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Telfer's legacy lives on in the Borders

DEpending on your source of information, Melrose are either one of the miracles of Scottish sport or a club which preys on others in their homeland through the success of their globally-acclaimed Sevens tournament.

Melrose coach John  Dalziel celebrates Saturday's title victory
Melrose coach John Dalziel celebrates Saturday's title victory

At least one former Greenyards great, Keith Robertson, told Herald Sport yesterday that he disagreed with his former team's policy of bringing in outsiders - and the former Scotland and Lions star controversially claimed the Borderers would "finish bottom of the second division rather than first in the top flight if they depended on their own talent". But, somehow, the words sounded a bit hollow.

After all, when professionalism was sanctioned in rugby in 1995, Melrose lost a string of Test-class personnel such as Doddie Weir, Bryan Redpath and Craig Chalmers to England, yet still managed to remain a potent force in the game. Which, when one bears in mind they have fewer than 2000 residents, testifies to the fact they must have been doing something right for the last 20-odd years.

Obviously, Jim Telfer was one of the great guiding influences and it is almost impossible to overstate his contribution to the Melrose cause. For decades, whether as a tough-as-teak player, endlessly inventive coach, mentor to generations of youngsters or devotee of the philosophy "Education, Education, Education" when Tony Blair was still at university, he channelled his pride, passion, philosophy and perfectionism to their benefit. Others have subsequently risen to the challenge, from Rob Moffat to the aforementioned Chalmers through to John Dalziel, whose side claimed the RBS Premiership in the most dramatic of circumstances on Saturday. But there is little denying that Telfer has been the Sir Alex Ferguson of his pursuit; a man who might never have built a career in the diplomatic corps, but who poured every sinew of effort into making his players as good as they could possibly be, and long before the latter were concerned about wage packets.

Chalmers, for instance, speaks of Telfer with unalloyed gratitude and you can understand the reason for his attitude. He won six Scottish championship titles in the 1990s, in addition to all manner of cups and other domestic honours. Then, once he assumed the coaching duties, prior to departing for England last summer, he added another brace of titles, assorted cups and steered his personnel to success at the Melrose Sevens which was no mean feat, given the strength of the overseas sides in attendance.

In which light, he is ideally qualified to speak about the virtues of Melrose's set-up and dispel the myth that they can keep poaching players from elsewhere through their cash from Ned Haig's brainchild all these years ago.

"I remember when we turned up for training in the 1980s [when he was still a teenager], we would work, and we would keep working until we could almost stand no more, and there was no secret to our success: I think we trained harder in these days as amateurs than the pros do nowadays and our approach was that we were not simply playing for ourselves, but doing our utmost for the whole community," said Chalmers, who admitted some semblance of sympathy with Gala, who missed out on the Premiership, following a nerve-shredding 34-33 defeat to Ayr.

"If we just had a good First XV and that was it, you might see the sense in the criticisms. But we have an excellent director of rugby in Mike Dalgetty, a superb fitness guru in Bill Noble, we have one of the biggest mini-rugby sections in Scotland and there is a desire to do well, wherever you look, from the people who work in the clubhouse to the volunteers who hand out programmes and do all the other things you need to run a club.

"I'll be honest, I thought Melrose might finish third or fourth at the start of the season, and I reckoned it would be good if they got back into the British & Irish Cup. But all the boys have done a fantastic job and when you consider they beat Gala home and away, you can't really argue with how the championship ended. Of course, it was tough on Gala, but sport is about winners and losers and that is something else we learned at The Greenyards. You get nothing for coming second."

There's no denying the Sevens help generate precious income, which assists in the development of the grassroots. Yet, when one reflects on how far ahead of the rest the two Borders rivals they were this winter - and Ayr are moulded more in their image than the big city organisations - perhaps it is their opponents who should be examining their own methods and resolving to sharpen up their act.

Certainly, as Chalmers maintained, the future looks bright for Melrose, when one reflects on the number of 22-27-year-olds they have in their squad. "They will be favourites before a ball has been kicked in 2014-15 and that is what Melrose lads have come to expect whenever they walk into the ground," he said. "Creamy [Telfer] used to instil that in us. He wanted other teams to be worried about meeting us and he wanted us to believe we could beat anybody.

"Of course, it didn't always pay dividends and there were afternoons where we performed below our best or our rivals were better than us. But they were few and far between and John Dalziel seems to have got that mentality ingrained in his side."

Telfer once told me there was no point in complacency, or basking in present glories. As usual, the old fellow was bang on the money and his legacy lives on in the Borders.

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