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Telfer's comments about England are unfortunate, at best

In the context of both modern sport and a modern Scotland, the outburst from the grand old man of rugby this week felt incongruous and anachronistic.

Scott Johnson poked some fun at England but in specific terms rather than playing to outdated prejudices. Picture: David Davies/PA
Scott Johnson poked some fun at England but in specific terms rather than playing to outdated prejudices. Picture: David Davies/PA

Jim Telfer was once the most important figure in Scottish rugby, a former international captain and British & Irish Lion who was the driving force behind the grand slam successes of 1984 and 1990, as well as Scotland's last Five Nations Championship win, in 1999.

The lack of success experienced in Scottish rugby since the turn of the century doubtless amplifies for many the voice of a man who helped bring such on-field success.

Perhaps that is as it should be, even taking into account his rather less successful time as the Scottish Rugby Union's director of rugby and the legacy of an unaffordable Border professional team, the succession to the post of director of rugby of his great friend and coaching collaborator Ian McGeechan – it was also an unhappy episode – and the appointment of Matt Williams as head coach.

Telfer has also been rather more outspoken since his retirement from Murrayfield than he seemed to suggest he would be during his time in office, when he repeatedly criticised those former internationalists who had the audacity to pass comment on proceedings during his time in charge. Like them, as well as still enjoying the limelight, he doubtless thinks he has contributed usefully ahead of the latest bid to achieve something that eluded him as player or coach, by joining the tiny group of Scots who have won at Twickenham.

How helpful it was, though, either to Scotland's image as a would-be – for some – independent country or the national team, to have such a prominent figure using words like "arrogant", "pretentious" and "condescending" when referring to Saturday's opponents is, though, debatable at best. Whether deliberately or otherwise, Telfer's comments pander to those who feels some sort of sense of national victimhood, seeking to blame others for how they feel about themselves, rather than showing the courage to stand up and take full responsibility for their circumstances. In pure sporting terms, it is hard to see how he has made things any easier for the current Scotland team.

Once upon a time, back in Telfer's day, these sort of comments might have rattled England's amateur players and caused them to lose focus come the big day.

Stuart Lancaster and Andy Farrell come across as firmly grounded Northern Englishmen, very much in the mould of Bill Beaumont, who led England to a long-awaited grand slam at Murrayfield in 1980 and continues to be an influential administrator.

Their camp has shown Telfer the respect his status perhaps deserves by responding, but have – justifiably – done so dismissively and, if anything, the suspicion is that these hardened professional coaches can use it to ensure that their men understand the importance of sticking to their tasks against opponents who feed off emotion in these encounters.

That is, of course, an integral part of sport but it can be a dangerous thing if there is too much dependence upon it against those who keep their wits about them and can capitalise on any loss of discipline.

Against all of this background, there has been something highly enjoyable about being around a Scotland camp that, in spite of all that has happened in the past 18 months or so, has had a smile put back on its face in the build-up to this match.

Scott Johnson's international record and reputation as a head coach may not have made him first- choice as caretaker with many in the Scottish rugby community, but we have had a laugh with him over the last week or two.

Whether that translates into post-match smiles remains to be seen and there is no question that, with a single Test win to his name in two stints as a head coach with Wales and the USA, his appointment is a gamble. But why not?

Things really cannot become any worse than they were in the dying days of Andy Robinson's reign with a worst World Cup campaign at the end of 2011 followed by two coats of "whitewash" in 2012, in the Six Nations and the autumn Tests. It is, in fact, now seven years since Scotland won more than one match in a Six Nations championship.

Johnson has poked some fun at England, but has done so in specific terms rather than playing to outdated prejudices, by responding to news of their injury list by observing that it leaves them with only another 40,000 players to choose from.

He has also swept aside digs from either side of the border about the rapid introduction of New Zealand-born Sean Maitland, rightly describing Scottish concerns about it as "insular" while noting that Englishmen can hardly have a problem, given the number of imports in their ranks.

All of that has been delivered in humorous fashion but the hope for Scots has to be that the man in charge of this campaign has a modern grasp of how to get his men to be serious in the right way when it matters.

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