Life of a Lion: Jim Calder

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Jim Calder

Representing the British & Irish Lions was not just a dream for Jim Calder, it was an obsession that became all-encompassing after being captivated by the famous red jersey.

While twin brother Finlay’s exploits on the 1989 Tour have gone down in Lions’ folklore, it was Jim who first achieved what he regards as “the ultimate accolade” of being selected.

The blindside flanker was called up for the 1983 Tour of New Zealand, where he played in seven games in total and scored three tries against Mid Canterbury, Southland and North Auckland.

“Representing the British & Irish Lions is the absolute pinnacle,” said Calder, who also won 27 caps for Scotland. “As a young lad, aged eight, I went to see a Scottish rugby trial.

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“They used to have these things in years gone by. I’d set my stall out in my own mind that I wanted to play for Scotland, but I was just captivated by the Lions.

“I took a phone call from a chap called Brian Meek, who was a journalist with the Daily Express. He opened with ‘well, what about that then?’ I said ‘what are you talking about?’

“And he said ‘well you’re picked to go.’ That’s how I found out. It was by a phone call from a journalist who was a good guy. For myself, to get picked for the Lions was the ultimate accolade.”

But for Calder, who started his club career at Stewart’s Melville before playing for Edinburgh District, getting named in the touring squad was only part of the battle.

1983 Lions squad

He faced stiff competition for his place in the Test team – with England flanker Peter Winterbottom among those standing in his way – and missed out on the first two matches of the series.

Yet his drive and determination eventually paid off, earning a starting spot in the third Test as the Lions attempted to recover from losing their first two games against the All Blacks.

“When you find you’re not in the Test team, you begin to doubt yourself as a player. So it was important for me to get my way into the Test team, which I managed to do,” he said.

“Personally, I was a slow starter and there was a chap called Peter Winterbottom who played many times for England. He was a bit younger – he was only 21 and I was 25.

“But he was a fantastic rugby player. So we were competing and he edged me out for the first Test, which was absolutely understandable.

“I did start slowly but I got up to a decent level of playing by the time of the third Test, and that’s when I got picked. In fact, we were picked together, which was great.”

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Having lost the first two Tests 16-12 and 9-0, the tourists came agonisingly close to levelling the series in Dunedin with the help of Calder before falling to a 15-8 defeat.

But while the Tour did not end in a Lions series victory – the final Test was also won by New Zealand, 38-6 – Calder still remembers his time in the famous jersey fondly.

“Pulling on the red jersey for the first time is really quite something,” he said.

“You never really lose that tingling of excitement. But isn’t it fantastic, because the Lions means so much to all of these countries. As a player, you only get the chance every four years and it’s quite tough to be on top of your game for four years’ time.

“I think we were very lucky when we played. It wasn’t professional so we still had quite a lot of fun. You saw a lot of the country and played a lot of golf.

“There was also a lot of shooting, fishing and all of these extra things. But we still got the chance to be called British & Irish Lions and I think that is very special.”

After the Tour in 1983, Calder famously scored in Scotland’s win over France at Murrayfield the following year as they claimed just the second Five Nations Grand Slam in their history.

He never played for his country at the same time as Finlay, however, winning his last cap against Wales in 1985 before his twin brother made his debut for Scotland a year later.

Ollie Campbell and Jim Calder

Finlay would go on to captain the Lions on the 1989 Tour to Australia, surpassing his sibling by playing all three Tests as the tourists came from behind to win the series 2-1.

But both Calder twins have contributed significantly to the Lions becoming the world’s greatest touring team, which today attracts thousands of fans every four years to join the Sea of Red.

And having witnessed the Lions go from strength to strength over the last four decades, Jim feels even more privileged to have etched his name into the history of the tourists.

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“In 1983 when I played, it was very much an amateur game. We had one coach, compared to now. I think there might’ve been 10 or 20 supporters,” he added.

“Whereas now there’s five or six coaches, there’s 25,000-plus supporters, and the whole brand is so much more powerful than it was in times gone by.

“It makes you even more proud to have been involved because it just gets stronger and stronger. It’s just a wonderful thing to have been part of.

“Playing with people from the other home unions is just fantastic. The opportunity to share a bit of fun but train hard and play hard together was just very, very special.

“The two things I would take from it; the chance to go back to New Zealand and play the top team in the world, but also the chance to go with people from four different countries.”

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