Jim Telfer interview: 'Scotland fans booing the national anthem was embarrassing'

Coach Jim Telfer with trophy and squad members - Jim Telfer interview: 'Scotland fans booing the national anthem was embarrassing' - Ian Stewart
Coach Jim Telfer with trophy and squad members - Jim Telfer interview: 'Scotland fans booing the national anthem was embarrassing' - Ian Stewart

'The Grudge', a recent documentary from BT Sport reflecting on Scotland and England's decisive meeting at Murrayfield to settle the 1990 Five Nations championship, should intrigue both for those who remember that time well and the rest unfamiliar with the divisiveness felt either side of the Anglo-Scottish border at the time stirred by Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax.

The footage of Big collars, high shorts and the birth of 'Flower of the Scotland' should provide a jolt of nostalgia and perhaps for Scottish viewers a sense of wistfulness, given 1990 also happens to be the last time Scotland won the Grand Slam.

"We were written off by everybody," said David Sole, Scotland's captain, as the champagne bottles were opened back in the dressing room after Scotland's 13-7 win, but you can see why that might have been the case.

England throughout that Five Nations were transformed, benefitting from the fitness work put in by Geoff Cooke following his arrival as head coach two years' previously and taking the game to their opponents with an attacking style which blew teams away.

In consecutive games England defeated France 26-7 in Paris and Wales 34-6 back at Twickenham, improving as the tournament progressed. Whereas yes, Scotland were winning, but the performances were not what they wanted.

"England got better, whereas we were pretty mediocre. You think of when England beat Wales (34-6), it was almost a perfect display," Jim Telfer, the great Scotland coach, tells Telegraph Sport. "There was an extra bite about the English game because they played so well, had good players."

Scotland, it should be noted, did thrash France 21-0 at Murrayfield, but it was the narrow wins away over Ireland (10-13) and Wales (9-13) which left Telfer and Sir Ian McGeechan, his co-coach, somewhat frustrated. The successful coaching partnership has long been regarded as a good cop, bad cop double act. Not that McGeechan, Telfer is keen to point out, was mild mannered.


"That’s how it was portrayed, but the idea that Ian was a good cop and a nice soft touch is not true. He was as hard as nails. I’m a wee bit more direct than him. He has a greater command of the English language and can spread things out better than I can. That’s why he writes for the Telegraph..."

Telfer and McGeechan did their best to shut out the external political noise, but the disparity at the time between the two nations raged. Thatcher's controversial "We in Scotland" interview with the BBC - which signalled the beginning of the end for her premiership ahead of resigning in November -  happened to air just a week before Scotland and England met at Murrayfield, adding fuel to the fire.

While his players remained focused on the job in 1990, there had been no getting away from the hostility towards all things England two years earlier. Telfer stood next to Princess Anne, the Scottish Rugby Union's patron, at Murrayfield when 'God Save The Queen' was roundly booed. By the time England returned two years later for the crucial Grand Slam decider, 'Flower of Scotland' had been adopted.

"It was embarrassing [in 1988] because everybody was booing. So it was a relief when Flower of Scotland was chosen," Telfer recalls. "I don’t think it’s a particularly happy song at all, and I don’t think it should be taken as a national anthem. But it does get the hairs on the back of your neck standing up because of the words. It brings people together, rather than galvanising them to beat the English. But it was a very good decision and since then it’s been accepted by other sports."

Before the game itself Scotland acted differently. Jeremy Guscott recalls in the documentary giving a look and half a smile before the opening kick-off to Scott Hastings, only to receive no response from the centre he played alongside on the previous year's British and Irish Lions tour to Australia. Of the 33 players selected coached by Lions head coach McGeechan for that 1989 tour, two thirds were from England and Scotland.

"The Scottish and English players got on very well together in Australia, as all Lions players try to do on tour. The likes of Scott Hastings and the rest of them - Sole, Finlay Calder - they knew it was probably their only chance of beating the English at home, having had such a successful Lions tour," Telfer explains, noting that Scotland had also been cautious regarding which of their players they made available to the press in that week, wanting only experienced players to talk in order to avoid fanning the flames. "When Jerry says there was something in Scott’s eyes, I think that would be true."

Scotland led 9-4 at half-time, courtesy of three Craig Chalmers' penalties, before Tony Stanger's famous try chasing onto a kick from Gavin Hastings at the start of the second half gave Scotland breathing room. Whether it should have been awarded was another matter.

"I still think it wasn’t a try, but never mind. I don’t think he got the ball down," Telfer admits, with Stanger pressured by a chasing Rory Underwood. "[Stanger] says he did, the referee from New Zealand thought he had, so that was it." The celebrations back at Edinburgh's Carlton Hotel were "fulsome", as Telfer puts it. "The Scots, they know how to celebrate."

The sport has changed remarkably since then, with Telfer recalling how his Sundays were spent going through reels of tape on a Betamax at home scribbling down the times on the video to carry out his analysis, a world away from the current technology available. "It was a pretty Heath Robinson kind of arrangement," he adds, referencing the unique inventor.

One area where rugby could look to the past to improve however is old-school rucking, with Telfer believing that removing the jackaler at each breakdown would improve the sport.

"Nobody should be able to touch the ball with their hands once it has gone on the ground. I think you would develop rucking and counter-rucking similar to what we had in the 1990s. Calder was our openside but he wasn’t a specialist number seven like Hamish Watson is. But I think the game could be improved by removing that ability to go over and win the ball with your hands. It might help to stop the injuries we get if everybody came in and drove over each other from either side."

It would be remiss to finish our time together without remembering Doddie Weir, a fellow rugby great of the Borders along with Telfer, the two working together with Scotland and the Lions. As much as Telfer enjoyed their partnership as coach and player, he was in awe of Weir's defiant response to his illness in search of a cure for Motor Neurone Disease.

"People go on and say he was lazy and didn’t like training, but he was a great player to work with," Telfer explains. "In the six years since he was diagnosed, I couldn’t believe what he did. His indefatigable work to try and get a cure, the positive vibes he had and the influence on people to go out and do charity work and events - it was unbelievable. His wife said he was a force of nature and that’s absolutely true.

"Even with his death, the legacy he has left will drive us to get a cure for the disease. It was a pleasure to coach him, and certainly a privilege to know him and work with him over the last few years."

The Grudge, the latest in the BT Sport Films series, is available to watch on the BT Sport App and website.