The East Terrace - For the rugby football enthusiast

Jim Telfer: Looking Back...For Once

Lookinng Back
Jim Telfer...Looking Back

Published by Mainstream Sports

By Jim Telfer and David Ferguson

‘I always liked to have a theme for my team talks and I’ve been reminded by players about what I said before (the) Wales game. Apparently I told them, ‘We’re like the SAS: were going into Cardiff to kill the bastards and come straight out again, almost without them knowing we’ve been there.’

Jim Telfer has experienced almost everything the game of rugby can offer, be it in his time as a player, coach or administrator. His service at the highest echelons of the game has stretched to over forty years.

Such a CV, combined with Telfer’s charismatic personality, leaves plenty of scope for an autobiography. Ironically, it is also the book’s main problem: what should a writer focus on and what should he leave out from such a memorable life.

Outspoken, honest characters like Telfer often make as many enemies as they do supporters, and it is to Telfer’s credit that he does not duck this issue in the book. It is of particular interest to note that some of the strongest criticism of his famously tough training methods seem to come during the professional era of his coaching rather than the amateur days.

Telfer claims, jokingly, that he was the first socialist to get anywhere in Scottish rugby, but his interest in politics, albeit in the rugby sense, too often overshadows the rest of the book’s content. Huge sections of the latter half of the title are devoted to detailed explanation and analysis of the various political events in Scottish rugby over the years and too little room is given to the coaching and playing field. For example, Scotland’s famous upset to snatch the grand slam from under England’s noses in 1990 warrants just about a single page. It is also maddening (especially for us mere mortals who never played first class rugby) that almost nothing is said about the occasion of his first cap for his country. As if such an event is an everyday, mundane experience.

Nevertheless, one thing that does come over clearly in all the political murmurings is Telfer’s absolute love for the game and his desire that he has to see Scottish rugby healthy.

For someone as outspoken and fiery as Jim Telfer, the book is surprisingly tame. However, it does make his occasional outburst all the more poignant. In particular his attack on the way Woodward ran the 2005 Lions tour:

'Calling for replacements is one thing, but going out there with that many and then trying to please them all, to me, makes a mockery of the British and Irish Lions concept. HRH Prince William wandering around with the players, having a kicking session and spending time with the head coach; a political spin doctor who clearly had little understanding of Lions rugby making us a laughing stock in New Zealand; a lawyer and referee wandering around in Lions kit. These were all examples of the way in which the honour of reaching the top in British and Irish rugby and becoming a Lion was devalued.'

What makes such comments all the more authoritative is that Telfer experienced the Lions as a player and coach in the amateur era and as a coach in the professional era. Telfer has seen all sides of the coin, so to speak, and his criticism of the Woodward regime carries all the more weight because of it.

As always in rugby autobiographies, there is a fair share of amusing anecdotes. One of the most memorable, however, is his admission that the Scottish management sent a video spy into the Springboks camp during the 2002 autumn games. The resulting video, complete with gaps as the cameraman kept ducking under cover to prevent detection, played a key part in Telfer’s match preparation. Proving that the current practice of coaches sweeping rooms for bugs or building fences around the training paddock may not simply be the result of paranoia and an overactive imagination.

It is also comical to hear that after the infamous Living with Lions documentary of the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa, Telfer received a certain amount of nasty mail condemning him for swearing so much in his role as forward coach. Quite what people think goes on in international rugby dressing rooms if not a lot of swearing is unclear. Telfer describes his thoughts on a letter he received from a doctor on the matter:

'But what the doctor did not appreciate was the unique environment in which the best rugby players in the world prepare themselves to suffer some physical and mental pain in order to become winners…I did not bother replying to him, but if he had been in that situation and had walked out of the room, I would have told him to continue walking and never to have come back.'

Telfer does admit to having to apologise to his mother over the issue, though.

Jim Telfer is one of the greats of British rugby and, by rights, his experiences and charismatic personality should have made for a fascinating autobiography. As it is, the attempt to cover every phase of his long service in rugby, rather than focusing on a few of the most interesting aspects, has somewhat diluted the impact. Those who like their sport books to go into the smallest of details over great games or famous moments will be very disappointed here. On the plus side there is plenty to learn and appreciate for the rugby connoisseur and Looking Back…For Once is still an enjoyable read.