Ian McGeechan: 'It was vital this year for the Lions to stay competitive'

The tour of South Africa may have ended in narrow and acrimonious defeat, but his side restored the dignity and pride badly dented four years previously. The epitome of the Lions ideal, he tells Robin Scott-Elliot what inspired his rescue act and if he will still be involved in 2013
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The Independent Online

There is a billboard on the London-bound platform of Ian McGeechan's local station peddling flights to South Africa. It's a journey he knows well and one that has very probably come to define him. It was a quarter of a century ago that he first embarked on it and only three months since he last made the return trip. Each time it has been as a Lion and each time he has come home with his reputation enhanced and the standing of the blood-red jersey that is so dear to him similarly burgeoned.

"I love the jersey because it has changed me," says McGeechan. It has not only changed him, it has made him; launching him from the hand-to-mouth existence of the amateur rugby player to one of the most decorated coaches British rugby has seen. Paying the mortgage is no longer the struggle it once was.

His home is tucked quietly away in one of the villages that surround Wycombe. He sits in an immaculate living room – the dogs are confined to the kitchen when they return boisterously from the morning walk with his wife, Judy. Above him is a portrait of a lion's head, painted by Rolf Harris and a gift from Judy to her husband. He leans forward, eyes twinkling, to emphasise his points and then sinks back into the sofa when satisfied that's done.

It was on 15 May 1974 in Potchefstroom, a small town near Johannesburg, that McGeechan first wore the shirt, and over the course of two tours as a player and five more on the coaching staff this man has come to embody a team, or the "greatest concept in rugby" as McGeechan puts it, that has survived and then thrived as the game turned professional despite initially appearing to be something of an anomaly. In 2005 more replica Lions shirts were sold in Europe than those of Real Madrid. This summer 35,000 people followed McGeechan and his men around South Africa; this for what is effectively, by the standards of the professional game, a scratch side from four very different rugby nations. Yet it continues to work and players, despite the increased rigours of long seasons, are desperate to be a part of it.

"It's the biggest jersey they can wear," says McGeechan. "The Lions have a tremendous history – you have to understand the tradition of the jersey that's given to you. It's never yours. It's on loan. Understanding that is all. That is why I got plaques made [for 2009] with the names of all winning Lions in each position [which were fastened to the wall in the Test match dressing rooms], so players have an understanding of what being a Lion is.

"Paul O'Connell was given books on all the previous Lions tours. He understood tradition, what responsibility he was taking on as Lions captain. If you get it right character-wise you create an environment in which everything is bigger than its parts. That is what I like about the Lions."

The day after our interview he is off on tour again and while this time it's personal – he is doing a series of Q&As to promote his book, Lion Man – the fact that the events have sold out from Limerick to Belfast to Glasgow to Leeds suggests the enduring appeal of a side that he, more than any individual, has come to personify.

Leeds will be a return home. McGeechan was born there, the son of a Scottish soldier, his mother a native of the city. He spent his playing career with Headingley, where he also took his first steps into coaching, in between trips north to play for Scotland and south, a long way south, to begin his affair with the Lions. It was not the gilded existence enjoyed by today's top-tier players. McGeechan took unpaid leave from teaching to pursue his rugby career. "There was one Lions tour when we put the mortgage payments on hold for three months," he says.

"[When I started coaching] I'd teach, come home and do teaching preparation, then about half 10 start on rugby and finish around half one in the morning. It was tough, especially on Judy. I used to come home from school and she'd go out. She got a part-time job serving meals at the university in Leeds. We survived by the skin of our teeth."

Those days are past now, as the song has it, but the past retains a strong influence on his coaching. In his book he writes of "improving the future by using the best of the past", an idea that resonates through his handling of the Lions. It is a notion that most immerse themselves in, but not all. McGeechan would never say it, but Will Carling has form as an example of the second category. There is a suspicion too, just a suspicion, that Sir Clive Woodward, coach of the 2005 tour, might also be pitched in the outsiders' camp. McGeechan has only praise for Woodward's achievements with England and the attention to detail he brings to any job. Yet there remains an underlying "but..."

