands because of their proximity to and frequent conflict with England.
His childhood was somewhat peripatetic. Exposure to rugby came via school in Melrose and then Galashiels at the academy.
The Borders has long been a hotbed of Scottish rugby and one which has historically punched above its weight and provided a steady stream of international players.
Many came from the same agricultural background as Telfer; not unlike New Zealand of yore. Farming forged hard young men who found an outlet for their natural aggression and physicality in the competitive Borders League, the oldest in the world.
Skills were honed in seven-a-side rugby which began in Melrose in 1883. As in the cauldron of south Wales, local rivalries were intense and character building.
For those with the dedication, drive and ability, rugby provided an escape route and a passport to a wider world. Telfer was to embrace that opportunity wholeheartedly.
“Rugby in the Borders was very different to the cities which tended to be the Former Pupil clubs such as Heriots, Watsonians and Edinburgh Academicals,” Telfer explained.
“In the Borders anyone could play – the doctor’s son played with the brickie’s son. There was no class distinction about rugby in the Borders. It was a sport for all young men, not just the elite.
“I was very fortunate to be playing rugby in the Borders. It gave me the opportunity to play at the highest level. I used to say if you played rugby and were good enough in the Borders, you could play rugby and see the world.”
He made his Melrose debut in 1957. “We were deadly serious even then,” he reminisced. “There were four internationalists at the club, so I was given a great introduction apprenticeship into senior rugby.
“I was chaperoned by a player called Wattie Hart because I was 17 and I wasn’t allowed to drink until my 18th birthday. That is how strict it was. Even then I was quite dedicated. I had my own set of weights and did them on my own when no-one else was.”
As a boy, Telfer remembers seeing the touring All Blacks of 1953 – colossuses from the other side of the world – and recalls being awestruck.
Ten years later he faced them for the South of Scotland in Hawick. They lost 8-0.
“Most of my heroes, if that is the word, from my early days are people like that, Kel Tremain, Colin Meads, Waka Nathan and Brian Lochore who played in the same position as me, ” said Telfer.
“I was greatly influenced by the All Blacks and I think I’ve been entirely justified in trying to emulate them, copy them if you like.
“If I wasn’t beforehand, I was absolutely converted in 1966 when I went there as a player for the Lions. Then their tour to the British Isles in 1967 changed rugby fundamentally. Before I went there with the Lions, we’d never heard of phase rugby.”
Telfer was first capped against France in the 1964 Five Nations. That game took place on January 4. Two weeks later he was again playing New Zealand as Scotland held the All Blacks to a 0-0 draw at Murrayfield.
“As a youngster I would have thought the Lions would be beyond me. I never thought I would be good enough,” he added.
“I was dropped by Scotland in 1965 but was recalled in 1966 and must have impressed the selectors. In those days you got a letter asking if you would be available to go on to the Lions Tour.
“I had to get permission from my employers at Gala Academy (where he was a chemistry teacher) to put my name forward. The team was then picked at the end of the season. Then you were notified. It was a tremendous honour. Scotland were doing quite well at the time. Melrose had four players in the team.”
He and Frank Laidlaw made it on to the Tour which was captained by his compatriot Mike Campbell-Lamerton.
“The Lions were the ultimate,” he continued. “There was a special bond between the Irish and the Scots although my best mate on that Tour was actually [Welshman] Delme Thomas.
“It was a real honour for the Melrose club to have two players on the Tour. We weren’t allowed to be paid. We got an allowance of something like 50p a day. But it didn’t matter. I wasn’t married. I was just delighted to go.”
On April 21 1966 he took the overnight Pullman train to London. Three months later on September 20 he returned.
The Tour encompassed 35 games – eight in Australia, 25 in New Zealand and two in Canada on the way home. Telfer featured in 23 of them.
They lost the Test series 4-0. It was Tour which overshadowed by the misfortune which befell Campbell-Lamerton.
“Mike was a tough guy. He had gone to South Africa in 1962. When they picked the ‘66 Lions, the manager Des O’Brien came from Ireland, and the coach was John Robbins from Wales so I think they wanted a compromise captain in Mike. The obvious captain should have been Alun Pask for Wales.
“Unfortunately it was proved Mike wasn’t the best second row in the party. It was a lesson not to pick a player as captain who was not good enough to make the Test team.
“Mike had a terrible time, a lot of it from the British press. He was a very strong Roman Catholic. I genuinely felt very sorry for him.”
New Zealand was eye-opening and an experience Telfer determined to make the most of. The Tour was a terrific opportunity to become truly immersed in New Zealand.
“Each of us was adopted by a school who made a scrapbook for us,” he said. “Because I was a teacher, I wanted to go out and learn about New Zealand, go to school assemblies and talk to the pupils.
“Whenever we went to smaller place such as Gisborne, Wanganui and Whangarei, they had parades in the town the morning of the game. The hospitality was incredible.
“It meant so much for places like that and Westport on the west coast of the South Island. They were such great occasions. You had spare time to yourself to do what you wanted to do.”
The Tour was hugely informative for Telfer from a rugby perspective. His philosophy on coaching developed there.
