Hastings still hungry after all these years

Chris Hewett talks to Scotland's most capped player who faces Wales at Murrayfield tomorrow
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The Independent Online
Scott Hastings may soon be eligible for rugby's version of a pensioner's bus pass, but at 32 his enthusiasm for a hard trade remains infectious. Now in his 12th season on the international stage, he still responds emotionally to the nervous clatter of studs in the inner sanctum of the dressing-room and cherishes the cruel thud of shoulder on rib-cage as he executes one of his trademark tackles.

There is another sound he has grown to treasure down the years - the sound of critics munching their way through large platefuls of their own words. Hastings, Scotland's most-capped player with 62, has proved so many people wrong on so many occasions that a lesser sportsman might long ago have succumbed to an unbearable smugness.

It is almost as if the double Lion from Edinburgh relishes life's frequent setbacks, secure in the knowledge that those of little faith will find the signpost pointing to the garden path too tempting to ignore. But the suspicion is unfounded; Hastings is so passionate about his rugby that the merest hint of rejection hurts him deeply.

Back in November, he found himself relegated to the replacements' bench for Scotland's tough international with the touring Australians. It was not the first time he had been overlooked, nor the second, but this demotion was wholly unexpected and, therefore, even harder than usual to bear.

"It was a bitter disappointment," Hastings said this week. "Not that I wasn't in pretty exalted company. The Wallabies left out David Campese for that match, so he was sitting alongside me, and not long afterwards, England dropped Jeremy Guscott. But I knew that the selectors would be looking to keep the new midfield together for a while, so I was fairly flat about it all.

"That feeling tends not to last too long, though. I went back to my bread and butter club rugby with Watsonians, determined to work my way back into contention and, fortunately, I was given my chance against Italy last month. That went quite well for me, thankfully."

As a result, Hastings will face Wales for the 11th time when the Five Nations' Championship slips into gear at Murrayfield tomorrow afternoon. "It's always wonderful to be involved in this tournament; so much changes season on season but, equally, so much stays the same. The hype and expectation never diminish, no matter how successful or otherwise the teams have been in the warm-up games."

The Welsh have not caused Hastings too many problems in the past - he has finished on the winning side against them seven times in 10 attempts - but the broken cheekbone he suffered during the victory at Murrayfield a decade ago brings back painful memories. (It was, however, far from the worst of Hastings' injuries: in 1993, he caught the sharp end of Josh Kronfeld's knee during the Otago-Lions match in Dunedin and surgeons worked for almost five hours to rebuild his face).

For all his successes against the Red Dragons, Hastings has never managed to score against them - at least, not in the traditional fashion of grounding the ball over their line. But players of Hastings' unforgiving stamp chalk up points in all sorts of odd directions and if Scott Gibbs or Allan Bateman, his direct opponents, ends up spreadeagled across the beautifully manicured Edinburgh turf at some point during tomorrow's frenzy, a hint of professional satisfaction will be evident on the face of a certain Scottish centre.

Talking of professionalism, Hastings has adapted to the pressures of full-time rugby with surprising ease. A family and career-minded man, it was not so many months ago that he pronounced himself too long in the tooth to start spending mornings in the gym rather than the office. The change of mind has been abrupt and complete.

"Enthusiasm goes hand in glove with the Hastings name - I think people will credit both myself and my brother Gavin with that much - but in the professional age, enthusiasm is simply not enough. If you want to play at the top level - and I still want to very much indeed - you have to be prepared to do the necessary.

"My own rugby situation has improved out of all recognition under the full-time regime. I am no longer under pressure to get back to the office after training, sort whatever needs sorting and then scramble across the city for another session somewhere else. I now have the time to concentrate on the disciplines of the game and, as a result, I believe professionalism will lengthen my rugby career rather than shorten it."

Having embraced the forces of change with such zeal, Hastings now wants to see the power brokers of the European game react similarly. He believes the time-honoured Five Nations format has outgrown its usefulness and is in urgent need of a radical rethink if it is to retain its hold on the sporting imagination.

"The Five Nations is unique, but that does not mean it can survive the move to professionalism without a degree of repackaging. I think on balance that Italy should be brought into the competition to provide new blood and I also believe that the tournament would benefit from a shorter timescale.

"Ten weeks is too long. The matches should be played weekly to keep the interest levels high. The quicker all the European nations get together and hammer out a common fixture approach capable of uncluttering the northern hemisphere season once and for all, the better."