Telfer recalls his 1997 rallying cry as Lions prepare to meet summit

‘I don’t really rate my Everest speech’: Lions legend Jim Telfer recalls THAT 1997 rallying cry to Martin Johnson and Co as new breed of stars prepare to reach their own summit against South Africa

  • The former Lions coach says he ‘cringes’ at his infamous speech in 1997 
  • However, Jim Telfer led the Lions to a 2-1 series win over South Africa that year  
  • Telfer hailed Lions coach Warren Gatland’s ability to make brave decisions
  • Telfer also praised Alun Wyn Jones as the ideal man to be captain of the Lions 

The Lions are back at the base camp where Jim Telfer famously inspired his forwards to conquer rugby’s ‘Everest’ in 1997 — and the 2021 team will hope to reach similar heights on Saturday.

Generations of British and Irish players have been galvanised by the great Scot’s passionate call to arms 24 years ago. Telfer’s words have gone down in folklore.

It was in this iconic city that he gathered captain Martin Johnson and the other men who would have to do battle with the mighty South Africa pack a few hours later in the opener at Newlands.

Jim Telfer (left) with Martin Johnson inspired the Lions squad of 1997 with his infamous speech

Now, Warren Gatland’s squad are finalising their preparations for the first Test in the same hotel as their revered predecessors. When they engage the same enemy on Saturday, Telfer’s speech will still encapsulate their daunting task.

With the finest forwards from the four home nations sitting around him in silence, he sought to goad them into unleashing the ferocity that would be needed to overwhelm the confident, dismissive hosts. ‘This is your f***ing Everest, boys,’ said Telfer, in an attempt to stir a defiant reaction from his men. ‘Very few ever get a chance in rugby terms to get to the top of Everest. You have the chance today.

‘They don’t think f***-all of us. The only way to be rated is to stick one on them; get right up in their faces, turn them back, knock them back, out-do what they can do, out-jump them, out-scrum them, out-ruck them, out-drive them, out-tackle them, until they are f***ing sick of it.’ After emphasising local criticism of the Lions’ scrum, he concluded: ‘The moment is arriving for the greatest game of your f***ing lives.’

Many of Gatland’s squad would be able to recite the whole speech off by heart, after watching it countless times on the Living With Lions documentary. Telfer only watched it once, shortly after it was released, but he was a central figure in the footage.


Ahead of the Lions’ return to South Africa this year, the book This Is Your Everest, by Tom English and Peter Burns, brought the 1997 campaign back to life, with evocative testimony from many of those who were involved.

Telfer had a long, distinguished career as a player and coach, but his involvement in that first tour of the professional era, culminating in a 2-1 series win for the Lions, is what people always want to talk about. ‘They think my life started in 1997,’ he joked. The great speech was delivered in the Holiday Inn at Newlands — now the Southern Sun. Telfer knew no matter how well the Lions had been playing up to that point, the forwards had to recognise the scale of what awaited them.

‘Actually, when I listen to that speech, I cringe because it’s not very good,’ he told Sportsmail.

‘I’ve spoken better to players than that. I had a sense they knew how important the occasion was. I hadn’t meticulously written down that speech, but I had the main points I wanted to get across. After that, they understood the task was surmountable, but very, very difficult.

The Lions are preparing for the first test of their 2021 tour against South Africa on Saturday

‘It’s not easy to get players who’ve never been in that situation to realise how tough it is going to be. The worry was it would get even tougher as the series went on and it materialised that way in the second Test.

‘Once you’ve done it once, you think it’s just going to happen again, but it doesn’t just happen.

‘In the second Test, the forwards froze and were beaten for most of the game, because they thought it was going to be the same as the week before when their adrenalin was really flowing. In the first Test, they were scared of failure. But the next week, they just thought, ‘We have done it once’, and it was more difficult to get them worked up for it.’

What Telfer recognised back then is still a factor; that players need to reach the right emotional and mental state of readiness, especially those at the sharp end up front — even more so in South Africa, where there is such an emphasis on forward dominance. Modern rugby has become a very scientific activity, but its essence is still spirit and commitment, resilience and aggression.

Warren Gatland questioned the Lions spirit after they were beaten by New Zealand in 2017

As the Lions go into Saturday’s Test, they must heed cautionary tales from the recent past. At the last World Cup, England scaled the heights to beat New Zealand in the semi-finals, but couldn’t go to another peak the following weekend and were demolished by these Springboks.

And in 2017, Gatland angrily questioned his Lions’ heart and stomach for a fight after they had been beaten up by the All Blacks in Auckland. Their response was a famous victory in Wellington.

Telfer has faith in the Kiwi’s ability to draw the best out of his players again. ‘Gatland has done an amazing job for the Lions and he did a phenomenal job for Wales,’ he said. ‘He is a shrewd coach and a very good psychologist, mentally tough. He makes brave decisions. I admire coaches who make brave decisions, stick to them and don’t make excuses. He’s the right man.’

He is further encouraged by the talismanic stature of the Lions’ veteran leader. ‘Alun Wyn Jones is an ideal bloke to be captain,’ said Telfer. ‘It is about what happens before the match sometimes. It’s about sitting in the dressing room, looking at the bloke across from you and knowing what he’s done as a player. It gives you a sense of security and confidence. 

Telfer hailed Gatland for making ‘brave decisions’ and believes he’s right man to lead the Lions

Telfer also praised Lions skipper Alun Wyn Jones as the ‘ideal bloke to be captain’

‘He has this inner strength and experience. He has done it all before. His players trust him so much. Whatever he says or does, they believe in him. Martin Johnson had such a presence and Alun Wyn Jones is of that ilk.

‘When it was time for those Tests in 1997, I listened to Martin’s words to the other players and it was simple stuff. He’d just say, ‘Let’s go’, and that was it. Alun Wyn Jones will be like that and the other players will follow him, because of who he is.’

Telfer identifies Ireland prop Tadhg Furlong as the epitome of modern-day Lions physicality, which means they are not men against monsters, as was the perception in 1997.

But the Lions cannot be mentally poorer than the Boks. They need to find the state of mind to scale rugby’s Everest, as their predecessors did 24 years ago. And they might need someone to inspire them with stirring words, just as Telfer did back then.

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