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Six Nations: Telfer's class of 84 in a league of their own

Whatever other pressures Scott Johnson faces during this year's Six Nations, it is unlikely that in addition to his duties as Scotland's head coach, he will be running a high school or manning the bar in a Selkirk hotel.

Jim Telfer is optimistic about the future of Scottish rugby   Photograph: Steve Cox
Jim Telfer is optimistic about the future of Scottish rugby Photograph: Steve Cox

Those, though, were the jobs that Jim Telfer continued to do while coaching Scotland 30 years ago.

"I was the full-time deputy head of Deans Community High School in Livingston. As a community school it was open seven days a week, so I was up there one weekend in three. I was travelling up from Selkirk, because my wife Frances ran the Glen Hotel and I sometimes helped out there as well," Telfer said.

The ebullient Johnson would doubtless be willing to try out both roles if it guaranteed emulating the Grand Slam Telfer achieved in 1984, but though one of the great dates in Scottish rugby history, it is often overshadowed by the Slam in 1990. However, as Telfer pointed out, at the time it made a greater impact.

"In 1984 we had gone 59 years without a Grand Slam and 46 without a Triple Crown. None of the players or coaches and very few spectators had any memory of a Triple Crown, never mind a Grand Slam," he said.

Scotland had won only one match in 1983, when Telfer was on sabbatical preparing to take the Lions to New Zealand. But he and assistant Colin Telfer - no relation, but still Scottish rugby royalty as nephew of legendary prop Hugh McLeod - felt they were developing a good team.

"We'd gone to Australia in 1981 and New Zealand the year after that. Eight went with the Lions to New Zealand. Scotland's results had not been great, but we were building up a strong, solid, stable core to the team," Telfer said. He was also happy with support off the field.

"We had a very good selection panel. The convenor Ian MacGregor and the president of the Union, Adam Robson, had both played for Scotland. They were down-to-earth people whom the players liked and respected - and that always helps."

Beside Telfer was his namesake. "Colin hasn't really received the credit he deserved," he said. "He was an excellent player and an extremely good coach of our backs. We came from Borders rugby - I'm from Melrose and he's from Hawick and we understood each other well."

They also had a good on-field represent-ative in veteran skipper Jim Aitken.

"Jim was pushing 37. We'd left him out a couple of years earlier, but he forced his way back in. He listened to his coach, was a disciplinarian and played in a very successful team at Gala. It was like having a version of myself on the field," Telfer said.

Optimism was reinforced in the autumn when Scotland drew 25-25 with the All Blacks, one of only two draws achieved in 109 years of the rivalry. (Telfer, not coin-cidentally, played in the other.)

"It wasn't their strongest team, but it was still the All Blacks and they had plenty of good players - Stu Wilson was captain and they included Robbie Deans, Jock Hobbs, Wayne Smith and Murray Mexted. And we could have won."

And while the final trial worked its usual mischief, with the junior team winning, it did not distract Scotland's selectors.

"The teams were mixed up rather than being a straight senior/junior division, so there was little difference from the team who played the All Blacks," Telfer said.

And that continuity was to serve Scotland well. "The only changes we had during the tournament were because of injuries.

"Before the last match, France lost [Dominique] Erbani, one of their back row, and instead of simply replacing him made about five changes, moving people around."

The names of that Scottish team still resonate, none more so than the half-back pairing of John Rutherford and Roy Laidlaw.

"They were terrific as individual players, but even better as a combination - they'd played a lot together and also liked each other, which does help. And they're still friends," Telfer said.

The scorelines suggest a regal progress, with no margin less than six points - then the value of a try and conversion. Wales were beaten 15-9 at Cardiff, England 18-6 at Murrayfield and Ireland 32-9 in Dublin before the Slam-clinching defeat of France by 21-12 at Murrayfield.

But no Grand Slam is ever easy. Telfer remembers the win in Cardiff, secured by an Aitken try from a line-out, as the least convincing performance. The Calcutta Cup victory was due to inside knowledge from coaching the Lions. "We changed our tactics and peppered Dusty Hare with high kicks. He dropped quite a few and started to struggle with his goal- kicking. David Johnston and Euan Kennedy scored tries and we won quite comfortably."

Dublin, with the Triple Crown at stake, heaved with Scots. "It seemed there were more of us there than were left at home in Scotland," Telfer said.

Their journey was rewarded with the best Scottish performance of the season, 22 points unanswered by half-time.

"Ireland chose to play into the wind. We kicked off, got into their 25 and stayed there. We had three debutant referees that season and we'd noticed when Fred Howard did South of Scotland v The All Blacks that he was a disciplinarian and pernickety at the scrums. So we took care to keep on his good side, and Ireland did not."

He was, he says, more than happy with a Triple Crown - an achievement taken much more seriously in 1984 than it is now. Most observers tipped France, also chasing a Slam, to win at Murrayfield.

The first half at Murrayfield suggested they might have a point.

"Their scrum-half [Jerome] Gallion, a dentist from Toulon, scored and was running the game behind a dominant pack. We could have been 15 to 20 points down, but stuck at it, stayed in touch and took control after half-time."

This was Peter Dods' finest hour, kicking 17 of Scotland's points with one eye shut like a defeated boxer. "Five penalties and he converted Jim Calder's try," Telfer said.

It was, he reckons, the peak of his coaching career, rivalled only by assisting with the victorious Lions in South Africa in 1997. "I'd lost three times previously with the Lions, once as coach, twice as a player."

At 72, Telfer remains an acute observer. While critical of much British club rugby - "everyone seems to play the same way, keeping the shackles on until the second half" - he is a long way from the "better in my day" school, enjoying, for instance, Super 15 rugby. "Every team plays differently, and tries different things."

Nor, while feeling that the regional teams need to play more home-grown players, does he join in the gloom around Scottish rugby.

"I think Scott Johnson is building up a strong and stable squad, although the problem is that everybody else is improving as well. The one real worry is finding an outside-half."

He believes Stuart Hogg, whom he coached as a 16-year-old, could be the answer, but also thinks he might be shackled by the role, so it could be better to leave him as a free spirit. Transport Hogg back 30 years in a time machine and there would be a job for him in the 1984 Scotland team. "Which isn't to take anything away from Peter Dods, but Hogg does have that touch of magic," Telfer said.

Nor would he be alone in attracting the selectors interest. "Johnny Gray at lock looks a very good prospect and Matt Scott is a very exciting young player," he says. So there's hope yet - and it still takes a brave man to contradict Jim Telfer.

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