Hastings out to reduce his handicap

FIVE NATIONS FOCUS: Scotland's captain looked jaded last year but Tim Glover finds him back on form
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Gavin Hastings dreams the impossible dream: one day he will play in the Open Championship on one of Scotland's great links courses. Some might say he has about as much chance of achieving that as Scotland have of defeating France in Paris tomorrow.

There again, Hastings has been written off before. This time last year, as he watched a number of younger, faster men race past him, the word was out. "Big Gavin's gone". He got fed up with people asking him when he was going to pack it in. "When I win 100 caps," he replied. You do not make a record number of appearances, score more than 500 points and captain the British Lions without having what the Americans call intestinal fortitude.

Hastings, it seems, was merely slumbering last season. "It's difficult to perform when you return from a Lions tour," he said. "A number of players were jaded. I've been working hard on the old fitness, not so much in terms of time but in quality - a more scientific approach. I know what I need to do. I've always had confidence in my ability."

His goalkicking was instrumental in lifting Scotland, who failed to win a single match in the Five Nations last year, to victory over Ireland at Murrayfield a fortnight ago. Scotland's on-the-field activities, for which nobody is supposed to get paid, helped Hastings's off-the-field activities. He is employed by Carnegie Sports International which, in addition to handling golfers such as Sam Torrance and Wayne Westner and managing the Tartan Tour, runs the Scottish Rugby Union's marketing campaign.

Hastings sells debentures - £1,200 earns you the right to buy a Murrayfield ticket for 50 years - and he admitted: "The week after the Irish match was as good a week as we've had. People respond to a victory." Working for a company at the professional end of sport and management has given Hastings an insight and in the current debate on shamateurism in rugby he would like to do a lot more poaching than gamekeeping.

While Hastings, on and off the field, is helping the SRU make money he would like to see it reciprocated. "If the Aussies are going to receive £40,000 a man for the World Cup everybody else should receive a sum from their unions. I'm not suggesting every player gets that amount but there has to be some recognition of the effort and time required. Employers are subsidising international players. In Australia the union is supportive. Ours isn't."

Hastings and his team dip into a players' trust but it wouldn't net them more than £5,000 a year. "We are not on a level playing field. We get little out of the game but we work as hard as any other international side. People get treated differently and it's simply not fair. It's not a moan, it's a statement of fact. When the laws are broken the IRB [International Rugby Board] says prove it. They should be proving it, not turning a blind eye."

Hastings, a qualified surveyor, approached Carnegie, not the other way around. "I have to make a living and I would have progressed in my job a damn sight more if I hadn't had to spend a lot of time on rugby. The demands have increased hugely." Come on Gavin, you've done all right out of it haven't you? "It's a question of degree. Compared to the Aussies I certainly haven't done OK. Professionalism is going to happen a lot quicker than people think, even prior to the World Cup."

Last year he and his brother Scott won their 50th caps, a momentous double act. "We lost the match," Gavin said, "so I don't remember it as fondly as winning my 53rd." Scott was dropped after the hammering by South Africa. Did he deserve to be dropped? "That's not fair," Gavin said. "I'm not going to comment on that. On a personal level I was very disappointed for Scott. We've been together for a heck of a long time with Scotland, the Lions and Watsonians. We were close, not in the sense of being brothers but as team-mates.

"I'm still the captain and there's no way I'm going to jeopardise that by not treating everybody the same. I'm glad I have no say in selection. I couldn't look somebody in the eye if I'd had a hand in dropping them while my place as captain was guaranteed."

In his book, High Balls and Happy Hours, (written with Clem Thomas, sales edging towards 20,000) Hastings, apart from banging on about the market value of players, makes a strong play for rugby to become a summer sport. "With the Five Nations moving to a later date it's a feasible idea," he said. "At this time of the year we're playing on paddy fields. The skills of our kids are very poor and it's not suprising when they spend so much time standing around freezing their nuts off.

"We played Canada in the most appalling conditions. How anyone gets enjoyment running through ankle-deep mud is beyond me. If we played in decent conditions it would improve our enjoyment and skills and would be far more attractive to the spectators. Who on earth wants to train three or four times a week in foul weather?"

Scotland have not won in Paris for 26 years and it is a fair bet that Hastings, at the age of 33, will be making his last appearance at Parc des Princes, although not his last against France. They play each other again in the World Cup in the summer, after which Hastings is expected to announce his retirement. Not that he will confirm it. "We'll see. Look at [Philippe] Sella [of France]. I might find a new drug to keep me going." On the other hand if Scotland lose to the Ivory Coast in South Africa, Hastings may not have a choice in the matter.

At least when he bows out he will have another goal on the horizon. His golf handicap is six. "I would love to play in an Open although the odds are stacked against. I don't believe in having an ambition you can fulfil in 10 minutes. If I could get my handicap down to one and have a go at pre-qualifying you never know. My enthusiasm and interest in golf is as keen as it is in rugby but I've had to put it on the back burner for 20 years."

Ladies and gentlemen, on the tee, from Edinburgh, Gavin Hastings (deafening tartan roar). He would even be able to sell tickets.