Lions made in the McGeechan mould; THE MONDAY INTERVIEW

Chris Hewett on the coaching visionary who has thrown away the manual in South Africa
Click to follow
The Independent Online
He may never have been a goal-kicking maestro but as rugby conversions go, Ian McGeechan is in the process of beating the pants off anything achieved by Grant Fox, Michael Lynagh or Rob Andrew. Once acknowledged, if not acclaimed, as the high priest of make do and mend, McGeechan is spending the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa bathed in visionary light

In short, he has gone from arch-pragmatist to arch-purist in the space of four extraordinary weeks.

So say the Springbok observers, taken aback as they have been by the Lions' determination to play something approaching total rugby rather than wallow in the cramped, restricted, half-cockery that has left the Five Nations' Championship somewhere between beach volleyball and Greco- Roman wrestling in its hold on the southern hemisphere's sporting consciousness. To accuse McGeechan of a philosophical volte face is to take a superficial view of the latter, however

This is no sudden transformation, but an optimum approach to ultimate victory worked out in the minutest detail.

In fact, McGeechan has been thinking along these lines for at least four years and those who have watched agog at the transformation of Northampton during the former Scottish centre's stewardship at Franklin's Gardens would not dream of questioning the depth of his rugby imagination.

"I think we dabbled in an integrated style of rugby on the last Lions tour in 1993, although injuries prevented us taking it to fruition," said the 49-year-old coach in Durban as he prepared not only for the outstanding victory over Natal, the most able South African provincial side of them all, but also for this Saturday's opening Test in Cape Town. "Had the circumstances been right, I might even have tried to put something like this in place in Australia back in '89, but I was less experienced then and besides, we always suspected that if we got it together up front, the Wallabies would crack.

"Both previous tours turned out to be slightly more conservative than I would ideally have liked, but when I was given this third trip - and believe me, it didn't even cross my mind that I would be asked - it took me no time at all to settle on a completely integrated game involving all 15 players. I came down here last summer to watch two of the South Africa-New Zealand Tests and those matches confirmed the things I already had in mind: namely, that we had to play this way if we were to stand any chance of achieving anything.

"As soon as I returned home, I sat down and wrote a long report to the four home unions outlining the philosophy as I saw it. Then came selection, which was entirely geared to finding players capable of working inside the particular pattern we wanted to follow. People didn't understand that, actually; we were not only looking at candidates with talent, pace and power, but at their mental make-up, the hardness of their reactions to pressure situations. Why? Because this is unquestionably the toughest, most intense Lions tour ever undertaken and the way we were planning to play would, we knew, make it tougher still."

So what are the fundamental principles behind the McGeechan school of 21st century rugby? How are these Lions breaking down stern, macho, hairy- chested South African defences with such precision that suddenly, Jeremy Guscott or Gregor Townsend is able to appear in a space the size of the Kruger National Park and gallop away untouched for a try? McGeechan does his best not to make it sound like a proposition from Wittgenstein but we are undoubtedly talking complexity here.

"What I'm trying to do is counter to the coaching manuals," he explained patiently. "In Britain, we have always had this obsession with running straight. Every teacher who ever coached rugby at school says "go straight" more often than he says anything else

We're doing something different by exploring cross lines, late lines, cross channels and putting the ball into space so that the player hits the ball rather than the other way around.

"We have a core set of training techniques that we use all the time and the players have formed some good habits in a very short period. The thing that has pleased me most is their open-mindedness and their determination not to go back on anything; remember, this is a desperately demanding way of playing the game - you end up totally knackered, no matter how fit you are - so commitment is everything. There is, for example, an awful lot of running off the ball and very often, that running is for nothing. But if it opens a window of opportunity for someone else, then we're in business.

"We've asked for infinite patience, infinite selflessness and an infinite capacity for hard work, because this is a very structured style of rugby and structures require discipline if they are to bear fruit.

"Look at this team now and you see players wanting to play for each other. It can be done, you see. Sometimes, I think we in Britain underestimate ourselves."

A glance into McGeechan's past is revealing, for it colours much of what we are seeing from this Lions outfit. His two most notable coaching achievements - the triumph of Finlay Calder's Lions in Australia eight years ago and the Grand Slam with Scotland some nine months later - were forged in the furnace of efficiency as McGeechan cleverly made virtues of the limitations of the material at his disposal.

Calder's Lions, fairly slaughtered in the first Test in Sydney, took the conscious decision to square up to the Wallabies, fight them tooth and nail and squeeze their tender parts until the tears ran down their unshaven cheeks. It worked. When the Scots played host to an apparently superior England side at Murrayfield on winner-take-all day in 1990, they were scarcely more adventurous but tackled like stink. Again, it worked.

Yet all the time, McGeechan clung to an unshakeable belief that there was something more to rugby life than winning in whatever style demanded by the circumstances. He recognised and nurtured the odd genius who fell under his sway - he regarded David Sole, his national captain, as being light years ahead of his time and thinks similarly of Guscott - and when this latest opportunity fell into his lap, he felt ready to go for broke and build his plans around the piano players rather than the piano shifters.

"I make no bones about the fact that I want this squad to play the best rugby ever. Why do I say that? Because, if I've got the best players in the British Isles on this tour - and I believe that to be the case - why settle for anything less?

"Christ, if they're not going to go for it, who is?

"Those who have worked with me know that I've never been an advocate of lose rugby, but it would be absolute sacrilege not to give players of this quality a vision and a horizon at which to aspire.

"Already on this tour, notably after the match in the rain and mud against Border, people have criticised us for not tightening our game to meet the perceived needs of the situation, but they're missing the point. If we narrowed our game or played with less ambition every time we came under pressure, we wouldn't get anywhere near a Test series win. To beat the Boks, we have to make them think. In my view, we've done that quite comprehensively thus far."

Now that Test week has arrived and the Lions must deal for the first time with Joubert, Mulder, Honiball, van der Westhuizen, du Randt, Andrews, Kruger and Venter, how does McGeechan rate his chances of success? It is, after all, virtually inconceivable that he will coach a fourth Lions tour, so with three victories and three defeats already in the book from his tussles in Australia and New Zealand, the next 20 days will effectively define the nature of his contribution to the most revered rugby institution of them all.

"Test series can be decided by such tiny margins; the ball may go one side of a post when it might just as easily have gone the other and as a result, you win or lose. All I can say now is this: if we get it right on the big occasion, we'll be there or thereabouts.

"And that is not an attempt to avoid the question, because in a sense, we've already achieved part of what we set out to achieve. Four weeks ago, we had no credibility whatsoever in South Africa - not just the Lions, but British and Irish rugby as whole. Now we do have some; no one here is shrugging their shoulders at us or treating us with contempt.

"If we were to win the series it would be the absolute zenith, given the point from which we started. We're not copying anyone - we're not doing it the All Black way, or the Springbok way - but we're giving the Lions squad a shape, a body and a face of its own. To lose to the Boks would be a failure of sorts, but not a total failure because we've produced rugby of which no one thought us capable. We came here to put our rugby back on the map, to change the southern hemisphere perception of us for the better, and I think we're already a long way down that road."