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From taste of defeat to smell of victory . . .

Sometimes it takes the bitter taste of failure to act as the catalyst for great feats in sport, writes Neil Drysdale.

John Jeffrey goes over the line at Cardiff Arms Park but the score was disallowed for a knock on
John Jeffrey goes over the line at Cardiff Arms Park but the score was disallowed for a knock on

There was certainly an element of that 30 years ago when Scotland's rugby team swept to their first grand slam in 59 years with a mixture of industry, resilience, verve and a determination to improve on false dawns in the past.

Several of the players had been involved in the previous summer's calamitous British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, which represented the nadir of Jim Telfer's coaching career, while a number of others, such as David Leslie, had controversially not even been selected.

Yet, if that trip turned into a series of crushing disappointments, it also demonstrated to the Scots involved that they had little to fear from the English, Welsh and Irish.

"When you first join up with the Lions, you tend to be a bit overwhelmed and you don't have the same confidence as the lads from Wales and England," said John Rutherford, Scotland's prince of stand-offs. "But then, when you begin training with them, you soon discover they aren't actually any better than you.

"There were eight of us on the tour - and the likes of David Leslie didn't even make the party - and we saw pretty quickly that we didn't have any reason to have an inferiority complex. I remember Roy Laidlaw saying to me on the plane home that he fancied Scotland's chances in the 1984 Five Nations.

"We didn't make a big song and dance about it. But we knew, as a squad, we were capable of beating anybody in the championship and we had France and England at Murrayfield, which was usually the schedule which gave us the best chance of challenging for honours.

"Yet I still say, to this day, that we wouldn't have won the grand slam without the efforts of Jim [Telfer]. He worked on everything to the nth degree and he put a huge amount of effort into everything from tactics, to watching videos and studying the weather forecasts. Jim was ahead of his time in so many ways."

In advance of the campaign, the Scots had gained considerable confidence from a 25-25 draw with the All Blacks in Edinburgh. However, nobody, least of all Telfer and his captain, Jim Aitken, were bursting with Micawberish optimism ahead of the initial trip to Wales. "There hadn't even been a Triple Crown since the 1930s, so I don't think expectations were very high," said Telfer.

His captain was typically blunt. "I'm not a great believer in the idea of building teams with a specific aim that might be two or three years down the line," added Aitken.

If they were deadpan to the pundits, though, they were deadly in analysing their opponents' flaws. The Welsh, for instance, were nowhere near the quality of the terrific sides assembled in the 1970s and many of Scotland's leading performers had been involved in the 34-18 trouncing they had inflicted on their rivals in Cardiff two years earlier.

There was neither a fear factor, nor a history of failure to trouble Scotland. They could be fast and open, blessed with mercurial backs, such as Rutherford, Laidlaw, David Johnston, Peter Dods and Euan Kennedy, or they could muscle up against anybody, bolstered by Test-class players like Iain Milne, Colin Deans, Iain Paxton, John Beattie and David Leslie and Aitken. There were no weak links.

In the event, the match was hardly a classic, but nobody in blue was moaning after they emerged with a deserved 15-9 success. It was their third triumph at the Arms Park in five years, following a tussle in which Paxton and Aitken scored tries and where Leslie was the star of the show for the whole 80 minutes, befitting a man with a point to prove.

"I hadn't picked him for the Lions tour and he was probably disappointed by that," said Telfer. "He didn't have the highest workrate but, technically, he was as good a player as I have ever coached. And he was hard, hard as nails, and led by example."

There were no grandiose predictions of glory at the climax in Cardiff. This was a squad built in Telfer's image, which clung to the philosophy that actions mattered a lot more than words. Aitken, whose demand for high standards equalled that of his coach, viewed the win as a reward for attrition, but he could barely remember how he finished his own try.

"I think it started from a line-out and then we kept driving through the forwards," he said. "It felt as if it went on forever, but it was probably just two or three phases. It wasn't the prettiest score there has ever been, that's for sure."

None the less, the Scots were up and running and they had shown the quality of their forwards en masse. "When I look back, they were an incredibly talented bunch and that made my job a lot easier than it might have been," said Rutherford, who glided through the proceedings. "Some in the media started talking about grand slams and Triple Crowns after we beat Wales, but that stuff didn't make any impression on the guys at all. We had to go out and win games, not talk about winning games."

But the momentum kept building in the weeks ahead.

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