Lions Memories: Craig Chalmers

Craig Chalmers was only 15 years of age when one of The British & Irish Lions’ biggest names made an unexpected request. [more]

Lions Memories: Craig Chalmers

Craig Chalmers was only 15 years of age when one of The British & Irish Lions’ biggest names made an unexpected request.

Chalmers could hardly believe his luck when fellow Borders man and family friend Jock Turner, also a Test Lion, handed the trembling teenager his phone with Gareth Edwards on the end of the line.

Chalmers had just been picked to play for Scotland Under-15s and Edwards, ever the competitor, wished him the all the best – except for his next match against Wales.

“Gareth just said to work hard, get stuck in and enjoy your rugby,” recalled Chalmers.

“But he asked me to not play too well against Wales. I ended up meeting him a lot over the years and he is a really nice guy and we would always catch up when I visited Cardiff.”

Beyond a look through Turner’s scrapbook, Chalmers had little exposure to the Lions growing up.

He was just 20 years old when selected for the 1989 Tour to Australia, the first time in 90 years the Lions had toured Down Under without stopping in New Zealand.

To onlookers, it seemed he was always destined to make it to the very top, and his coaches were even forced to handicap him as a youngster in the name of fairness.

“Bill McLaren was one of our coaches and he stopped me from dummying because he wanted other kids to get involved,” said Chalmers.

“They said ‘only two and then you’ve got to pass it.’ If you threw a dummy at that age, it was very easy for the defence to follow.

“As I got older, it became a little less effective and I was occasionally smashed by the tackler, but if it works and you get through a gap, then you might get a try.”

Opportunism is an essential ingredient in a top-class fly-half, and Chalmers certainly seized his moment when Scotland needed a new No.10 ahead of the 1989 Five Nations.

A genuine successor to John Rutherford had failed to emerge until the Inter-district Championships of 1988, when Chalmers stood out while representing the South of Scotland.

Just a month later he was a full international and after steering his side to wins over Wales and Ireland as well as a 12-all draw against England at Twickenham, Chalmers was suddenly in the conversation for the upcoming Lions Tour.

“You read all sorts in the papers with the journalists debating who will go and most of them talked about me going, so I started getting excited,” he said.

“I was working for Scottish Power at the time when they were announcing the squad and I went down to the garages where the guys had the radio on.

“I was listening to the 10 o’clock news and there were a load of guys from all round the borders there including Jim Renwick, who toured with the Lions in 1980.

“I didn’t have long to wait as it was announced in alphabetical order, but I couldn’t really celebrate as I had to go back to the office and work for the rest of the day.”

Despite a strong Scottish presence on tour, which included head coach Ian McGeechan, Chalmers knew he had a fight on his hands to start the first Test ahead of the more experienced pair of Paul Dean and Rob Andrew.

But when Ireland’s Dean picked up an injury in the first Tour match against Western Australia, Chalmers knew his moment had arrived.

“I had been playing pretty well but it was amazing to be selected to start,” he said.

“I’d played most of the Tour matches including against New South Wales where we beat a team which was packed with internationals.

“Mike Teague was rooming with me at the time of the first Test and he and a few of the Gloucester boys who also weren’t playing got back to the hotel quite late the morning of the Test, but that was just how it was.”

Indeed, the Lions looked a little shell-shocked when the teams took to the field, as Australia ran in four tries to none in a 30-12 victory.

“I didn’t go particularly well,” said Chalmers. “I didn’t think I played too badly – if in doubt, blame the forwards.

“We gave them some soft tries and were well beaten in the end. We were really gutted as that was our first defeat on Tour.”

McGeechan rang the changes for the second Test, the infamous Battle of Ballymore, with Chalmers one of five casualties.

But McGeechan was ultimately vindicated as the Lions edged one of the most physical encounters in rugby history, 19-12, to keep their series hopes alive.

Unsurprisingly, the team remained unchanged for the decider in Sydney, and while the Lions prevailed 19-18 in another tense encounter, it was bittersweet for Chalmers.

“Clive Rowland [the team manager] was absolutely brilliant as he softened the blow of not being picked,” he said.

“He told me I was only 20 and had years ahead of me but I was a very competitive animal.

“I felt a bit hard done by, and that my inexperience was held against me a little bit, and the decision was never really explained to me by the coaches.

“It’s never nice to get dropped but I was 20 and had never expected to make it on Tour. I thought, ‘1993, I’ll be on that Tour no problem.’”

Injury would intervene however, as a broken arm suffered in the final game of the 1993 Five Nations ruled Chalmers out of selection – he had even set a date for his marriage to wife Lucy after the Lions were due to return from New Zealand.

Hoping to make up for lost time in 1997, Chalmers was then overlooked for the Tour to South Africa, and while devastated to never pull on the famous red jersey for a second time, he reflects fondly on his brief foray into the Lions den.

“I was probably as fit as I had ever been in 1997 and that is what hurts me most,” added Chalmers.

“To play for your country is massive but to be looked at as one of the best across the nations is fantastic.

“I don’t think I quite appreciated what a fantastic achievement it was at the time – it was a massive honour and it provided me with so many great memories and great mates who I am still in touch with.

“The Lions caps, pictures and frames, they will all be passed onto my kids and grandkids in years to come.”

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