JOHN JEFFREY may have left his role as Chairman of Scottish Rugby Limited in a hurry back in April, but the 1990 Grand Slam hero did not hold back this [Monday] morning when given an opportunity to demonstrate his enduring passion for the team he represented with distinction 40 times between his debut in 1984 and his final match seven years later.
He was ostensibly speaking at function on the front lawn of the opulent Musée Masséna in the heart of Nice as a representative of World Rugby – his rushed Murrayfield departure was to allow him to concentrate on his new role as Vice Chair of the global governing post – but the 64-year-old did not even attempt a pretence at neutrality.
“At this stage I’ll take my World Rugby hat off, if I’m allowed to, and say a few words to the team,” he said, during the official welcoming of the team to their World Cup host city. “What you’ve done over the last two years has been fantastic. You’ve embraced everything that is great about our heritage, about Scotland. The way you play your game is exciting, it’s attractive and it’s also successful.
“You’ve taken the support to a different level. The country is behind you, former players are behind you, the likes of which I’ve never ever seen before.
“Not only do players and fans in Scotland support you, but fans round the world do. When you go to Sevens tournaments, Fiji are always everybody’s second favourite team. At fifteens now Scotland are that, purely and simply because of the brand of rugby they play.
“So, congratulations for what you’ve done on the pitch and off the pitch, you’ve set the benchmark.
“I know, because I’ve been there myself and failed [Jeffrey was in the Scotland sides which reached the quarter-final of 1987 World Cup and semi-final of the 1991 tournament], and I’ve spoken to former players, and this is without doubt the best ever Scotland team to take the field.
“So, all I would say to you is: ‘You are always remembered in history by your records’. Make sure, as the best ever rugby team to represent Scotland, you set the record books right over the next four weeks.”
Scotland face an almighty challenge if they are to avoid becoming the third Scotland team to head home at the end of the pool stage in the last four World Cup tournaments, having been drawn in a pool alongside behemoths South Africa (reigning champions and currently ranked second in the world) and Ireland (first in the world).
There is a strong case to support the contention that Jeffrey’s own era was the high-water mark for the Scotland national team given that they won a Grand Slam in 1990 and then reached the last four of the World Cup a year later, but the man himself – perhaps giddy from the sea air on the French Riviera – stuck to his guns with the bold claim that the current crop is the best generation the country has ever produced.
“We are not winning Six Nations championships but when you speak to Gregor Townsend [Scotland’s head coach] and see the way he is trying to develop the team, he has always said he has been trying to develop the team so when we get to this stage we will be in our best nick and I believe him,” Jeffrey continued. “When you look at the players and what they can achieve then why not?”
“You can’t compare teams. Look at the draw we had [in 1991]. We all sat down and looked at it the night before the World Cup and we thought if we didn’t get to the semi-finals it would have been a failure.. and we did but we messed up.
“It was a regret. We did not play well at all that day and got off to a really bad start, but we had such an easy draw. Compare that to the draw this team has got. It is not comparable.
“But, of course they can qualify [for the knock-out stages this time despite being down in a pool containing the top two naked teams in the world], absolutely.
“If you ask me, when do you want to play South Africa? I would say first up. Okay, you are not going to catch them cold after what they did to the All Blacks, but the jeopardy of playing them last is … one of us is in, one of us is out. Playing them first-up, we do get a second chance.
“It is a big ask but we have beaten them before. The question then is can we beat Ireland? Gregor always tells me he has this game-plan to beat them and I believe him, I’ve got to believe him.
“Look at our forwards now,” he added. “We have big ball carriers in there and they always say in rugby you have to earn the right to go wide so we can’t put it out to Darcy Graham or Duhan van der Merwe straight away. You have to tie them in, and we have the game plan to do that, absolutely. And we have the skills to do that. And after that you are into a knock-out stage.”