Rugby Union: Hastings honed for battle: Guy Hodgson meets the Scotland captain who goes in pursuit of a Triple Crown at Twickenham on Saturday

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The Independent Online
GAVIN HASTINGS does not run. He thunders. He charges. How else can you describe the fleet-footed surges of a man who appears to personify rugby power?

Opponents bounce off him. Bully-boy forwards, who relish using their bulk to inflict fear or injury on the prancing ball-runners, flinch before coming into contact. He is 15 stone and 6ft 2in of hard-to-halt humanity. Listen to a Murrayfield crowd when the Scotland captain receives the ball: they roar in anticipation of the carnage to come. Gladiators got a more downbeat welcome when they entered the Colosseum.

So it was a surprise first to hear his voice. There was not the booming parade-ground bark that would have befitted his severely short haircut and even more severely extended shoulders, but a quiet, considered sound you would have expected from a minister of the church. More shockingly, his tones were heavily laden with the effects of a cold. This was a man who had, in the 1991 World Cup, shoved aside Richard Loe, the All Black prop, and looks so solid you expect he has sprung roots. How could he have been caught by a simple chill?

But here he was talking between sniffles about leading a Scotland rugby union team that will complete the Triple Crown if they beat England on Saturday. 'I'm not a fire and brimstone man,' he says in the best David Gower manner. 'I'm a fairly laid-back character. I would describe myself as a players' captain, not someone who has distanced himself from the others. I'm not going to change because I'm captain, that would be stupid. You have to be your own man.' No one doubts that Hastings is resolutely his own man.

From the moment he made his international debut with his brother Scott in 1986, when he scored all Scotland's points in an 18-17 victory over France, he has come across as such. David Sole, another newcomer that day, could not believe the assurance of the young full-back, and that self-belief has remained despite a confidence-crushing miss against England in the World Cup semi-final and even five failed goal efforts against France three weeks ago. He does not seek the spotlight, but few seem as comfortable when its glare rests upon them.

'I'm not intimidated phsyically by anyone on the rugby field,' he says. 'I have this physique which enables me to ride tackles. If I enter the line at the right time it can be a useful tactic. I can draw defenders before releasing others.'

Hastings is also, according to the doyen of television commentators, Bill McLaren, the current player you would stake your life on if you had to ask someone to catch a high, slippery ball with a pack of leviathans lumbering towards him. The safe pair of hands could end up holding the captaincy of the Lions in New Zealand this summer, too.

Hastings has come into a frame that had appeared to be filled exclusively by Will Carling by dint of his performances in the Five Nations' this season. He took over the captaincy of Scotland on Sole's retirement and has filled the role almost without criticism. In defeat in Paris he was dignified despite personal and team disappointment; against Wales last weekend he was magnificent, kicking five goals and cutting swathes through the the visiting defence with his dynamic entrances into running movements.

Scotland play England for the Calcutta Cup, the Triple Crown and a share of the championship next Saturday but a no-less fascinating sub-plot will be the confrontation between Carling, the man who would have been king if the Lions had been selected in January, and Hastings, who might well be when the position is filled in March.

It is a momentum that has surprised Hastings, who admits that the role as Scotland's leader had crept up on him. 'As a boy, of course, I dreamed of playing for my country,' he says. 'But being captain? To be honest I hadn't really thought about it until David Sole retired. Then it dawned on me that I was one of the senior players and must be in with a chance.'

The Lions captaincy? 'I've got to get picked for the tour first. Start thinking too far ahead and your concentration slips and your form goes. I'll think about the Lions when the Five Nations is over. Not before. One thing at a time.' Laid-back indeed.

While Hastings had no premature thoughts about promotion, it can be sure his selectors have had him in mind for a long time. When the call came he had a cv in captaincy that included Scotland Schools, Cambridge University, the Anglo Scots and his club Watsonians. That was on top of 41 Scotland caps and three Test appearances for the Lions in Australia four years ago.

'He exudes confidence,' Andy Irvine, a predecessor as Scotland and Lions full-back, says. 'Not the arrogant sort, but the quiet authority that other players respect. He goes out believing he can win every game - his brother Scott is the same - and it rubs off on the others.'

Hastings, from full-back, is a more detached commander than his predecessors, forwards Finlay Calder and Sole, but he carries the same conviction. 'Scotland are a small rugby nation,' he says. 'We have to work very, very hard just to keep up with other countries. There is a word for it: synergy. The sum is greater than the individual parts. We are also blessed with a superb coach, Ian McGeechan. He has made us into a team.'

The Scotland team's arrival at Twickenham comes, depending on which side of the optimism line you fall, at either the best or worst of times. England could be nursing confidence broken beyond repair by their defeat in Wales and without direction now a third successive Grand Slam has been denied them, but Hastings anticipates the lion's wounds might be smarting. He expects an overwhelming urge to make amends.

'I don't think they would have asked for any better opponents than ourselves,' he says. 'There's the old enemy thing. You never get an easy game between Scotland and England, and I think there is still an element of revenge among their players stemming from the Grand Slam in 1990. I know they've beaten us several times since, but Murrayfield three years ago has not been forgotten or forgiven.'

Which is not defeatist talk by any means. McGeechan believes a rugby team's soul can be an extension of the captain's personality. 'Appoint an anonymous captain and you get an anonymous team,' he says, and Hastings is unmistakenly upbeat. Good luck wishes are met with 'We'll be trying our hardest.'

And with a degree of understatement he adds: 'We have a chance. The season is far from over.' The charge is primed.

HASTINGS FACT FILE

Born: Edinburgh, 3 January 1962

Occupation: Surveyor

Position: Full-back

Club: Watsonians

Previous clubs: Camb Univ, London Scottish

International debut: January 1986 v France (won 18-17)

Caps for Scotland: 44

Caps for British Isles: 3

Points for Scotland: 415

Points for British Isles: 28

(Photograph omitted)

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