At 11 am on Saturday June 21 1997 Jim Telfer ushered into the team room the 11 forwards who had been selected in the squad for the first Test against South Africa in Cape Town.
Led by Martin Johnson, the captain, they sat transfixed in a circle around the gravel voiced Scottish coach who over the ensuing four or so minutes proceeded to deliver what through the passage of time has come to be acknowledged as one of the finest speeches ever given in sport.
‘This is your Everest boys’ still makes one shiver at its power and potency, delivered as it was in a slow, deliberate almost hypnotic tone and rhythm. In terms of spine-tingling oratory, emotional connection and indeed its impact and the subsequent outcome, it is hard to believe it could have been bettered.
It was so good that Lawrence Dallaglio and Keith Wood described it as the finest they ever heard during their distinguished careers. For a good ten seconds afterwards the players were still sitting in stunned silence as they absorbed what had just been said.
It has led to analysis by sports psychologists and performance coaches who have studied its resonance and how and why it was so pitch perfect. One said that it seemed to encapsulate Telfer’s life.
“To my mind Jim is an understated grafter and that speech works perfectly for him because that is his life story,” said Jeremy Snape, the former England cricketer who has gone on to carve a successful career in sports psychology.
“Perhaps he felt he had been underestimated, perhaps he had to prove people wrong. So when he speaks it is not something he is just reciting. He is speaking from his own heart and is connecting with those guys who are probably at the peak of their careers and maybe won’t get this chance again. He is asking them to sacrifice physically and emotionally more than they have ever done before.”
‘The pinnacle of any player’s career’
Telfer himself does not disagree with this exposition. Aged 57, for him it was a speech which had its genesis in his own raft of failures as a Lion previously, twice as a player and once as a coach, a sequence in which he never won a game. He had rehearsed it, and was seen on the video documentary ‘Living with Lions’ chuntering to himself beforehand as he arranged the chairs as if waggons were being circled against the might of the Springboks.
“I had never used the Everest analogy before and never did again. But it seemed to me because of my disappointments as a player and as a coach that this was the pinnacle of any player’s career.
“It was really on the back of my own defeats and my own disappointments that I used the words I did. I do believe that playing for the Lions is a greater honour than playing for your country because you are playing at a higher level with better players. Everybody knows that Everest is the highest mountain in the world. Very few used to get to the top. I had to make the players feel they were special. It was my way of getting to Everest myself through the players.”
The delivery of the speech was also drawn from his own well of experience as a teacher and how effectively to connect and communicate. “The gift of a good teacher is that you get pupils to do things you want to do yourself. You get the players to do the same.
“I had been a teacher (of chemistry) and had to prepare for lessons every day and I used to write everything down. I wasn’t a great ad libber. So I prepared it in my mind, had trigger words I knew I had to get in.
“Being a teacher I used to think I was a bit of an actor and that you could use your voice to get your message across. Silence is a great tool to have. They think you’ve forgotten what you wanted to say; but then you come in with a punchline.
“People used to think I spoke to players like a school teacher. Well most adults are very childish in many respects. But here I was dealing with very good players. So you had to be very careful. I had to treat them like men. They were in every sense.
“(After the speech) I think I’d said ‘only get up when you’ve taken everything in and made that commitment to yourself and each other’. That’s why there was a gap, a silence at the end. You have to make sure you don’t tire them out mentally before they get on the bus. I didn’t raise my voice. That’s the beauty of getting the message over. It’s not just the words you say but how you deliver them.
“I set the scene up so the players would realise it was a special day. The notes on the white board I had picked up from the local press during the week such as, ‘They don’t rate us.’ In the speech I used those to motivate the players.”
He continued: “I was very passionate about my subject as a teacher and I am very passionate about rugby. I love rugby. I have a huge respect for the game and I always want players to uphold the highest standards of the game and keep its integrity. The game is a way of people getting better as individuals.”
Dallaglio concurs. “A Lions tour is about sharing your IP, not just as a rugby player but as a human being,” he said. “We knew we weren’t just going up against a team but a whole nation as 1995 had demonstrated.
“There’s not a huge amount a coach or a player can do or say which will change much technically in the build up to a game. But where you can make a difference is finding the right emotional connection between the group.
“Jim was able to do that, find a theme and really play to the emotions of each of us. If you are able to do that it becomes very powerful. It doesn’t matter who is in the changing room next door. You are going to win that game.
“We have all been involved in fixtures where that emotional connection is so strong that it inspires you to overcome the odds and adversity. Look at what Siya Kolisi was able to do by harnessing his back story at the last World Cup. Look what Francois Pienaar did with Nelson Mandela in 1995.
