Rugby: Hastings' copybook has the right plays

`If Scotland have a weakness, it is belief. They have to believe in themselves. They certainly have the players, as they showed in the Five Nations'
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The Independent Online
THE BARMAN can barely contain himself when one of Scotland's sporting icons, Gavin Hastings - scorer of 667 points for his country and 66 for the Lions, a northern hemisphere record - walks in and orders a lime and soda. "Hey Gavin, you know my da, Jimmy Macdougall," he says, after collecting an autograph on a scrap of paper. Hastings looks blank. "Contract cleaning," the barman adds, enigmatically. "I'd probably know his face," says Hastings, politely.

If this is what it's like being Gavin Hastings in Gray's Inn Road, London WC1, imagine what it must be like on Princes Street, Edinburgh. A friend of mine recalls going into a pub near Murrayfield and finding it rocking to the refrain "Gavin Hastings, Gavin Hastings, Gavin Hastings, he's a horse's hoof." I ask Hastings how he turned out to be a horse's hoof. He looks puzzled. "Are you sure it was hoof?," he asks, and then half- sings the version he knows: "Gavin Hastings, Gavin Hastings, Gavin Hastings, he's a horse's arse, he's the meanest, he..." You don't want to know the rest, believe me.

Anyway, in an attempt to restore some decorum, I invite Hastings to assess Scotland's chances in the World Cup, which for the Scots gets under way on Sunday against South Africa. "If they have a weakness, it is belief," he says. "They have to believe in themselves. They certainly have the players, as they showed in the Five Nations. Gregor Townsend has always had the potential, but I doubted whether he was strong enough mentally. He was unbelievable last year, though, people were crapping themselves playing against him.

"Gary Armstrong was magnificent, too. For me he has been the most underrated rugby player in the world for a long time. You ask Rob Andrew if you want a non-Scottish perspective. Armstrong was one of the first players he went out to get when he took over at Newcastle. And Scott Murray was the outstanding forward in the Five Nations. If New Zealand or South Africa had Murray in the team, people would rave about him. When these players play for a Scotland or an Ireland they don't get the same credit."

Not that Hastings - who captained the 1993 Lions as well as Scotland - ever wanted for credit. Indeed, his thunderous 40-metre burst for the line at the Parc des Princes in 1995 - securing Scotland's first win in Paris - is generally acknowledged to be one of the great rugby moments of all time. How well does he remember it?

"We'd played Ireland and won easily," he recalls. "So on the plane over to France I kept saying to the guys `we're going to win this game, we're going to win it.' And I really believed we would, but the French took the lead with five minutes to go, so I gathered the troops under the posts and said `we must at least give ourselves a chance, so let's keep the ball in hand and go for a try.'

"We made a bit of ground and Gregor was dilly-dallying with the ball, so I called the inside pass. The French are very good at drift defence, but if you come back inside you have a chance of getting away. Gregor got it to me, and a sidestep later the posts sort of opened up. People talk in sport about the zone, or the white moment, or whatever, where everything seems to go into slow motion. But that's really what it was like. The background noise was incidental and the posts were just coming towards me.

"It was an amazing feeling, although I didn't go mad because I knew I had to get the kick over as well. Afterwards I felt enormous pride, not just because it was me who scored, but because as captain I felt I was responsible for getting the guys into a winning frame of mind." So it was sodas and lime all round at the post-match beano? "Actually, I drank more champagne than I have ever done in my whole life. I would love to see a video of what we got up to that night. I have one of those photomontage things in my bathroom, which tells quite a story."

This is heady, evocative stuff, and Hastings is such a splendid, upright chap that I really don't want to puncture the occasion by reminding him of his lowest moment on the rugby field, when he fluffed the penalty that might have taken Scotland into the 1991 World Cup final, and at the expense of the auld enemy too. But what the heck. I'm an Englishman.

The big man sighs. "It was one of the hardest games I ever played in, that semi-final. And yeah, I missed a straightforward kick. Afterwards I felt absolute devastation. But you know, I sat in the dressing-room with my head in my hands for an hour, contemplating the situation. I realised we were playing an amateur game, not getting paid to play, that I still had to go to work the following week, that my friends and family were still there for me, and that I couldn't change what had happened. Then I had a shave and a shower, and by the time I stepped out of that environment I was at ease with the thing."

