THIRTY years on from his heyday as a brutally effective back-row forward, John Jeffrey is a major player in the sport. As Scottish Rugby chairman, he works closely with chief executive Mark Dodson on planning for the future, and as president of the Six Nations Council he has a major influence on how the Championship develops.
Above all, however, he remains a rugby enthusiast, with well-informed but also passionate views on the state of the game. With this year’s tournament just days away, Stuart Bathgate interviewed him about his expectations, his memories of being a part of the last Scotland side to win a Grand Slam, and what he plans for the sport domestically during his term as chairman.
WE’RE counting down the last few days to this year’s Six Nations – do you still have the same feeling of anticipation that you did when a player?
John Jeffrey: “I don’t think it can ever be the same as when you were playing – when you’re involved at arm’s length, you don’t have quite the buzz, because nothing would recreate that buzz that you get when you’re playing. But genuinely, in terms of excitement, I’m probably more excited about this Six Nations than I have been about any Six Nations since I finished playing. Whether it’s because of my involvement, or excitement about the potential of the Scottish team . . .
“A wee bit also, you look at the tournament as a whole and you genuinely could say five of those six teams [Italy being the exception] could win it. It could be the bounce of a ball.
“If you look at us last year, we should have beaten Wales and we could have beaten Ireland, and that would have been a Grand Slam. Now don’t get me wrong, if we’d been going to Paris for a Grand Slam, Brice Dulin wouldn’t have run the ball in the 82nd minute.
“What I’m trying to say is nobody would have said Wales would have won the Championship last year, but they did. You just need a fair wind and a bit of momentum, a bounce of the ball or just a player to make the correct decision.
“I’ve always said about the Scottish team, if you get to the last 20 minutes within a score, something can happen. That’s all I ask for.
“I know a couple of games will go away from teams and they will look quite a big score, but there is very little between the top five teams.”
You know what it takes to win a Grand Slam. What was the most important ingredient of the 1990 team’s success?
“Probably the really key players, and the more I look back at it, they were really underestimated. Everyone talks about David Sole and Gavin Hastings, but for me the two key players were Gary Armstrong and Finlay Calder.
“Finlay was the catalyst of absolutely everything we did. It’s only when I’ve occasionally looked back over the years at games I’ve said ‘Finlay did that – I didn’t know Finlay did that’. He was hugely, hugely under-rated as a player, as was Gary. The work rate Gary got through was just phenomenal.
“So those two were under-rated, and I think we as a team were probably under-rated as well. England had won by a lot against teams we hadn’t beaten by much, and when it came to the final match everyone said England were going to win by a lot.
“We had never won by a lot, but we kept the momentum going. Our second-last game in Wales, we only won by a few points. We should have won by more, which was quite good, because we knew we had the potential to get better. It was only 13-9, and we knew we should have won that game by 20 or 30 points.
“So what was the secret? It was probably flying below the radar, to be honest with you. People didn’t see us as that great a team, especially when England had Jeremy Guscott, Will Carling, Rory Underwood and were winning by 30 or 40 points playing a great brand of rugby.”
What is your single fondest memory of that campaign? Full-time in the England match?
“It was probably the first match. We played Ireland at Lansdowne Road, and our coach was ill – Geech had the flu, so he couldn’t come. Jim Telfer took us, and I just remember, before we went out, he got us in a huddle.
“And I thought, ‘Oh God, he’s going to blow up the back-row for being useless again’. And he just started singing Flower Of Scotland. And in the changing room, in a huddle, we just sang Flower Of Scotland before we went out.
“Then after that, when we played the French game at home we were allowed to sing one verse of Flower Of Scotland instead of the national anthem, then when we played England we were allowed to sing two verses.
“Everyone knows about the games against France and England when we sang Flower Of Scotland, but it was actually in the changing room in Dublin that it probably sticks out more than anything else to me.”
Season Appeal 2022
We hope you are enjoying our unrivalled coverage of Scottish Rugby. While mainstream media continues to reduce its interest in the rugby family in Scotland, The Offside Line does its very best to make sure all levels of the domestic game are reported.
Our commitment to the game and sharing its stories means that we do not have a paywall, so we would ask you (only if you can!) to support The Offside Line, either with a one off donation, or with a monthly contribution.
We have been keeping Scottish rugby in the news since 2016 and will have 3 million page views this year, making The Offside Line first for Scottish rugby.
You made your debut in late 1984, shortly after Scotland had won a Grand Slam. How influential were members of that team on the 1990 side?
“I hate to say this, but not very much at all, to be honest with you. I played with them all in the build-up, and I was called up for training at Murrayfield before the Dublin match because Iain Paxton had a sore knee. I knew he was going to pass his fitness test, and he did, and they sent me home. I had a ferry to catch because I was meant to be out on the piss with some boys from Kelso, so I had to go back, drop off my dicky bow at the house, then hot-tail it to Stranraer to get a ferry across.
“So I knew most of those players. But you’ve got to remember we went from the ‘84 Grand Slam to a whitewash in ‘85, and in ‘86 they got rid of the whole of the ‘84 team. The only person who played in both squads was Peter Dods.”
You said the England team of that era were playing a good brand of rugby. How would you describe your team’s relations with that England side?
“The hostility went back to ‘88 and ‘89 when there was a lot of mud thrown at each other about the matches. There were a couple of dreadful matches – the draw in ’89 was bad, but the ‘88 one was even worse, when we won 9-6. I was on the bench that day, and we were going ‘I’m not coming on, that’s a shit game out there’. They were slowing it down and stopping the game, and we were trying to play.
