Rugby Union: McGeechan's creed: team and sympathy

Chris Hewett in Port Elizabeth talks to the Lions coach in search of the ultimate ambition
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Their names still reverberate around the highest peaks of the rugby kingdom. McBride, the mighty Ulsterman who brooked no argument and took no prisoners; Edwards and John, the half-backs who would sit at God's right hand in any Welshman's heaven; Gibson and Dawes, bold and innovative thinkers who took on the world and came up with a method of beating it. Each has his place in the Lions pantheon, an unquestioned position at the head of the pride.

Somewhere along the line, legendary status gave Ian McGeechan the slip; the respect he commands is that of the consummate craftsman, not of the romantic hero touched with genius. Yet no one - not even McBride with his 17 British Isles caps spread over five tours and 14 years - is more defined by Lions deeds than the warmly welcoming, softly spoken Scot.

Should the 1997 vintage prevail in their three-match series with the Springboks, "Geech" will surely take his seat at the high table of union history. Eight Test appearances - he started all four matches when McBride's men obliterated the South Africans in 1974 and then doubled his tally in New Zealand three years later - almost pale into insignificance beside his achievements as a coach. This is his third straight tour at the helm, a benchmark unlikely to be matched, let alone surpassed.

At 51, the desire burns more fiercely than ever, largely because he is back in his natural habitat. While he achieved notable and wholly unexpected successes while coaching Scotland in the late Eighties and early Nineties - the 1990 Grand Slam was followed by a tour of New Zealand during which the national team produced its best rugby for nigh on 40 years - it is the red shirt rather than the blue that fires his passion.

"The whole concept of the Lions fascinates me - the coming together of different players from different rugby backgrounds, the challenge of moulding a team and working out ways of realising the potential contained within it - and the way this tour is gathering momentum, it seems to me that most of the rugby-playing world shares that fascination. When people ask if there is still a place for the Lions, I look at them in amazement. A Lions tour remains the pinnacle, no question.

"There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to compare with winning a Test in a Lions shirt or being associated with victory as a coach and I desperately want the players to experience that elation on this trip. Mind you, the downside of defeat is pretty painful, especially when you believe you deserved better. I can't remember feeling as low or frustrated as when we lost to the All Blacks in Christchurch in 1993. That was very hard to take."

Having masterminded the 2-1 victory from one down in Australia in 1989, McGeechan assumed that defeat by a similar margin at the hands of New Zealand four years later would draw a line under his Lions connection. He could not have been more wrong, for when Fran Cotton was handed the managership last summer, any prospect of a list of coaching candidates instantly evaporated. Big Fran could have written his pecking order on the back of a postage stamp, owing to the fact that he had only one name in mind.

"This opportunity means a great deal to me because, to a degree, I blame myself for some of the things that went wrong in New Zealand in '93," said McGeechan last week as he prepared for yesterday's opening set-to with the heavily reinforced Eastern Province Invitation XV in Port Elizabeth. "We all know that towards the end of that tour, six or seven players lost heart as well as form and we allowed them to feel peripheral to what was happening. That was a mistake and I've learned from it; this time, we'll go the extra mile to make sure that everyone stays involved.

"I'm very hopeful that we will succeed in that area because the squad has come together quite wonderfully over the last fortnight, first in the pre-tour get-together at Weybridge and then in camp in Durban. You tend to find on Lions tours that the big characters come very quickly to the fore; in '74 we had Bobby Windsor, in '97 we have John Bentley, who has played a very influential role in pulling everyone and everything together.

"It's difficult to make comparisons across a gap of more than two decades but I think I recognise the unity and companionship now that we were able to draw on back then."

Time will tell, of course; McGeechan is all too aware of the mountainous demands imposed by an itinerary featuring midweek matches against Transvaal - now known as Gauteng - and the Orange Free State. "Those would be major scalps, given their placing in the schedule. It really is a very demanding programme and without the unity I've been talking about, any side would struggle to find a way through it.

"I do think, though, that we are flexible enough to cope. I want to encourage an instinctive approach because we have some exceptional quality and a lot of genuine pace in this squad. Now that the initial training sessions are out of the way, I'm looking to build in the intensity. There will be no let-up from the Springboks, so it's a case of living with them."

In McGeechan's considered view, South Africa is the most completely foreign of all Lions tour locations - "far more than in New Zealand, you really feel the change in rugby culture here", he says, his tone pregnant with relish. Victory here would stand head and shoulders above everything he has seen, felt or achieved in a quarter of a century of top-level rugby. It would also make a hero of him at last.