Hastings looks for a new kick

World League kick-off: The hero of Murrayfield proves he is serious about converting his skills for use in a new arena; Andrew Baker finds a great rugby union player eager to impress in American Football
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The Independent Online
THERE were two disconcerting visions for Scottish sports fans at the University of Strathclyde sports ground on the outskirts of Glasgow last Thursday morning. The first was Charlie Nicholas, not in the green- and-white hoops of his Celtic heyday, but wearing a black tracksuit as he ran rings around his young Clyde team-mates. On the next-door pitch was the other strange sight: Gavin Hastings, Scotland's erstwhile rugby captain, toting a helmet as he joined his new team-mates for a Scottish Claymores training session in preparation for their match with the London Monarchs at White Hart Lane today.

As the Claymores' offensive and defensive teams lined up to practise drills ("Hail Mary right on one," the quarterback yelled), Hastings bundled five footballs out of a silver kit-bag 35 yards from the posts for some field-goal practice. The team's other kicker, Paul McCallum, from Canada, poised a finger tip on the first ball as Hastings took a couple of careful steps back, paused, and ran up to kick. The ball soared over the posts, dead centre. A second took the same path, then a third, and a fourth, all as if laser-guided. Only a slight deviation to the left with the fifth kick suggested that any further practice was required.

The Clyde apprentices had stopped their game of keepie-uppy and stood mesmerised. One by one they wandered closer to the man in the blue and white Claymores shirt. "D'you want a go?" he needlessly asked, setting up the ball. They all did. But their corkscrewed or daisy-cutting efforts served only to prove that Hastings has lost none of his ability to make the difficult art of kicking an oval ball a long way look very easy indeed.

But progress was not all smooth. Moving on to practise kick-offs, where his job is to drive the ball with great accuracy into the opposing team's territory, Hastings ran into trouble.

"I'm hooking it," he complained to McCallum. "Hitting it halfway up because it's not sitting properly." The two of them fell to examining the "tee", the plastic cradle on which the ball sits for the kick-off. "I'd be happier with a pile of sand," Hastings muttered.

Later he watched as his team-mates ran patterns of play for the benefit of cameras on two tall television towers. "Great take!" he yelled, as a wide receiver pulled off a spectacular catch. "Good old Willy - I've not seen him miss one of those yet." Hastings was impatient to get out on the field to run through kick-off and point-after touchdown routines: the only part of his training that involves him with the rest of the squad.

Unlike in rugby, kicking in American Football is a team effort, a fact Hastings was quick to point out. "It's a fundamental difference," he said. "You work with the snapper and the holder. If it's a bad snap, the ball is not there on a plate for you. It's all a question of timing and technique, and we will get better as the season progresses."

Hastings knows how to perform his role when things go right. "It's what to do if things don't go according to plan that I have to find out." McCallum provides the reassurance of long experience. "He's very good like that," Hastings said.

Mick Luckhurst, the former Atlanta Braves kicker, advised Hastings in the early stages of his conversion. "He was so coachable," Luckhurst recalled, "So keen to talk and to learn." Luckhurst believes that the basic technical differences - a smaller, harder ball, and the need to impart early elevation to the ball to clear onrushing defenders - should not be too problematic to Hastings. "It's an adjustment, but he can definitely make it. No, the hardest part of kicking in American Football is the mental side, coping with pressure. And Gavin of all people knows a bit about converting kicks under pressure."

Hastings knows that he will be the focus of attention in London this afternoon. But he will not be perturbed. "I will be nervous on Sunday," he admitted. "But I am not worried about that. I've always responded to the adrenalin and this is another challenge which I am prepared to accept."

Not only prepared, but raring to go. "I'm itching for the game. It's been an interesting five or six weeks in training, but now it all comes down to the first kick-off, the first point after a touchdown. I'm going into the unknown."

The Claymores' general manager, Mike Keller, a former NFL player, is delighted with his new signing. "He could be an NFL-calibre kicker," Keller said. "Although he's not a spring chicken any more, he's got the leg, the nerve and confidence and he's a good athlete . . . If he eventually decides to try being an NFL kicker, that's up to him."

For the present, Hastings's horizon encompasses Tottenham rather than Tampa Bay, and he will be happy to complete an error-free debut today. "My job, purely and simply, is to kick the goals," he said. "The coaches don't give a damn what I do as long as when I am on the field, I kick the ball between the posts."

Luckhurst believes that Hastings brings more than just skill with the boot to the Claymores. "He is one of the first people I would put in any team I had," he said. "Someone who has done as much as he has done in rugby will be an inspiration to the entire organisation. He will lift them all, and they will all play like him." It should be quite a sight.

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