“And Jim was able to harness the power of the Lions historically, and almost the fear of what we were going into, literally the Lion’s den. It must have been his finest ever speech; I haven’t played for Scotland so I can’t say for sure. But he put everything into that. You can’t do that for every game but he picked his time, picked his moment.
“Jim was very good at using metaphors. He could also be brutal and blunt with his words. Rugby at that level is not quite as dramatic as war, because no-one loses their life. But it has to feel like it is a matter of life and death. That is what was so wonderful about that speech. You look back at it and even if you weren’t playing you’d feel ready to play by the end of it.”
For Keith Wood the speech had its origins and its connections with the infamous and brutal scrummaging session Telfer had put his forwards through in Pretoria not long before. It was one almost designed to make or break a player who were put through a form of physical torture. Having come through it, nothing could break that bond and trust forged between coach and player.
“We had a hydraulic machine that would put two and a half tonnes of pressure on us,” Wood explained. “And we would hold the scrum for 30 seconds, then sprint over to a wall touch it, turn back and do another. We did 43 of those in 40 minutes. I hated that machine.
“In a scrum you may well face that kind of pressure but something always gives. But with that machine, nothing gives. The only thing that could have given was us. It was horrendous. It was an out of body experience. You go to a different place. We said, ‘this is horrible, we need to get this over and done with. But we need to do it right.’
“The level of concentration in that session was without parallel in my career. There’s a touch of madness about Jim. And I tell him that with affection! But he is an incredible coach.
“He had huge attention to detail. There were never meetings about meetings with him. He had his plan, went out meticulously prepared and we trained accordingly. There was a great sense of comfort in that. Players are quite happy to do what they are told if it makes them better.
“We went to hell and back in that session. It was just horrendous. But nobody complained. And for me after that, I felt that Telfer then believed in us. I don’t think he ever doubted himself. I think he had doubted us and doubted whether we were willing to put it in. And his job was to get us to a point where we could believe in each other and he could believe in us.
“Telfer got us to a point emotionally where I think we as forwards got onto the bus with the same mindset. Of course we had to believe in unity and trust but we also had to believe how hard it was going to be and not be overwhelmed by that. And I think that’s where we were.
“When he spoke, it wasn’t loose chat. He was saying things for a reason. The thing I really remember was the silence in the room. It was at the right pitch. Often those speeches get to the point of over arousal. I loved that speech.”
Snape who worked with Eddie Jones for the first 18 months of the Australian’s tenure as England coach, is of the opinion the speech cannot be faulted.
“You can’t measure a speech just on its own. For a speech to be effective you have to change people’s behaviour. You have to judge how a team was galvanised by it and for individuals to be inspired by it to take their level of performance to a place it hasn’t been. That needs the empathy, the tone and the timing to be spot on. You can see the guys preparing and harnessing their emotions towards the first whistle.
“It is about a clarity of message and an emotional purpose or quest that you are trying to get the players to take up arms. It has to be gritty and real. That group of warriors were leaning forward, almost straining to hear what was almost a whisper at times.
“You could see he was hooking each of them individually with each part of the story. When someone can see their life story coming up to a crescendo in the narrative the coach is putting forward that is when it connects; the journey. the hardship, the criticism. That is the gauntlet that is thrown down.
“The Everest analogy is incredibly powerful because the view from the top if you achieve it is one only a few in the world can experience. It is about sacrifice and work rate. Are you happy being at base camp or are you prepared to put in the effort and the struggle together that is needed to get you to the top.
“For what was needed at that time, it could not have been better. You can see the resonance it had with the players. In an alpha male environment, there is complete silence. They feel emotionally disturbed by it in the right way. They know they have got to walk away from that and do something that they will remember for the rest of their lives. Nothing more needs to be said.”
Performance coach Andy Barton agrees that the bond established was extraordinary.
“He has laid the foundations with them, to be able to speak to them in that way. He is not standing up and preaching; he is at their level which only increases the rapport. He is one of the team. He has caught the mood of the players. It is not high-volume stuff. It is hypnotic.
“When you go into a light trance state you are changing the rhythms of the brain. You are bringing the speed at which the brain is working down to a level so the cycles of the brain are going from a Beta state when you are thinking to an Alpha state which is a light trance state. He is putting them into a zone state as he is speaking. At the same time you can almost hear hearts beating. He is speaking calmly but what he is saying is working to their higher thinking. He is pointing towards purpose.