“I really took the New Zealand way to heart,” he continued. “But it was a brutal Tour in many ways, not necessarily in the internationals but in some of the provincial games.”
He made his feelings clear after he had led the Lions to a bruising 8-6 win over Canterbury.
“I am not going to say today’s game was dirty,” he stated. “Because every game in New Zealand has been dirty.”
Years later in his biography he said that the Tour left the deepest and most indelibly etched scars on him, physically and mentally.
“I attracted a lot of media attention halfway through the Tour when I spoke out against what I believed to be seriously dirty play and lost the captaincy.”
And yet his affection for the place and its trail-blazing rugby ethos remains unshaken: “I still look to New Zealand for innovation and change and advancement.”
Two years later he was again wearing Lions red, this time in South Africa.
“They were like Gods; huge, huge men,” Telfer said of the South Africans.
“If you ever look for a physical rugby team you always think of the Springboks. If you wanted to beat them you had to match them physically.
“If they were physical and had a lot of skill, then they were formidable. For a rugby player, a Lions Tour there is a unique experience because of the obstacles put in front of you, going from the High Veldt down to sea level and so on.
“My coaching philosophy was not influenced by South Africa but I have a great respect for their structure.”
The Lions lost the Test series 3-0 with one drawn.
“We were done out of it in 1968, of this I have no doubt, by the referees,” he mused. “Jeff Young, the hooker, was not allowed to hook and kept getting penalised.
“John Pullin had to play the last Test and he had the flu. South Africa had decided that the Lions were cheating at the scrum. Every scrum seemed to be a penalty against us. We were never given a chance.
“I also had a bad injury there – my knee got twisted and tore the ligaments. We played on pitches which were used for cricket and were like rocks in the middle.”
When he finished playing for Scotland in 1970, after 21 appearances, there was an inevitability about his transition into coaching.
Initially this was at the helm of Scotland B which in turn led to Scotland, then the 1983 Lions. It was a Tour marked again by questions about the captain, on this occasion Ciaran Fitzgerald of Ireland, and whether he justified his place as a player.
“It was the first time a coach was allowed to be a selector as well,” Telfer recalled. “I went around Britain looking at players for the Tour.
“Peter Wheeler and Colin Deans were regarded as the best hookers. Colin was the best of all. Willie John was manager. Ciaran had captained Ireland to the Triple Crown. So he was named.
“I insisted that Colin should go, so Peter was left behind. It was unfortunate. Ciaran found the step up a bit difficult to take. His throwing in was not particularly strong. That was one of Colin’s great strengths.”
Another Test whitewash ensued. It was an unhappy Tour.
“I felt I was equipped to take on the Lions as a coach. I thought I was good enough,” insisted Telfer. “But I came home completely disillusioned because we lost the Test series 4-0.
“We had a hard itinerary. We had to play Canterbury on the Tuesday before the third Test match. It was crazy.
“The first three Test matches were quite close but by the time we got to the last, half the team who had played in the first Test were gone.
“As the only coach, it was a hard job. I’d never coached backs in my life before. I realised I had failed; I wasn’t good enough – but the system had failed me too.
“I was the only coach and my recommendation after the Tour in my report was that you should never go without at least two others.
“Up until then I had been quite a successful coach. We got close in the Test matches but not close enough. Then, in the last Test we lost 38-6 in Auckland. That was the lowest of the low. That was sad.”
But from a Scottish perspective the Lions provided a measure of comfort because the players realised they were as good as their counterparts in the other home unions.
They took it as a turning point in their careers and won the 1984 Grand Slam with Telfer as coach. He retired thereafter to focus on teaching and becoming a headmaster.
“I thought I was finished (as a coach),” he admitted.
How wrong he was.
In 1997 Ian McGeechan came calling, a coach with whom he shared a similar outlook.
“We both love coaching. He was also a teacher. We came up through the ranks and he is six years younger than me,” explained Telfer.
“In the late ‘70s I got to know him well. We used to meet frequently. We both had working-class backgrounds. We both captained Scotland, had both gone on two Lions Tours.
“Ian is a very intelligent coach. He can express things a lot better than I can.
“To be honest, when asked by Ian I was worried because I hadn’t coached for three years. I was working at the SRU.
“He asked me and I did it. It was like all the bad things I had experienced in rugby disappeared, changed completely.
“Things just fell into place because we had a great camaraderie. I was let off the hook, given a second chance and I was lucky to be able to take it.”
As he winds up, he mentions how from his home in Galashiels he can look out and still see the remote farm where he grew up and where it all began.
It was from those humble beginnings that he went out, saw the world and finally, in rugby terms, conquered it. South Africa in 1997 was his own Everest after which he said he could die a happy man.
The long Tours of the 60s are also special memories, those visits to remote parts of New Zealand in a slower-paced, less connected world. As are the return visits which saw historic wins for the likes of Munster and Llanelli.
But the Lions still retain that romance and allure.
“Playing and winning for the Lions is the greatest thing a player can do,” he said.
And, thanks to Telfer, for as long as there are Lions Tours every player will know that it is the ‘honest player’ who has the best chance of doing just that.