Rugby Union: Five Nations Championship - Signs of mellowing as Telfer tries to turn round Scottish fortunes

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The Independent Online
Scottish rugby is on its knees and the Irish are waiting to push their faces further in the mud in Dublin on Saturday. Jim Telfer has had a week to rally his bravehearts and, as George O'Sullivan reports, if anyone can reverse the decline, the new-style `Great Man' can.

Jim Telfer, that devoted rugby enthusiast and veteran of Lions tours (one as a player, two as coach) sat pondering the way ahead for Scotland.

"I've pointed out to the players," said the 57-year-old Telfer, who took over as coach from Richie Dixon last Friday, "that they have to relax and not think about rugby all the time. If they do, nervous exhaustion creeps in."

Experienced Telfer watchers reeled in astonishment. For this was perhaps the closest that the Great Man - rugby's equivalent of the guru of Scottish football, Jock Stein - has come in some time to publicly hinting that rugby is only a game.

A moment of truth came moments later when Arthur Hastie, the Scotland team manager sitting alongside Telfer, said: "We might well go for a pint of Guinness on Thursday night."

Telfer muttered inaudibly, but the fact his utterance came accompanied by a smile confirmed the mellowness of which he had spoken earlier on his return to a job which saw him help Scotland to Grand Slams in 1984 and 1990.

Inevitably the new-style Telfer, who has also found time to make Melrose the premier club in Scotland, will be a particularly vital factor in the outcome of Saturday's game which will see Scotland seek what would be only their third win in 13 internationals.

As John Roxburgh, who, until his retirement this season as the Scottish Rugby Union's technical director was effectively Telfer's No 2, said this week: "The Scottish team have lost the ability to win. It's nothing new - the same thing happened in the 70's - and Scotland came out of the tunnel then. If anybody can turn things around this time it is Jim Telfer."

"But I really hope the management get the balance right because in addition to losing the winning habit some of the players are looking tired.

"Jim will be the first to admit that in his early coaching career he was not good at knowing when to stop. There is a balance between flogging the players and having them up mentally. The guys have got to have a spark left in them."

The point will not have been lost on Telfer. However, his players were still late for the launch of television commercial, having been delayed putting finishing touches to their preparations at Murrayfield.

The new coach knows he has taken on a tremendous responsibility and a team on its knees. "I've done nothing else than think about it," he said. "It's a strange situation. I'm not looking forward to it greatly at all.

"I do look forward to the challenge, but there is an abyss in front of us at the moment, something similar to the situations that the Lions have been in I suppose. You don't expect to do well. Then things happen and you wait and see. That's the challenge of top-class rugby."

Telfer, the son of a shepherd who as a youngster learned to play using pig's bladders as rugby balls and went on to win 25 Scotland caps, warmed to his theme.

"I've reminded the players that every match they play is a piece of history. It's recorded in a book," he said. "If they play a club match nobody bothers with the result really. If they play a district match it's the same.

"The fact that internationals are remembered is the challenge. You are judged on the day. You can look back and they'll never erase whatever the result was against South Africa or Australia..."

As for Scotland's tactics against the Irish, Telfer, often portrayed as dour in his approach, again showed a refreshing willingness to embrace the new era where rugby is entertainment.

"The players must be positive," he said. "To a coach, winning is important. But it is the standard of performance that is important.

"If you put in a good standard you give yourself a chance of a win. If you just go for victory, you can drop short."