Eloquent words, indeed. But Gavin, it was England. You must at least have kicked the cat when you got home, perhaps even finding a truer trajectory. Oh, and Will Carling has accused you of exhorting your team-mates to wear full Australian colours at the final between England and the Wallabies. What do you say to that, and to the general accusation that plenty of Scottish rugby enthusiasts - if not plenty of Scots, period - can be tiresomely chippy about the English?

"I don't accept that. Sure, most of the guys wore Australian scarves or hats, although I genuinely cannot remember what I wore. But we were just having a laugh. I suppose it went back to 1990, when both countries were going for the Grand Slam." Surely it goes back to 1746, I venture, in smart-alecky fashion. "Yeah, well, there is not as much there as people make out. You can argue differently and I'll listen to you, but people think it always comes from Scotland. I'll tell you what, when we went down to Twickenham in 1995, playing for our Grand Slam, the abuse we got when we were warming up was unbelievable. I took the guys into the dead ball area and I could not believe it. So if it was ever the same for England players at Murrayfield, I say sorry."

Again, impressive eloquence. ITV have signed up Hastings to be a pundit during the World Cup, and he will be worth listening to, for he has a measured, authoritative way of talking, as well as a keen rugby brain. He is looking forward, he says, to encountering the men whose studs, once upon a time, were not unacquainted with his thigh. "It is nice because we don't have to put up a competitive front any more. The Michael Lynaghs and Nick Farr-Joneses of this world, we have nothing to prove to each other now. In fact I was speaking at a dinner in Singapore last Friday, and Sean Fitzgerald was there, a hard bugger and a full-on New Zealander. It was comforting to hear the same thing from Sean."

The Singapore dinner was the culmination of a trip which started at the All-India rugby championships, where Hastings presented the trophy to the captain of the winning team, Bombay Gymkhana. He is still tickled, if a little embarrassed, by his reception there, because Indian journalists had evidently been briefed to welcome the greatest rugby player ever to walk the face of the earth. A modest man, he put them right. "I said `let's just say I wasn't without some success.'"

Too true. And Hastings is still a success, travelling to India as an ambassador for the tournament sponsor, Famous Grouse. When he retired from international rugby after Scotland's quarter-final exit from the 1995 World Cup, he started a sports marketing consultancy, Hastings International, and with his brother Scott, also masterminds corporate hospitality events. Even in his playing days, he says, he tried to foster the relationship between business and sport.

"I used to get invited on golf trips and things, and the other players would say `how come you always get invited?' And I'd say, `remember after the game? There was a group of guys standing at bar, and I went over and talked to them while you lot sat together. Well, they were called sponsors, and they put money in to rub shoulders with the likes of you and I, and isn't it amazing that I give them 20 minutes of my time, and then get invited to play golf with them?' If they were boring or whatever, I'd say `sorry guys, I have to join my colleagues now.' But a bit of politeness goes a long way."

As someone who thinks corporate hospitality is, at best, a necessary evil (except when I am partaking of it, of course, when it becomes a fab day out), I bridle a little at this slightly self-righteous monologue. But fair's fair. Hastings knows that business and sport are mutually reliant and he wants to play a full part in the relationship. With another Scottish company, Craigie-Taylor, he has formed Craigie-Hastings, which is campaigning vigorously for the 2009 Ryder Cup to be staged in Scotland.

With Hastings spearheading the campaign, it is hard to imagine the 2009 Ryder Cup going anywhere but Scotland, at least if he is half as persuasive off the field as he was on it as a formidable full-back. Did he ever, I ask impudently, shirk a tackle? "Never. My greatest fear was being beaten for pace. Blanco, Ieuan Evans, Underwood, Guscott, those guys could just obliterate me for pace. I moved pretty well for a big guy, but they could make you look silly. So I learnt to use the touchline as an extra defender.

"My best tackles were against those quick guys. If Tuigamala or Lomu were running at you, you knew they weren't going to sidestep. But I remember Ieuan Evans getting the ball with a lot of room to move, and I brought him down with a copybook tackle. That gave me a lot of pleasure."

Hastings is in for a lot more pleasure if the likes of Gregor Townsend, Gary Armstrong and Scott Murray have learnt from the same copybook. On Sunday, all will be revealed.