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'He took his fork, picked up my steak and ate it . . .'

HAD you picked up your copy of the Glasgow Herald early on the morning of January 6, 1964 and turned to page 15, you would have spotted an advertisement for a selection of used cars being offered for sale by a young and ambitious dealer by the name of Arnold Clark.

Jim Telfer coached Scotland to a grand slam victory over France in 1984. Picture: SNS
Jim Telfer coached Scotland to a grand slam victory over France in 1984. Picture: SNS

And had your eyes strayed a little to the right, you would have found an account of the international debut of a young and ambitious rugby player by the name of Jim Telfer.

A successful first start it was too, with Scotland beating France 10-0 through tries by Ian Laughland and Ronald Thomson and a couple of conversions by Stewart Wilson.

In the half-century that has passed since, Telfer has often been portrayed as a man with an obsession with everything to do with New Zealand rugby, but he has also maintained a parallel fascination with the way the French play.

In this era of multiple tv channels, and a perpetual rugby smorgasbord of Tests and tours, European and World Cups, it is easy to forget how exotic the annual match against the French used to be. "They were very different to the home nations," Telfer recalled. "Just speaking a foreign language made them different. Also, there wasn't the same interaction with them then that there is now. The only time you saw them was in the Five Nations."

Telfer had come into the Scotland team for the first international of 1964 as one of four new caps that day, the others being Wilson, Peter Brown and Willie Hunter. His selection followed a successful national trial, but the fact that most of the Scots had played against the touring All Blacks with their districts over the previous two months was just as much a factor in their readiness. "We were kind of battle-hardened," he said.

Until then, Telfer had played all his senior rugby at lock or No.8, so he was mystified to be picked at wing-forward. His captaincy experience was limited, too, so he was also surprised to be asked lead the pack. It was said at the time that Brian Neill had only been given the Scotland captaincy as he could speak French, so perhaps the selectors saw Telfer as the real leader of the side.

The match was played in bitter conditions, with a strong wind, driving rain and pools of water forming. However, Telfer's abiding memory is of the after-match dinner rather than the game itself.

"In those days, you would sit with your opposite number, so I was beside Michel Crauste, a big North African fellow who played for Lourdes," he said. "I remember when my steak was served he just took his fork, lifted it off my plate and ate it. I was so surprised I didn't say anything. I've never seen anything like it in my life. But he was a redoubtable character and a very good player."

Rugby followers can get a bit misty-eyed about le beau jeu of French back play. Telfer was always likely to be more drawn towards le jeu dur of the French forwards.

"They were difficult to play against," the 73-year-old explained. "I'm not saying they did it very often, but the forwards would sometimes grab you where they shouldn't or poke their fingers in your eyes. It was mainly mythical, but it did happen sometimes. They always had big, hard forwards, who did a lot of fighting in the club games and it didn't change when they played international games.

"I remember going to watch a club match in Bordeaux in 1980 and within the first two or three minutes there were 30 players fighting. It seems to me that they had to have a fight to clear the air, a real brawl. They were inclined to be very physical, near to being dirty in some of the games. If you went down to France to play a game you were in for a hiding if you didn't take them on physically."

Telfer reels off the names of great French forwards with admiring relish. Fierce props like Gerard Cholley and Robert Paparemborde. The mighty lock Benoit Dauga, whose total of 63 caps was a staggering amount at the time. The 1977 grand slam-winning back row of Jean-Pierre Rives, Jean-Claude Skrela and Jean-Pierre Bastiat was as good a set of breakaways as he has ever seen.

Telfer would play against France five times, finishing with a record of two wins, two defeats and a draw. The most famous of his three Test tries was against the French at the Stade Colombes in 1969, when he crashed over from short range to secure what would be the Scots last victory on French soil for 26 years.

He believes the relative success of his playing era was partly because of the scheduling. Then, Scotland always met France in the opening match of the championship, generally in the first half of January. Consequently, the conditions would often favour the Scots, as they certainly did that day in 1964.

Of course, Telfer also coached Scotland to a momentous grand slam victory over France at Murrayfield in 1984.

France's unpredictability always added to the challenge of preparing a team to take them on, but the key, he believes, is to go in with confidence and impose your own game on them rather than try to react to anything they are doing. Can Scotland do that this weekend? Telfer believes so.

"To be quite honest, I don't see how France can win on Saturday," was his blunt assessment. "I think Scotland have a very settled group of backs and a physical set of forwards. Of course, the French could surprise us, but our players are used to playing them now.

"I remember when the game went professional, one coach said that France would be more dangerous because they would learn that we were not so good. It's probably the opposite that has happened. Many of our players are playing over there, regularly against French teams.

"I just fancy Scotland. If Scotland can't beat France on Saturday then it would mean we're not very good. And I do actually think we have a good side at the moment."

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