Rugby Union: Princely icon who leads with common touch: As the first Test approaches the Lions need galvanising, and Gavin Hastings is the man to do it. Steve Bale reports from Invercargill

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The Independent Online
IN TEST-MATCH week the Lions are seeking inspiration, looking earnestly to the men - the man - capable by charisma and personal example of lifting them to victory over the All Blacks in Christchurch on Saturday. They are looking to their captain, Gavin Hastings. The Man.

At 31, Hastings has developed what the Maori people of New Zealand call mana. Wayne Shelford certainly had it when he was leading the Blacks; perhaps Willie-John McBride had it when his Lions went unbeaten through South Africa in 1974. In his different way, Scotland's princely full-back is just the same.

His captaincy of the Lions in New Zealand has been exemplary. It was easier when things were going well and North Auckland, North Harbour, the Maoris and Canterbury were being knocked off. Yet he was as gracious in defeat by Otago as he had been magnanimous in victory. No wonder New Zealanders love him so.

Above all, he has the common touch, the patience to take time out to greet local children after a Lions training session, the gregariousness to be hail-fellow-well-met even with the heaviest punter.

As these are the attributes of a natural leader, you have to pinch yourself to realise he has led Scotland for one season only. Mind you, his stature is such, literally and figuratively, that he became an icon figure long, long before the captaincy devolved from David Sole to him.

From the start of his international career, in fact. Hastings booted six penalties to beat France on his debut in 1986 and held the world record for two hours when he amassed 27 points against Romania in the 1987 World Cup (Didier Camberabero then got 30 for France against Zimbabwe).

He has 45 caps and, barring mishap, next season will pass Andy Irvine's Scotland full-back record of 47. His Scotland points record, 424, is exceeded around the world only by Michael Lynagh, Grant Fox and Hugo Porta. His 52 points in the 1986 championship is another Scotland record. He was a vital Lion in winning the series in Australia in 1989, scoring 28 Test points and 66 through the tour.

So he has done more or less everything in rugby, yet the immensity of this series for his Lions, the Lions as a breed, and himself as leader, is plain. Still, he shrugs off the pressure and accepts the responsibility almost as if it were another day in his Edinburgh office. (He is a marketing executive.)

'People will judge me as a captain, analyse me as a captain, comment on me as a captain - but whatever they may say, the captaincy can't change my style and personality,' he said yesterday. 'It's the other way round: the captaincy has to be developed around my style and personality.

'Obviously these are different from anyone else's, so I couldn't be expected to be like the last Lions captain, Finlay Calder. But there are common threads: it's important that I have an ability to communicate with the players, to be able to get over to them what we are trying to achieve.'

But since we are talking about personal example, it is by his own out there where it hurts that Hastings knows he will be judged, especially by his fellow players. This is where the demands on him are greatest, the memory of Ciaran Fitzgerald's doleful leadership of the 1983 Lions in New Zealand a salutary admonition.

'I have to perform to the very best of my ability,' Hastings said. 'You cannot have a captain who is not performing on the field. I don't want to hark back to '83 but a lot of people said Fitzgerald wasn't secure enough in his position. If that's the case, you shouldn't be playing.'

No problem there: he guaranteed his Test place in the very first match in Whangarei after replacing the luckless Ian Hunter. By his very presence he galvanises those around him, by the power of his rugby he scores match-winning tries such as the one that completed the Lions' Houdini escape against the Maoris, by the consistency of his place-kicking he is up to 42 tour points.

This week has already brought and will continue to bring the most searching examination of his character as well as captaincy. It has been a bad, bad 48 hours in which he has been touched by a series of misfortunes, each more ghastly than the last.

Substantial defeat by Otago became instantly less important when Martin Bayfield was carried off on a stretcher, but it was Hastings's own brother Scott who was damaged most, his shattered cheekbone needing a 4 1/2 - hour operation.

Then came the worst devastation, the death of Wade Dooley's father and the England lock's immediate return to Lancashire. Even a Test win over New Zealand seemed irrelevant in these circumstances and it has been down to the captain to rally his troops. The mood is still sombre, but he has done a wonderful job.

'We have experienced disappointment, sadness and anguish in the past few days,' he said. 'But, as I've told the players, it's going to be the hallmark of a good side to overcome all these difficulties. We have to rise to a new set of challenges.

'After losing to Otago we had a chat and said perhaps we all needed to be more accountable to one another. It was the right time to pull things a bit tighter, to remind ourselves of why we are on this rugby tour. We wonder whether we'll be able eventually to look back and judge the Otago game as a good thing.'

Hastings has made himself personally accountable by playing in five of the first six tour games, including even today's against Southland when he could have been excused if he had wanted to rest four days from the Test. 'I've told the players it's sometimes important that you dig in and help one another out, and if that means guys have to play two or three in a row, that's the way it has to be.'

Good for Gavin, prepared to do anything and everything he would demand of his humblest foot-soldier. This is why the players' attitude to him is a mixture of affection and respect - in other words, exactly as it should be. His majestic rugby, his outstanding personal history and his easy-going personality demand both.

His great day will come on Saturday at Lancaster Park, though he insisted yesterday that it would be out of his mind until he had dealt with the business in hand here in Invercargill. But when the great day comes, we may be sure Hastings, above all Lions, will be ready.

(Photograph omitted)