Hastings ready for his big kick-off

Nick Halling on the Scotsman hoping to make the grade in American Football
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The Independent Online
The news that Gavin Hastings, formerly captain of the Scotland rugby union team, was trying out for the Scottish Claymores of the World League of American Football was greeted in many quarters as nothing more substantial than a publicity stunt.

The Claymores, who struggled on and off the field during their inaugural campaign last year, would doubtless welcome an athlete of Hastings' standing, with his presence on the sidelines guaranteed to increase an average attendance which failed to top 10,000.

If it is a stunt, then someone should have a quiet word in the 34-year- old full-back's ear, because he has gone about winning the job of place- kicker with a single-mindedness and determination which characterised much of his play on the rugby field.

In the spartan environment of the Claymores' training camp in Carrollton, Georgia, he was just another number. A number with some celebrity, perhaps, but the kicker's function is too important to be given away. If Hastings does make the team, he will have earned his place on merit.

"I can't believe anyone thinks this is some kind of joke, that I would take two weeks out of my life for a stunt," he said after a gruelling practice session. "I knew I was in for a complete culture shock, but I'm still coming to terms with how difficult it is. I'm on this vertical learning curve, where I'm discovering something new every day."

In terms of physical prowess and temperament, an international rugby full-back should be the equal of his American football counterpart, but perceived similarities in kicking technique are misleading. Where in rugby the kicker dictates the tempo of the attempt, on the grid-iron it is a matter of timing and teamwork in the face of 11 hostile opponents.

"The biggest adjustment Gavin will face is that he will be the target, the guy they are trying to knock senseless," said Mick Luckhurst, a former rugby full-back who enjoyed a seven-year career kicking for the Atlanta Falcons in the National Football League.

"He's used to doing whatever he wants before a kick, but in American football it is less than a second from when the ball is snapped to when the kicker makes contact. Any longer, and the kick will be blocked."

The transition has not been smooth for Hastings, who has enjoyed few favours in the relentless environ of an American football training camp, where his status as a rugby legend has cut little ice. The key has been harnessing his raw potential within a strictly disciplined framework.

"There are three of us involved in the process: the snapper, the holder and myself and, if we're not working in unison, then we have no chance," Hastings said. "The kicking technique is not essentially different, but working with a snapper and holder is a whole new experience for me."

Jim Criner, the Claymores' head coach, has been impressed by his professionalism and dedication. "Gavin is as competitive as any player I've coached, and since camp started I've seen him improve every single day," he said. "But he won't be given the job if he can't do it and, to be honest, Gavin wouldn't want it that way. However, I think he has every chance."

The unseasonably inclement Georgia weather offered little assistance for kickers, but Hastings caught the eye when he converted four of six field goal attempts on a sodden field. A successful 47-yard kick into a strong side wind in a pre-season scrimmage against the Frankfurt Galaxy served to underline the rapid strides he has made.

Then there are his personal qualities. Foreigners, especially kickers, are not always welcome on American football teams. Many break down into factions, with kickers, who generally practice alone, left on the outside. During his time in Georgia, however, Hastings has clearly gained his team- mates' acceptance and respect.

"He's just brought all of us together," said Paul McCallum, the Claymores' punter. "He has captained his country, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that he has these leadership qualities."

It is still too early to say for certain whether Hastings will be on the sidelines when the Claymores begin their season against the London Monarchs on Sunday. His progress in camp has led the coaching staff to believe that he can handle kick-offs, extra point attempts and short field goals. Longer kicks may be entrusted to McCallum.

The final decision may rest with the player, who has little to gain and much to lose, should he make a fool of himself.

"I want to make a positive contribution to this team and to the World League," he said. "But if that's not possible, then I probably won't do it. You could argue that it would have been easier for me to continue playing international rugby. Kicking an American football looks so simple, but I can assure you it's not."

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