Rugby Union / Five Nations Countdown: McGeechan's applied geometry: Scotland's guide heads for home after tomorrow's Calcutta Cup match: Paul Hayward on the retiring coach whose methods have won him widespread admiration in the rugby union world

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The Independent Online
LOOK for the tide of blue jerseys, but look, also, for the shirt, tie and overcoat of the watcher in the stand. Ian McGeechan: opponent No 16 for England at Twickenham tomorrow.

Or is it opponent No 1? Scotland never needed much incentive to charge at the 'Nigels' (copyright: Scottish pack of three seasons ago), but if they do need a source of fervour in pursuit of the Triple Crown then it will come from McGeechan's retirement this weekend as coach. It is to preserve the cohesion of his own family that McGeechan is quietly leaving the larger, rugby-playing one he has created for his country.

The fingers will not be easily prised off. Such is the intensity with which players discuss McGeechan's tenure as national mentor that there was a sense of impending familial rupture this week in Edinburgh, a city that is accustomed to seeing McGeechan wander through its very heart in his other workaday capacity. His employer? Well, Scottish Life, of course.

'I'm not a good companion at home just now,' McGeechan said, giving a hint of the endless note-making, the video-watching, with which he prepares for an international match. But then one of the most impressive facts about this even-tempered, cerebral rugby fiend is that he is shortly to become a permanent companion to his children as he disavows - at the very height of his powers and reputation - the perverse modern notion that a family is there to be fitted around work and sport.

It takes a deal of courage to say, in the face of such fierce national expectations: 'My daughter's nine, my son's 14. Suddenly they'll be up and away, and I'll wonder where they've gone.' And so after becoming the first coach to lead two Lions tours - in New Zealand this summer - McGeechan will retreat from the training programmes and the geometry of game plans to watch his bold creation from afar.

Bold, and self-perpetuating. At the start of January, after an uninspiring trial session, many Scots were willing to allow McGeechan's squad the luxury of a transitional period following the Grand Slam triumph of 1990 and the retirement, last year, of such prominent figures as Calder, Jeffrey and Sole. But then McGeechan reached for the notepads, down went Edinburgh's stationery supplies, and out of Scotland's winter gloom came a baffling wadge of scribbled observations and remedies.

'I tend to write everything down,' McGeechan said. 'Anything and everything. Afterwards I try and get some logic out of it. Then I look at overall strategy. Then I ask myself whether I can achieve that with the practices. Then I devise the practices. That's what's been particularly pleasing. Those practices have been the framework of the team.'

At first it sounds like one of those stream-of-consciousness management memos that are said to do the rounds at the BBC. But it works for McGeechan. How it works for McGeechan. As John Rutherford, the illustrious former stand-off, said yesterday: 'A lot of the Scottish players wouldn't get places in the top English or Welsh club sides, and the way they're playing now is down to McGeechan. Andy Reed, for example, has been the outstanding find of the season.'

They say McGeechan never loses his temper and barely raises his voice. Rutherford remembers listening to him in the many seminars Scottish players hold, and saying to himself: 'Now, why didn't I think of that'. McGeechan himself eschews the intimidatory methods with which some team managers galvanise their charges. 'If they're not doing something right, then maybe it's my fault,' he said. 'Perhaps I've presented it wrongly. You take it back and you start again.'

McGeechan works in a cramped office in Scottish Life's Edinburgh headquarters and, like any other employee taking half the week off, had to shovel through his workload on Monday and Tuesday to be able to head South in search of victory over the English. The only clues to his tactical aptitude were multi-coloured diagrams detailing the workings of the company, as well as a faintly agitated demeanour that is probably as close as McGeechan ever comes to appearing stressed. The demands on his time, with the Calcutta Cup approaching, were Clintonesque in dimension.

You can sense the labour, the brain-straining, that underpins his success. In the days before the Grand Slam win over England at Murrayfield in 1990, McGeechan was up till 3am studying films and devising plans. 'He must have miles and miles of videotape. He does vast amounts of research,' Rutherford said. 'He's one of the great thinkers of the game.'

David Sole, Scotland captain until last year, employs the same lexicon. He said: 'He works hard at analysing strengths and weaknesses, and he's obviously an innovative thinker in terms of getting the best out of people. Everybody recognises him as a shrewd tactician but he doesn't always get the credit for his powers of motivation.' Powers which will be gusting in English faces tomorrow.

If it all sounds irritatingly abstract, there are, also, specific aspects to McGeechan's mastery of coaching. As he says, 'the concentration levels are high'; the new players have been helped to integrate by being paired off in training with an experienced figure; Gavin Hastings has been 'outstanding' (McGeechan's verdict) as an international captain; Scotland have won ample set- piece possession, and, perhaps most of all, the pack has been reshaped and reprogrammed to execute an altered style of play. McGeechan's key phrase, which makes more sense the more times you repeat it, is: 'You've got to be so precise about what you want.'

What Scotland wants is to see England vanquished in their own den and McGeechan carried shoulder high through the white hordes so that his memory burns even brighter in English minds. As if it needed to. McGeechan's appeal to players transcends national boundaries, as Jeremy Guscott, the England centre, demonstrates by phoning his old Lions ally for advice.

And to think, but for missed chances in Paris, Scotland could be on the brink of a second Grand Slam in four seasons, having beaten Wales in what was Murrayfield's farewell to its departing patriarch. Yet still, you feel sure, there will be other chances for McGeechan, after a suitable sabbatical at home and after the severance of a 30-year connection with top-flight rugby has begun to nag at night.

For now, though, McGeechan must accept the need to exit while the Calcutta Cup is grappled over on territory traditionally barren to visiting Scottish sides. McGeechan, as usual, has studied the form, and says candidly, 'We're not the most successful at Twickenham, even when we've got the most successful of sides, so . . .

'England are still by far the most formidable side. Going through the team, there are no weaknesses, and they've built up this winning momentum. Wales are just a blip in that. For anybody to think suddenly they've become a bad side or that they're not going to perform next time - especially at Twickenham - is in cloud cuckoo land. There were a lot of good things in their performance against Wales.'

Maybe England should not feel so heartened by this assessment. Not if it is part of McGeechan's plan.

(Photograph omitted)