25 years on, Finlay Calder recalls Lions glory

Finlay Calder grapples for possession in the Lions first test in 1989. Pic: James Privett
Finlay Calder grapples for possession in the Lions first test in 1989. Pic: James Privett
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Finlay Calder today revealed how fate played a hand to make him a winning British Lions rugby captain as he prepared for tonight’s 25th anniversary reunion of the squad who defeated Australia 2-1 in the 1989 Test series.

Some 28 of the 32 players used on that trip will have dinner at the Caledonian Club in London with Stewart’s Melville back-row Calder insisting: “I know Will Carling was earmarked to captain the Lions in ‘89 before he had the misfortune to be injured, although there was a tendency around that time to favour Celts for the role.”

That was not the only revelation from Calder when urged to take a rare backwards glance.

Notwithstanding the Lions’ success, their fist Test series win since 1971, within a year he was part of the Scotland team which won a Grand Slam with a 13-7 clinching victory over England.

And there was a direct link to the Lions with the legendary walk on to the pitch while the opposition waited.

“The Lions did that walk-on in the first Test in Australia and we were hammered,” said Calder, adding: “When it was proposed we do the same thing before the Grand Slam game, I was against it!”

Calder was deadly serious when speaking of how being part of an experience like the Lions, unique in drawing from four countries.

“First of all I was made aware on that tour just how fickle sport can be. Small margins can decide reputations. I consider myself very privileged to have captained such a magnificent group of men, many of whom have gone on to serve rugby so well.

“For example Rob Andrew is now at the head of English rugby and both Brian Moore and Jeremy Guscott have analytical roles with the BBC.

“The Hastings, Gavin and Scott, also continue to have an influence on the game as does Andy Robinson from our tour party. In addition Dai Young and Dean Richards continue to make their mark in coaching.

“The great thing about Saturday’s reunion is that there will only be a total of 37 of us in the room.

“It is a very special bond between us, although hair colourings might be a bit different!”

Calder is also proud that the ‘89 Lions played a part in creating the interest which led rugby to be able to sustain itself as a professional sport six years later.

“We were at the cusp of change and our success probably had a key role in that move to professionalism,” he admits.

Calder remembers the day he was appointed captain. “I got the heads up from Clive Rowlands, our manager. Mind you, I was down with the cold and didn’t feel in the best of shape.”

Earlier that season Calder had been appointed Scotland captain for what turned out to be a single season and at the time he told this Evening News reporter that it had been a particular surprise.

A grain merchant by profession, he said: “The only team I have ever previously captained was the Corn Trade XV!”

On returning from Australia, Calder willingly handed over the reins to David Sole. “David was the younger man – I was 33 – and there was a World Cup semi-final with Scotland still two years off. For me, handing over proved to be an inspired call from everybody involved!”

The passing of a quarter century hasn’t made Calder any less self-effacing, though he did admit to enjoying “the odd perk” of Lions captaincy such as a seat in the Royal box at Wimbledon.

But Calder has remained staunchly loyal to his roots and the game he loves down the years.

As well as coaching and managing at grassroots level – he had a stint in charge of Edinburgh Accies second’s – he recently spoke at the annual dinner of the Queensferry club from East League Division Three in the company of a 
certain Frank McAvennie of footballing fame.

Whether in Royal boxes or rank-and-file rugby clubs, Calder had demonstrated yet again he can easily make himself comfortably at home.

Indeed a couple of lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” might have been made for one of Edinburgh rugby’s finest....

“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, ‘Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch...”