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'Had an English person called me Jerry, I'd have told him to eff off - but Telfer was a Celt'

Jeremy Davidson scaled rugby’s peak with the 1997 Lions and ahead of today’s first Test he reveals the secret to beating the world champion Springboks in their backyard.

Updated Jul 24th 2021, 12:00 PM

Popplewell

IT IS 1997. Jeremy Davidson is 23-years old, sitting in a room listening to an older man deliver a speech that is supposed to be about rugby but is really about the human spirit.

The words are delivered calmly, the tone confidential but urgent.

The man’s voice is barely audible above the hum of the air conditioning, forcing his audience to lean forward in their seats to hear him, inadvertently bringing a team even closer together. He says something about how they may meet in 30 years’ time and be able to share a look which will remind them just how special some days in your life are.

Twenty-four of those 30 years have since passed. The speaker is an old man now, Davidson a middle-aged one. These days he is the one who delivers the speeches, as coach of Brive. Yet even though he is still ‘living his rugby dream’, around these parts, it is 1997 he is remembered for.

The day we speak is the second phone conversation he has had that day. Earlier, just after breakfast, Tom Smith had called out of the blue. Smith, like Davidson, wasn’t meant to be a hero on that ’97 Lions tour. No one expected it of either man.

Yet they’d done what the speaker, Ian McGeechan, had asked of them. They’d beaten the Springboks to become ‘special’. But now Smith had become ill with cancer. Davidson had tried to call a few months earlier but Smith was getting intensive chemotherapy at the time.

“That day he wasn’t in a very good place.”

But on this sunny day, he was. “We actually didn’t really talk about rugby, just about family, life in France,” Davidson says. “You don’t see people (from the ’97 tour) that often but the bonds are still strong. Those words Ian said in that room were profound. I see it now whenever any of us do meet up. Even if years have passed since we last saw one another, it’s like we are back in 1997.”

  • Murray Kinsella writes exclusively on the 2021 Lions Tour for our members each week. To get his analysis direct to your inbox, join The42 Membership here >

Two years ago, a fundraising dinner was held to provide support for Smith. A year earlier there was one for Doddie Weir, another Lion from 1997 who is also battling a serious illness. The entire ’97 squad turned up each time, travelling from all across the world ‘to help a team mate out’.

McGeechan had merely asked them to help one another out in the second test of a three-match series at Durban’s Kings Park. Yet here they are, a quarter of a century later, still being team-mates. These days the lines of support are emotional.

“You move on, I’m not the type of person who dwells on things,” Davidson says of his experience in 1997. Yet this week he can’t help but revisit a period in his life when he peaked, when ‘he got to climb Everest’, to quote McGeechan’s sidekick, Jim Telfer.

jeremy-davidson-1997 Source: INPHO

There are players who belong on Lions tours; players who can barely comprehend the importance of their involvement; players who few expect much of but who become stars. Davidson, who had only won 12 caps before boarding the plane for South Africa, fell squarely into the third category. For the wide-eyed rugby enthusiast, his presence there felt like the surreal fulfilment of a boyhood fantasy.

“I was really young and naïve and my mantra was to do my best. I didn’t have a big ego but knew I had been playing pretty well for Ireland across the two previous years. In those days, second rows just had to be work horses. With Tim Rodber and Paul Wallace lifting me, I knew I could get up pretty fast and high in the line-out so I knew I had an outside chance of making the team.

“But at the start, when I walked into the team hotel and saw Jeremy Guscott and Jason Leonard walk past me, I was a bit awestruck. It was only a few years previously that I’d watched those guys on Rugby Special. Now I was their team mate.”

Both McGeechan but in particular Telfer helped him emerge from his shell, the gravelly Borders accent of Telfer’s echoing around Davidson’s head each time he went training. “It is funny because the Scottish players were fed up with him because he was such a hard taskmaster. We loved him, though.

“Coaching has evolved. Nowadays you have to bring players with you; back then a coach could get away with just shouting at you. Like some of Jim’s sayings were priceless ……. ‘(Rob) Wainwright, you are like a lighthouse in the desert, brilliant but bloody useless’. Another was ‘run as fast as you can to the posts and then accelerate’.”

