McGeechan on Six Nations look out

With the Six Nations underway every home nations player is desperate to impress British and Irish Lions head coach Ian McGeechan. We speak to the canny Scot who will be running the rule over the contenders hoping to make his squad for South Africa.
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While players from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland will be desperate to shine for their respective countries, they also know that impressing Ian McGeechan during the Six Nations could pave the way for a memorable summer in South Africa.

The old championship is always filled with passion, excitement and incident, but there is no doubt the Six Nations takes on added importance in a Lions year.

The leading players from the four home nations know the Lion King will be watching. Success as a team will be the party line, but every player knows that if he shines as an individual in the five rounds of matches, the chances of his Lions dreams becoming reality will be hugely enhanced.

McGeechan is preparing for his fourth stint as head coach of the Lions. He oversaw the victorious 1989 tour when his players overturned first Test defeat to Australia, presided in 1993 when the Lions lost 2-1 to New Zealand, and led the first professional tour in 1997 to South Africa where he secured another 2-1 success.

Twenty years since his first coaching involvement with rugby's most loved tradition, the prospect of scouting the men he wants to take into battle in June and July stirs the blood like nothing else.

"It's always exciting," admits the former Scotland and Lions fly-half and centre. "It is very interesting to look at the four countries and see how players are playing.

"When I look at the four home nations and at those players who are just behind the 22 being selected on match-days, there is a great deal of quality there. We have a lot of good players but the key is to have them playing well and with confidence.

"The Lions tour is so short yet so challenging that you want to build on form that is already there. The talent is there anyway - it's the form you want to go with, that's the important part."

Talent and form are crucial, but McGeechan knows that successful Lions players will need to match those attributes with a ferocious passion for the jersey.

He expects no less than blood-boiling commitment from the players he takes to South Africa for the three gruelling Tests against the Springboks on June 20 and 27 and July 4.

"The Lions is just the best thing you can ever be involved in as a player or a coach," he says. "Your body has to stand up to the test physically and it is a mentally tough tour. It is a physically and mentally draining experience because you just put so much into it.

"But that's what the Lions badge is all about - if you ever want to do something that draws out the best in you and everybody else, then it's behind that Lions badge."

McGeechan will be studying the Lions movers and shakers closely in the coming months but he also has to find a way to guide London Wasps to more glory at club level. And that would be no mean feat given the fact that Wasps are enduring a miserable Guinness Premiership campaign, blighted by injury and the constraints of a player-release agreement with England that he has been openly scathing of.

Yet it remains difficult to write Wasps off. They have valuable experience of overcoming slow starts and emerging victorious, ending last season with the Premiership crown and the previous year with the Heineken Cup when only the very rich or very foolish would have staked a bean on them at the turn of the year.

"Last year was really a fantastic feat to go from the end of October to the end of the Premiership season with just two defeats," McGeechan admits. "But you can't expect to be doing that every year from the position we're in.

"We want to be consistent - we were not pleased with the start we made and we know we've got to pick it up pretty quickly if we want to be any threat at the sharp end of the season.

"But our goals haven't changed - it is our ambition to be in the knockout stages of the top two competitions - the Premiership and Heineken Cup."

If that is to be the case, McGeechan will have to be at his managerial best as he steers Wasps through another series of international call-ups. The Adams Park side missed large numbers during the recent autumn internationals, particularly when England took on the Springboks at Twickenham.

"If you look at that game against South Africa, we had eight guys in the England XV and nine in the 22 if you count Simon Shaw on the bench," McGeechan explains. "Obviously, that is a big call for us to answer. We are very proud as a club that we're producing players who are good enough to play international rugby. But in the longer term we would hope that the season maps out so it doesn't clash with the Premiership games.

"That is our bread and butter competition. We want to be producing players for England but obviously we also want to be able to play with a full squad every week when it matters."

It is clear that while McGeechan accepts he is producing players of international quality, he would rather have them in his own stable doing good things for Wasps. But the club versus country row is not the only issue making his blood boil.

McGeechan feels the ELVs are a knee-jerk reaction and will do little good for the game. "I personally think the ELVs have changed the game," he insists. "I think we should have been looking at the contact area and how that is refereed but that has nothing to do with the experimental law variations.

"I think the ELVs that are being introduced have changed the game for the worse.

"There are fewer tactical options," he insists. "You cannot manipulate defences as much due to being able to collapse the mauls. For me, the game has gone a little one-dimensional and you don't have the variety of approaches you had before."

Strong words, indeed, but McGeechan is not finished there. He is also upset about the timing associated with the introduction of the experimental law variations.

"I think the game was in very good shape last year," he stresses. "There were some fantastic games of rugby played in the last Six Nations and at club level. I think some of the ELVs were looked at because the knockout stages of the World Cup weren't as good but they never are because there is so much at stake.

"You have to look at the three and a half years outside of World Cups and look at the rugby that is being played in the various competitions. I would say that last year was the best state I have ever seen the game in."

Nevertheless, with a career spanning Lions success as player and coach and a trophy cabinet stuffed with club honours, McGeechan has shown his adaptability as the game has evolved. With both Wasps and the Lions requiring his urgent attention, 2009 could be his stiffest challenge yet.

This story was sourced from International Rugby News.