McGeechan writes in the book that, as this year's tour began, the "Lions as a concept might be in jeopardy". Why? "Clive's tour was impressively structured and a lot of good things came out of it that I held on to," he says. "But it was being competitive on the Test field in New Zealand... we never were. That went down badly with supporters and with New Zealand. You can't afford that. The most important thing is to stay competitive. Since we hadn't won a Test since 2001 the argument [ahead of 2009] was that the Lions couldn't stay competitive in the professional era."

2009 proved that they can, despite a first series defeat for McGeechan in South Africa. They could have swept the Tests, but suffered the cruellest of losses in a coruscating battle with the world champions. Last week Ronan O'Gara, who gave away the fateful penalty in the second Test, confessed to still having sleepless nights over his error. The Lions matter.

Today McGeechan is not directly involved in coaching for the first time in 29 years. He is in discussions over a consultancy role with the Lions in the build-up to the 2013 trip to Australia and has been linked with the Harlequins job. He's happy, he says, with some downtime, but this is a man who confesses he cannot sit and merely watch a game of rugby.

He keeps a zealous eye on domestic developments and was back at Northampton, where he took his first job in the professional era in 1994, at the weekend doing television work. It was with Wasps that he enjoyed his greatest moment in the club game, winning the Heineken Cup in 2007. He fielded Danny Cipriani at full-back then and it is in the No 15 shirt that he sees Cipriani's future at international level, especially as McGeechan regards Jonny Wilkinson as a must to reclaim the No 10 jersey. There remain other issues with Cipriani.

"I don't think he's had the best advice," says McGeechan. "Danny is an exceptional talent. We will see the best of him but he has to understand the international environment. A great French coach once said, 'Talent has to play with the team and the team has to play with the talent,' and it is always that way round. The misunderstanding with Danny is that people think he's maybe a bit fly-by-night but he is focused on his performances, and getting better."

Martin Johnson will determine Cipriani's international future and in McGeechan the England manager has a keen admirer. "He's a natural leader. I still take a bit of pride in picking him out as captain when nobody else had for '97. He doesn't say much, but he knows what needs to be done. It's like the tone for our analysis this year, less is more," he says, nods and then repeats it. "Less is more."

Except when it comes to Ian McGeechan and rugby – and the Lions, in particular – when more might never be enough. "You've got to be involved in Australia," Shaun Edwards urged him on the plane back from South Africa. He will be approaching 67 then, which is the same age as Sir Alex Ferguson is now. Perhaps it will not be journey's end after all.

Scottish Lionheart: McGeechan in red

As player

1974 South Africa 4 Tests, 14 apps

1977 New Zealand 4 Tests, 16 apps

As coach

1989 Australia Won Test series 2-1

1993 New Zealand Lost Test series 1-2

1997 South Africa Won Test series 2-1

2009 South Africa Lost Test series 1-2

As assistant coach

2005 New Zealand Lost Test series 0-3

Just one look: Classic Geech

An extract from Ian McGeechan's Lions team talk ahead of the decisive second Test against South Africa in 1997

"When you come to a day like this, you know why you do it all. You will meet each other on a street in 30 years' time and there will be just a look, and you will know just how special some days in your life are. We have proved that the Lion has claws. We have wounded the Springbok. We will go for the jugular. Every tackle, every pass and every kick is saying to the Springbok, you are dying. On that field today all that will be between you is a look, no words, just a look. It will say everything. The biggest thing it will say is, you are special, you are very, very special. It has been and is a privilege. Go out, enjoy it, remember how you have got here and why, and finish it off. And be special for the rest of your lives..."

The Lions won 18-15 to clinch the series.

Lion Man is published by Simon & Schuster, £18.99