Yet there was a connection between the pair, Telfer and Davidson. The Scot called him Jerry. “Had an English person called me Jerry, I’d have told him to eff off. But because he was a Celt, like us, and you knew it was a familiar term for him, you didn’t take offence. He said it affectionately rather than as a sneer.

“You kind of got a feeling that he identified with you as an Irish person, felt he didn’t have a profound love of the English although he saw the best in people.

“He was a leader, a proper leader. He and Ian McGeechan got the Lions concept. It’s like what Jim said early on in that tour, that if we behaved like the English or the Irish on holiday, going looking for fish and chips or pints of Guinness, then we’d be lost. We had to accept what South Africa had to offer as a country, and take all the good things about the place on board. We had to be good tourists firstly and then get ready to fight for each other.”

That was all well and good until they realised after a defeat to Northern Transvaal (the Blue Bulls) midway through that tour that they were fighting with the wrong tactics. “I remember us getting lumps kicked out of us; we then had to go to the after-match function and they were singing these Afrikaner songs; it just felt like a tough place to be.”

By not playing in that game, this was when Davidson’s star began to rise. “They went back to the drawing board after that defeat; ‘we didn’t turn up here,’ they kind of said. ‘From now on, we will pick on form’.”

They stuck to their word. Prior to that tour, Smith had won only three caps, Matt Dawson just two. Paul Wallace, like Davidson, had 12 to his name while Alan Tait, scorer of the clinching try in the first Test, had played just twice for Scotland in the previous 10 years. Yet here they were, the ‘97 version of Jack Conan, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ali Price, Duhan van der Merwe. Surprise picks.

williams-tom-smith-paul-wallace-and-jeremey-davidson-1997 Smith, Davidson and Wallace go on a charge. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“You have to go with form,” Davidson the coach as well as Davidson the ex-player says of Gatland’s selection for today’s Test opener.

Way back 24 years ago, the Ulsterman was picked out a supposed weak link in the Lions side, his opposite number, Mark Andrews, quoted beforehand as saying: “I don’t believe in false modesty, I can without question say I am the greatest second row on the planet.”

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mark-andrews-1997 Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Davidson’s response to that? “What a prat. They didn’t vote him the best second row in the world after the series.”

Instead, after being immense in all three Tests, it was the Ulsterman who the Lions named as their Player of the Series.

“Fair play to Martin Johnson too. For him to call all the lineouts on me, it showed he was the right choice to captain that side; in that he put the team first. That kind of helped me.”

So did Telfer’s tough love. Way back then, they clipped moments from matches onto VHS cassettes and Davidson and Telfer used to pore over the minute details, the angles he hit rucks, his movement in the line-out, his tackle technique.

Then came the day of the first Test; Telfer’s Everest speech. If you haven’t heard it yet, watch it on YouTube. You won’t regret it.

“That was the best rugby speech ever. That was next level. Everyone bought in. Jim and Ian were incredible; they got every speech right, every single thing right. If you look at the 2001 (Lions) tour, Graham Henry came along and just wanted his starting team. He didn’t care about the others. There was a massive split in that squad whereas in 1997, everyone – whether you were called out at the last minute or if you started the Tests, everyone looks back and says it was the best tour ever. They got it right.”

Together, they conquered Everest.

But what do after you have got to where you’ve always wanted to be? What do you climb after reaching rugby’s highest peak?

Within a year, Davidson had suffered a knee injury which threatened his career and ultimately shortened it, even if he did manage to get back playing at the highest level, even making it back onto another Lions tour in 2001. “I never got over that knee injury, but even in 2001, I came away from that tour with no regrets because Danny Grewcock was sensational the whole way through that Test series, he and Martin (Johnson) were the perfect match on the 2001 tour. I was that guy in 1997.

 “We had big game players in ‘97 – Johnson, (Keith) Wood, (Gregor) Townsend, (Lawrence) Dallaglio, (Neil) Jenkins. They made the difference. You need your big players to perform.”

Twenty-four years on, the names have changed but the sentiment hasn’t. Again, the Lions are in South Africa, again they are facing the world champions, again their team is picked with unlikely lads, unexpected call-ups who ‘have to find their own solace, their own drive, their own ambition, their own inner strength’.

This is their Everest.

Murray Kinsella writes exclusively on the 2021 Lions Tour for our members each week. To get his analysis direct to your inbox, join The42 Membership here >

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