“Hatred is too strong a word, but there was some dislike between some of the players. There was a bit of animosity between the two teams. Compare that to the relationships we had with the Irish and Welsh at that time, when the after-match functions were great, they were fantastic.”
How does this Scotland team compare to yours?
“You can’t compare teams. There’s 30 years’ difference. You can’t even compared the ‘84 Grand Slam team to the 1990 Grand Slam team. They’re totally different.
“What I would say is that this team at the moment seem to have much more strength in depth than we had. Most Scotland teams probably had one or two weaknesses in the 15, but if you looked at the opposition’s benches they often seemed pretty strong when we had a weak bench.
“Now, though, you ask ‘Who is he not going to put on the bench? Who’s going to miss out altogether?’. The pool that Gregor has developed is fantastic.”
Why have Scotland yet to win a Six Nations Championship?
“I suppose you go back to player base – our numbers. Did we embrace the professional game correctly? You’d probably have to say no, because the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We’ve not developed enough players.
“We had a really good team that won the last ever Five Nations in 1999. Our pro teams came and went – four to two, back up to three then down to two again. The bottom line is we’ve not been good enough.”
They say winning a first trophy is always the toughest . . .
“They’ve got a couple of bogeys off their back – winning at Twickenham and in Paris was brilliant. We’re winning more games than we lose, then it comes down to those small margins.”
Do you see CVC’s investment in the Six Nations as a risk at all?
“I don’t see it as a risk. Maybe I’m being naive. If we learn the lessons of private equity and how we spend that money – we’ve got to use that to drive us forward.
“What we’ve got with the Six Nations is a fantastic competition, a fantastic product, but we can’t sit on our laurels. To me what’s best with the Six Nations is our fans, and that was really highlighted last year when they weren’t there.”
You are Scottish Rugby’s chairman for the next 18 months – what are your key aims during that time?
“My biggest aim is the women’s game. I really want us to concentrate on growing player numbers – we’ve got to be more competitive. It’s a really big challenge, because at the moment the top four or five countries in the world are so far ahead in the women’s game. It’s a hell of a gap to bridge.
“I want to include everybody in rugby, not just what we’ve been in the past, which is middle-class society and the Borders. We’ve got to get rid of that image and say genuinely rugby is a sport for all. We’ve got to make games at BT Murrayfield events that everybody wants to come to. I’d also like to see us upgrade our stadium.”
Do you plan to stand down when your current term of office ends in July 2023, or woudl you consider another term if asked?
“I haven’t even come to that bridge never mind crossed it yet. But I will have to, because there’s a lot of succession planning in the business. Mark’s contract comes to an end, Gregor’s comes to an end.
“I’ll have to be asked in the first instance. Nobody’s asked me yet.”
Lorne Crerar recently took over as chair of the SRU’s Standing Committee On Governance. What do you hope for when that committee reports back?
“I’m hoping for a structure that lets the Board run the professional side of the game while still being accountable to the clubs, because they are ultimately the owners. Let the clubs run the community game – the Board shouldn’t be telling Biggar whether they get promoted or relegated, that’s got nothing to do with the Board. The idea of giving a budget to the community game to run itself is absolutely spot-on.
“What I’d like to see is something that’s going to work. This governance issue has been hanging over us for what, five years now? People coming onto the board, and sponsors, need to know what’s happening with governance. If we’re going to look for external investment in our pro teams, for example, they need to know what the governance model is going forward.
“So clarity. I’m very hopeful with Lorne coming in that we can get that.
“There’s an awful lot of animosity getting involved in it now. People are very bitter about it, and we shouldn’t be. We should be doing what is best for Scottish rugby as a whole, not just for me and the Board or for the clubs: it should be a structure that’s fit.
“There was not too much wrong with the Dunlop report. I would really like to see us bring in a governance model that is the envy of other governing bodies. I hope we can get something that we’re pleased with internally, and that externally people can say, ‘That’s a really good governance model’. So I hope we can get something that not only works, but is the envy of everyone.”
Is the key question whether members of a new Board are elected by the clubs or selected internally? Is that a red line for you as chairman?
“It depends whether there is one Board at the top and another Board below it. There’s an awful lot of animosity and angst over who reports in to who. At any point in time the clubs can call for an SGM, for my head or Mark’s head, or change the structure. At any time. It’s how you do it.
“Hopefully, with a bit of Lorne’s common sense and guidance we can get a structure through that suits us all, fits everyone. I just hope that all the angst there is over this isn’t going to bring the whole ship down, because there’s so much good stuff.
“I spoke to my club [Kelso] – they don’t give a monkey’s about what’s happening up there. They really don’t – they want to know how they’re represented on the community game.
“I hope we’re not letting – and this is from both sides by the way – I hope we’re not letting the tail wag the dog too much on this.”
Let’s get back to on-field matters to finish off. You have said five teams could win the Championship – who do you think will win it?
“My prediction about who will win it would be France. You see the way they’ve developed, their base, the size of the squad that’s coming through now, their age profile . . . That French team goes back to the Under-20s French team that won the junior world championship twice. They got to three finals in a row and won two out of three.
“So they’re used to winning. And when you see the way they’re playing their rugby. Hopefully I’m not tempting fate, but they seem to have their discipline sorted out. Shaun Edwards [France’s defence coach] is a fantastic coach.
“So my favourites would be France. But genuinely, coming up on the rails behind them are the other four.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we were heading to Dublin on the last day and the winner of that game won the Six Nations? That is not beyond the bounds of possibility. It’s a genuinely exciting tournament. It’s going to be a great Championship this year.”