“You could hear a pin drop and it would be like a bomb going off. Every player is united in that moment. He is getting them into an almost Zen like state then he is hitting them with this imagery of Everest and what it means.
“The players fill in the blanks, the meaning to each of them individually. He addresses the idea of winning, but if you just stay with the idea of winning it is no good to you. You can’t play winning in your head. You have to think about what it takes to win. I often say that winners don’t think about winning, they think about performing. He is getting them focused on the process which is the important thing.
“He writes down statements on the board. That is old school but effective. It is what Jose Mourinho used to do, find enemies everywhere. It creates that siege mentality. He finds a way of bringing everyone together.
“It takes a lot of confidence to do it that way. The best coaches do tend to talk that way. Pep Guardiola will shout occasionally, but when he is putting his point across it is calm measured and pointing their imaginations towards something. It is positive language – he is not telling them what they shouldn’t be doing, that is where the brain starts focusing on their fears. It is constant positive language.”
Wood has only seen the series right through during the current Covid 19 lockdown. “I watched the games with my three sons who are 17, 16 and 14 when they were replayed on Sky. Their concentration was total. They felt the rugby was batter, more open. They were kind of slagging me for some of my lineout throws! It was a special time in my life. The Lions are a big deal in our house, what with my father Gordon (who toured in 1959).”
Perhaps it was because of the winning that no-one has anything but utterly brilliant memories of what happened 23 years ago.
“We were an eclectic group who had come together under two of the greatest coaches in Lions history,” continued Dallaglio.
“On reflection for me it goes down as the best rugby experience of my life. I was 24 years old, I’d not long broken into the England side. We were trying to emulate what the ‘74 Lions had done. So to win there was a real collector’s item.
“It was the worlds of professional and amateur rugby colliding. There was a wonderful innocence about it, a melting pot of characters. Every single member of that squad was special whether they played in the Tests or not. History looks back favourably on all those players. All of us for instance who won the World Cup in 2003 would have drawn on the experiences of ’97. Once you’ve been there and come away with a series win it changes you as a player and as a person in terms of the experience you are able to draw on in key moments throughout your career.”
The final thoughts must rest with Telfer. I asked him where that tour sat in his career as both player and coach.
“The 1997 Lions was a resurrection of my rugby life. That tour and when we won in Durban was the greatest moment in my life.
“I felt I could die and go to heaven then. I had reached my goal, my ambition. I was never an ambitious person. I just did what I did as best I could. Looking back the speech was my greatest team talk to a group of players I ever gave. Because of that speech it helped to get the result we had all been working towards. That tour was the highlight of my career. That speech was the most rewarding of my life.”
21 June 1997, Newlands, Cape Town, South Africa
The easy bit has passed. Selection for the Test team is the easy bit. You have an awesome responsibility on the eight individual forwards’ shoulders. An awesome responsibility. This is your Everest, boys. Very few ever get a chance in rugby terms to get for the top of Everest. You have the chance today. Being picked is the easy bit. To win for the Lions in a Test match is the ultimate, but you’ll not do it unless you put your bodies on the line, every one jack of you for 80 minutes.
Defeat doesn’t worry me. I’ve had it often and so have you. It’s performance that matters. If you put in the performance, you’ll get what you deserve. No luck attached to it. If you don’t put it in, then we’re second-raters.
They don’t respect you. They don’t rate you. The only way to be rated is to stick one on them, to get right up in their faces and turn them back, knock them back. Out-do what they do. Out-jump them, out-scrum them, out-ruck them, out-drive them, out-tackle them, until they’re f***ing sick of you.
Remember the pledges you made. Remember how you depend on each other at every phase, teams within teams, scrums, line-outs, ruck ball, tackles. They are better than you’ve played against so far. They are better individually or they wouldn’t be there. So it’s an awesome task you have and it will only be done if everybody commits themselves now.
You are privileged. You are the chosen few. Many are considered but few are chosen. They don’t think f*** all of us. Nothing. We’re here just to make up the numbers.
No one’s going to do it for you. You have to find your own solace, your own drive, your ambition, your own inner strength, because the moment’s arrived for the greatest game of your f***ing life.
Jim Telfer – Lion #443
This article is part of the British & Irish Lions Freelance Writers Project.
Jeremy Snape is a former England cricketer and hosts the Inside the Mind of Champions podcast. Andy Barton is a performance coach who works with many leading athletes.
Mark Souster was rugby correspondent for The Times where he spent 20 years covering the sport, including five Lions Tours and seven Rugby World Cups. He was named Sports Journalist of the Year for his reporting on England’s RWC 2011 campaign and also presented Rugby Special for BBC Scotland.