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jimtelferThe snow is deep and crisp and dangerously uneven by health and safety standards, and Jim Telfer is barking out instructions like a rugby regimental sergeant major.

‘Cookie’s a big b*****d,’ Telfer bellows. ‘He thinks he’s tough, OK. Drive him back into the bloody Tweed.’

His young charges do their best to obey against the accompaniment of the coach, who is now transported into a state of quasi-psychotic frenzy, shouting the mantra ‘low, low, low’.


The body position has always been Telfer’s guiding principle in 40 years of coaching, with almost religious fervour, the complete spectrum of players, cubs to Lions.

At 72, he is still spreading the rugby gospel. Over the past six years, the  celebrated Scotland and Lions coach, who brought Grand Slam success to his  country and Test triumphs to the Great Britain and Ireland touring team, has turned Melrose Wasps into one of the best Under 18 sides in Scotland.

It is a testament to his passion and enthusiasm that the septuagenarian  willingly dons his training gear in the  sub-zero temperatures of a January night,  just as it is a reflection of his wisdom, knowledge and stature that 20 adolescents eagerly forsake the internet to be shouted at in the freezing cold. Tough love is the Telfer way.

‘The snow is quite difficult to run on, but we’ll just ha’e to do it,’ he announces at the start of the 90 minutes.

As a former rugby correspondent who joyously reported on Scotland’s 1984 Grand Slam, I am probably biased. But I can’t help thinking the current Scottish pack might benefit from one of Telfer’s notorious full-contact sessions and some choice words ahead of the match against England at Twickenham this weekend.

He possesses too much pride to say publicly how sad he feels about never being asked to help.

Earlier in the day, at a Galashiels home adorned with a sprinkling of obviously cherished Lions memorabilia, the choice words flow. England are not as good as they think they are,’ Telfer declares.

‘They were really up for it against New Zealand, very  physical against a tired team. If they had played another five times, the All Blacks would have won them all. You have to retain perspective.

‘In their favour is the coaching team of Stuart Lancaster,  Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell. All from the North and all down to earth. They will not let that victory go to their heads.

‘The players are a different matter, people like Chris Ashton, Danny Care, Ben Youngs and Manu  Tuilagi. They are young, very impressionable and they think what they read is all true.

‘There is the makings of a good squad, but it is not good at the moment. Like the English football team, a couple of wins and they think they are world-beaters.

‘Unless they are careful they will end up playing in a very English way. The way Saracens play. Pretty  boring. The Northampton way.  Boring. It is all about forward  domination, and the irony is that  England have some bloody good backs.

‘I look at the Saxons team and see someone like Wasps winger Christian Wade. He’s like greased lightning.’

Ask Telfer why England might resort to type, and you receive an answer straight from the William Wallace Guide to Good Neighbours.

‘Because they are English. They have got a problem and they can keep it. They are too arrogant, too pretentious and too condescending to realise they have a problem. Mind you, I like a lot of English people, especially from the northern part of the country.’

That should raise the hackles of the ‘southern softies’ in the England XV and ensure a prominent mention for Telfer in the various team talks preceding the Calcutta Cup encounter.

There is, too, a harsh observation on Welsh rugby players from the man whose soundbite can be worse than his bark, and that’s saying something.

‘Wales is not an easy country to coach because, basically, the Welsh are lazy,’ Telfer says. ‘Coaching them, playing against and with them, I realised they had reached the top because they were the cream and had not necessarily worked all that hard to get there. Wales do produce very good rugby players.’

Such characteristic bluntness can also be directed closer to home. This is a man who does not hesitate to describe Edinburgh and even his own Borders rugby community as ‘snobs’ in their continuing reluctance to embrace the professional game. This is a man who tells it how he thinks it is.

‘There are people who have played for Scotland who would never play for any other country. I have picked them as much as anyone because you have to pick 15. When I was coach of Scotland, I would have loved to have picked other players but they did not happen to be  Scottish, so I could not. You have to make the best of it.

‘The results last autumn proved that Scotland are not in a particularly good place. But this is nothing new. Historically, Scotland do not do that well. They have flashes of brilliance mixed in with mediocrity

‘Perspective is again important. In some ways, we are a very  successful rugby nation because of the small numbers we have  available. And there are some good players around.

‘I do not think things are as bad as people make out.

‘We have to accept that one or two Six Nations wins a campaign would be the norm. Three would  represent an exceptional season.

‘I think 2013 could be exceptional because we have three games in a row at home against opposition  in a state of flux. Ireland are  producing a lot of good youngsters and could be good. We could be harder than Wales and take them. And we should take Italy. I am not too despondent.’

Telfer has in the past advocated a Scottish coach. Not now, not least because only Bryan Redpath and Gregor Townsend would fulfil the No 1 criterion of having  had experience of coaching a  professional club or team.

‘If Scott Johnson produces a good Six Nations and a decent summer tour in South Africa, I would not be averse to having him. But he has not proved anything yet in any of his coaching jobs.’

This being a Lions year, Telfer admits to a feeling of heightened excitement going into the  Six Nations Championship. He approves of Warren Gatland as coach but feels he has already made a mistake.

‘He spoke of the possibility of taking a captain who did not make the Test team. That’s not a particularly clever thing to say. You want your right-hand man to be respected by the players and by the press, and you want him on the field.

‘I attended a Lions dinner in  Edinburgh recently. Andy Irvine, the Lions manager, spoke about all our world-class players. I thought, who are they? What are you talking about? Apart from England’s defeat of the All Blacks, all our countries have just been thumped by young and weakened southern  hemisphere nations. The Six Nations could, however, produce a very good Test team.’

Telfer will be watching as usual. He views every single televised rugby match, either live or recorded. Not, as used to be the case, to study opposition but to see good players and learn new ideas.

This old dog is still intent on teaching new tricks as well as learning them.

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