Profile: The complete full-back: Gavin Hastings - Chris Rea looks at the many qualities of the well-rounded record-breaker of Scottish rugby

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The Independent Online
IT IS perhaps merely coincidence that the Scots, whose preoccupation with the defence of their country against invasion from the south is now ingrained in the national character, should have produced three full-backs of the majesty and might of Ken Scotland, Andy Irvine and Gavin Hastings.

And on the worthy principle that the best method of defence is attack, all three have been notable runners. Ken Scotland could lay claim to being the progenitor of modern full-back play, no one previously having timed or angled his run to such perfection, while Irvine took the running game to hitherto unimagined heights in an era when defences were less well organised and when the laws gave backs a sporting chance of success.

Hastings, too, is a product of his own generation, being physically fortified against the aerial bombardment which has been the mainstay of lesser lights for whom the calculation of percentages is more important than the width and texture of performance. The title of Hastings' recently published autobiography High Balls and Happy Hours is therefore particularly apposite, although it is not one which has gained parental approval with its connotations of a mis-spent and even dissolute playing career. But the Hastings parents, Clifford and Isobel, need have no worries. Their son, the second of four rugby-playing boys, has done them proud.

The boisterous youth has matured into a charmingly idiosyncratic blend of the old and the new. On the one hand, he is fully aware of his market value as a top-class sportsman of international repute. He has, quite legitimately, traded on his name and as a marketing executive with Carnegie Sports International, based in his home town of Edinburgh, is launched a successful business career. Rugby has opened many doors and smoothed many a path. But there is about him the chivalry and generosity of spirit associated with legends of the past. He was fulminating last week about the cheating and hypocrisy so widespread throughout rugby and lamenting the failure of the home countries to cast aside national prejudice as the game speeds down the road to professionalism.

But the popular perception of today's sporting heroes as egocentric money-grabbers is not one that fits Hastings. A year ago, I was involved in organising a celebrity sports night in aid of charity - no fee, expenses only. Hastings agreed to come although it was in midweek and the journey south was a long and tiresome one. As luck would have it, business commitments made it even longer, but Hastings appeared at the appointed time and place and was a star attraction. Despite repeated reminders, I have yet to receive his expenses claim.

In terms of statistics, the 32- year-old Hastings is the most successful Scottish full-back of all, being the most capped player in his position and establishing the record number of points with 466 in 50 games. He is the holder of nine Scottish records, including 102 penalties, many of them from prodigious distances and a few of them match-winners.

Like all sportsmen entrusted with the burdensome responsibility for victory or defeat, he has reached an accommodation with himself over the failures, although a number of them still rankle, none more so than the penalty he missed in the closing stages of the World Cup semi-final against England at Murrayfield in 1991. With the scores level at 6-6, Hastings had the chance to end the attritional battle in Scotland's favour, but he missed and, minutes later, it was Rob Andrew's drop goal which put England into the final. To balance that, Andrew himself recalls the occasion in Edinburgh five years earlier when Hastings kicked eight goals out of eight, Andrew missed five from seven attempts and Scotland won by the record margin of 33-6.

There have been times when Hastings has needed all his natural ebullience and self-confidence. He remembers with wry amusement his debut international against France earlier in that same year, 1986. His baptismal kick to start the match was wretchedly over-hit and went straight out on the full. As he turned to take up his position for the ensuing scrummage he thought: 'The forwards won't be too pleased with me for that.' Suddenly, he was aware of a crescendo of noise from the stands. He turned round with horror to see four Frenchmen running at him. Pierre Berbizier had caught the Scots unaware by taking a quick throw from where Hastings' kick had gone into touch and now, barely a minute into his international career, France were on the point of scoring a try for which he was directly responsible. He recalls that his only thought as the French touched down was: 'Christ, the backs won't be all that pleased with me either.' Yet so assured was Hastings that he overcame the mortification of his start to kick all Scotland's points in an enthralling victory by 18-17.

An all-rounder so bountifully blessed with instinctive touch and timing that even with irregular practice he can play to a golf handicap of six, he is also susceptible to the perversities of form and mood which afflict most creative talents. When the force is with him, nothing, it seems, can go wrong, most notably in his spellbinding display for the 1983 Lions in the Second Test against the All Blacks at Wellington.

In the opinion of Ian McGeechan and Norman Mair, two of the game's shrewdest observers, there has seldom been a touch-kick carrying more psychological impact than the one Hastings smote against France in the Scots' Grand Slam year of 1990. A gale was billowing around Murrayfield and, playing into it in the first half, Serge Blanco and Didier Camberabero had been grateful enough to find the sanctuary of the touchline. Gaining ground was scarcely a consideration. Even so, France had restricted the Scots to a three-point lead at half-time, frail protection against the anticipated French onslaught. But with his first kick from the restart, Hastings changed the course of the game. Fielding the ball on his own line and close to his posts he sent it ripping through the wind and into touch on the halfway line some 50 yards upfield. The French gaped in disbelief. Their jaws dropped and so did their morale. Scotland won 21-0.

Hastings, in that kind of form, was almost super-human. Many say he has never played better than he did earlier this season in Watsonians' defeat of Melrose. His present form is one of the reasons why he has now announced his decision to captain Scotland through to the World Cup. 'The disappointments of last season are behind us,' he says. 'I feel extremely upbeat about our prospects for this season.' His recent visits to South Africa have convinced him that the World Cup will be an event not to be missed. He has no plans beyond that, but in common with others who have little left to achieve in the game, he may well consider it a fitting end to a glorious career.

Of one thing he is certain. The international game, when he leaves it, will be very different from the one he entered so spectacularly eight years ago.

'We must accept the inevitability of professionalism. It makes no sense for the International Board to plead ignorance when we all know that some countries are driving articulated lorries through the amateur regulations. I feel no bitterness, simply irritation that rugby is not learning from the mistakes made by sports likes athletics and tennis when they were going through the same upheaval.' The weight of his criticism is directed at the home countries and, in particular, the unions of Scotland and England, whose persistent fudging and prevarication are as harmful to the game as they are futile.

Rugby, Hastings believes, must start to listen to its players, the majority of whom are neither inveterate bounty hunters nor radical revolutionaries.

Their youth does not invalidate their views nor does it mean that they care less for the game than those whose playing days are distant memories.

Throughout his own career, Hastings has accepted success with modesty and confronted failure with dignity, although some defeats, such as the one at Murrayfield last season when Jon Callard's last-second penalty denied Scotland the Calcutta Cup, have clearly bitten more deeply than others.

Through it all has prevailed an effervescence and sense of fun. At the same time as he was helping with the arrangements for the launch of his new book, Hastings was organising a surprise birthday party for his wife Diane with the result that he couldn't be quite sure who was going to turn up to which event. Not that it would have mattered. Hastings has the courtesy to make the clumsiest gatecrasher feel welcome.

'High Balls and Happy Hours. An Autobiography', by Gavin Hastings with Clem Thomas. Mainstream Publishing, pounds 14.99.

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