McGeechan the wise man ready to face his biggest test

Chris hewett
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When the first slivers of self-doubt start worming their way into England's consciousness shortly before kick-off at Murrayfield tomorrow afternoon - and they surely will, despite protestations to the contrary, for there is a great deal at stake - the Grand Slam-chasing visitors will not be thinking of Glenn Metcalfe's pace or Chris Paterson's precocity. Neither will they be quaking at the thought of Tom Smith's technical expertise or even the incendiary genius of Gregor Townsend. The Scot they fear most will not be out there on the pitch, but up there in the stand.

Ian McGeechan is fond of saying that rugby matches are won by players, rather than coaches - a perfectly reasonable assertion that would brook no argument were it not for the fact that McGeechan himself is so damned good at what he does. He is the tactician's tactician, the wisest of the wise, a tracksuited Gandalf of the union game. If anyone can lead England up the garden path and into some nasty Six Nations cul-de-sac, he can. After all, the most successful Lion in the pride has performed the trick successfully in the past.

Not that McGeechan relishes comparisons between this afternoon's little squabble and the famous winner-take-all game of a decade ago, when David Sole slow-walked his countrymen on to the pitch and completed one of the great strategic triumphs of the post-war era. "The circumstances are so completely different that there is nothing to say about 1990," said the coach after a sharp, snappy and dazzlingly inventive training session at an empty Murrayfield on Thursday afternoon. "For a start, we're not going for the Slam ourselves this time. In '90, both sides were unbeaten; the whole psychology of the occasion was unique. And anyway, that was a mature Scotland side - great half-backs, great back row, you name it. This is a young team, full of potential but unproven." A polite way of putting it, considering the Scots' lamentable championship campaign to date.

When McGeechan left the thriving club environment of Northampton last summer for a second stint as national coach, the entire union community sat up and took notice. Under Jim Telfer, once McGeechan's partner in a classic iron fist-velvet glove combination, Scotland had pocketed the last Five Nations title of the century and were confidently expected to give South Africa a serious hurry-up in the World Cup. The "Kilted Kiwis" - notably Metcalfe and the Leslie brothers, John and Martin - were merrily cutting the hot stuff in their adopted country, Townsend was in his pomp and young forwards such as Gordon Bulloch and Scott Murray were already being pencilled in as potential Lions for 2001. McGeechan, always at his best with the best players, would have the time of his life with these boys.

So much for the theory. The Scots lost a quality encounter with the Springboks and lost John Leslie into the bargain, a debilitating double whammy that condemned them to another quarter-final against the All Blacks - their third in four tournaments - without their most influential player. The momentum disappeared like morning mist on the Cheviots. They have not won a game since that thankless last-eight rumble with Jolly Jonah and company; Italy hustled them to defeat in Rome, Ireland rallied from a bad start to run riot in Dublin, an out-of-sorts French side with a glass jaw managed to out-point them in Edinburgh and a Welsh team with its collective mind on other things prevailed over them in Cardiff.

"I won't attempt to explain all this away by claiming that I'm building for the future or planning for four years' time, because that's not the way I think," McGeechan said. "International rugby is all about the here and now: get the here and now right and four years' time will take care of itself. If we hit the spot against England, we'll be in better shape for our next game, which happens to be against the All Blacks in New Zealand. That's why I'm still cursing that soft defeat in Italy, for if we'd won that one, as we should have, our whole championship would have been different. If I could change one thing about the last few weeks, it would be Italy. I'd like to play that one again, definitely."

Years spent playing the "good cop" role opposite Telfer's "nasty cop" have left McGeechan with a public image that is both superficial and misleading. Yes, he is one of rugby's nice guys: courteous, thoughtful and stimulating in equal measure but he is nowhere near as stoical as his more enthusiastic proponents would have us believe. "Contrary to popular belief, I'm not a good loser," he admitted. "I hate losing, always have. The whole point of this coaching business is to produce winning teams, teams that are as dangerous as possible for as long as possible. I don't accept defeat, ever.

"On that basis, I have to admit that we're not as far forward as I would have hoped. But I came into this job with my eyes wide open; I knew how hard it would be because, unlike England or France, we cannot play badly and win.

"A Scottish side needs to be on the top of its game to take a result from an international match. Coaching this team frightens me to death, to be honest with you; it frightened me a decade ago, and it frightens me now. The fear of failure never goes away. But that's the fun of the job, isn't it? Why else would I have left Northampton, where everything was beautifully set up and coming to fruition? If I'd wanted an easy life, I'd have stayed at Franklin's Gardens."

Very nearly three decades after making the first of 32 appearances in the Scottish midfield and 11 years after his initial coaching stint with the Lions in Australia, McGeechan remains in love with, and obsessed by, the international scene. "I suppose my real interest lies in moving the northern hemisphere game forwards and upwards, which is why I've been critical of England in the past. At times, they've failed to move things along as much as they should have, given the quantity and quality of the players available to them.

"I can remember saying to the English contingent on the '97 Lions tour: 'Have you ever asked yourselves why you don't play like this all the time? Why don't you go for it every week?' Of course, they are now moving their game along at a rare old pace. I think we're seeing the smartest English rugby for a very long time indeed. You look at people like Matt Dawson [one of McGeechan's protégés at Northampton] and you know you are dealing with what I like to call a 'Test animal'.

"The southern hemisphere nations have a lot of Test animals, but England are producing some of their own now. What is a Test animal? The qualities are indefinable, but you know them when you see them. A player like Matt may not be able to pass or kick or run as well as some, but he delivers when the real heat comes on. It's not just a confidence thing. It's way beyond that."

Happily, McGeechan also sees green shoots of progress in Scotland, albeit a Scotland hurt by the eligibility scandal surrounding David Hilton and seriously weakened by the national union's emasculation of a once thriving club game in favour of an unashamedly élitist "super-club" experiment that has proved about as popular as nude bathing in the Firth of Forth. He considers Jason White, the 21-year-old Edinburgh-born, Aberdeen-educated flanker who makes his debut tomorrow, to be the first of the new generation.

"One game can make a player," he said. "You can build a career for yourself in the space of 80 minutes."

However, he also knows that a shellacking from England, followed by a serious kicking in All Black country, would set Scottish rugby back at least another year. "This is a big test of my ability, I agree. More and more decisions are made by the players on the pitch, rather than the coach in the team room, and my challenge is to prepare young men for the responsibility of decision-making under pressure. Rugby is so fluid these days; the things you used to be able to plan a game around, the scrum and line-out, are less crucial now. You might get 10 scrums and 14 line-outs, but between 160 and 180 broken-play situations where moves are called and options are taken. The old ways of doing things simply aren't relevant any more."

Coaches will always be relevant, though, especially coaches as good as McGeechan, who knows more about England than England know about themselves.

The Dawsons and Dallaglios may have developed into "Test animals", but it is not unreasonable to suggest that the most potent Test animal of them all is the man who coined the phrase in the first place.