Geech at 70: How he became a rugby legend

Four Lions tours as head coach, a Grand Slam with Scotland and a Heineken Cup with Wasps. It is little wonder that when we think of Sir Ian McGeechan, who turns 70 on Oct. 30th, the word that immediately comes to mind is ‘coach’.

But it also makes it rather too easy to forget his achievements as a player. Had he done nothing more in the game after hanging up his boots in 1979, he would still be worthy of note.

Rankings of 42nd in John Griffiths’ listing of Scotland’s best 50, compiled in 2003, and 29th in the Herald’s top 50 last year might seem modest, until you consider that Griffiths was picking from 970 men who had played from Scotland before the summer of 2003, and the Herald’s experts had close on another 100 to consider. If any international rugby is an elite performer, somebody who rates in the top three to five per cent belongs to an elite within an elite. Among Scotland’s centres the Herald rated only Scott Hastings, Jim Renwick and Phil MacPherson higher.

His talents were not of the sort which grab attention and propel players into selection at an early age. Born and educated in Leeds, and playing his rugby for Headingley and Yorkshire, he was noticed by England’s selectors before Scotland’s, turning down an England trial invitation in 1967 because he saw himself as a Scot.

The Scottish trial came a year later, but it took four more years and — as he put it with characteristically wry humour — “two retirements and four injuries” before the call came to play against the All Blacks in 1972. Chris Rea, a clubmate at Headingley, was reported to have judged him no more than a good club player, while one particularly hidebound member of the Scottish press pack, evidently ignorant of a long history of borrowing from many parts of the rugby world, persistently questioned his eligibility.

His first caps were won at outside-half and he expected to lose his place when first choice Colin Telfer returned from injury. Instead he was moved to centre, which as he has recalled, was an immense boost to his confidence: “I realised they wanted to keep me”.

And with good reason. Scotland’s selectors also recognised him as one of those unflashy performers who brings the best out of the players around him.

Ian McGeechan started as an outside-half for Scotland – but was later moved to centre. Allsport/Getty Images

John Griffiths describes him as “solid in defence, clever in attack and always aware”, a player who “knew his role and played it to perfection”. That he arrived in the Scotland team at the same time as brilliant full-back Andy Irvine was excellent news on several levels — not least, as McGeechan dryly noted, that many observers tended to assume that they were the same age, knocking five years off him. As Nick Oswald has pointed out, he was “the quietly effective balance creating the opportunity for Irvine’s devastating running abilities.”

While he moved between his two positions, he was never dropped by Scotland, playing his final season as captain in 1979 and ending with 32 caps. There were no trophies — though hard to beat at Murrayfield, Scotland were poor travellers in the 1970s — and no tries. He sees 1973 and in particular 1975 as years in which Triple Crowns got away, and has pointed out that “I would like to think that I made between eight and ten scoring passes, which is what I felt my game was about”. But he did drop seven goals for Scotland, generally against the best opposition — there were two against the All Blacks and two more against Wales, the dominant European team of the era, as well as one against France on his Five Nations debut.

And like many good players in less powerful Home Nations teams, he blossomed as a Lion, going to South Africa in 1974 and New Zealand in 1977 and playing in all eight test matches, all but one as a starter at centre.

McGeechan’s qualities as a player who enabled the talents of others were evident in the partnerships he formed with centre partners as contrasting as the mercurially brilliant Jim Renwick and the powerful, crash-balling Alastair Cranston for Scotland. Yet none was more fruitful than the link he formed with Ireland’s Dick Milliken for the ‘Invincible Lions’ in South Africa.

Clem Thomas wrote that “you never saw a higher work-rate than that of the 1974 centres”, McGeechan himself recalled as a career highlight the praise heaped on him and Milliken by full-back JPR Williams, a demanding critic, and the drop-goal which broke South Africa’s resistance in the test match at Pretoria. That Lions team was, he said in 2000 “the best handling team ever”, in which “we would just look at each other and know exactly what was required.”

Sir Ian McGeechan is best known as a coach – but he wasn’t a bad player, either. Jamie McDonald /Allsport

That he would progress into coaching, once a knee injury had ended his playing career at 33, looks in retrospect inevitable. He had the communication skills which come with a teaching career and had taken RFU coaching courses while still a player.

He began at Headingley in 1980, but was rapidly incorporated into the Scottish national set-up, rising through the Anglo-Scots, under 21s and B team before becoming assistant to Derrick Grant in 1986. He was, legendary commentator Bill McLaren remembered, “always in control of his thoughts and a master at keeping things in perspective, and at game analysis”.

Those analytical skills were honed in hours of watching video tape of matches. All of this, it should be remembered, when he was also holding down a full-time teaching job and was unpaid for the hours he put into rugby. When his video recorder broke down in 1991, he had to pay for an expensive state-of-the-art replacement, and had no thought of asking the Scottish Rugby Union — the ultimate beneficiary of his labours — for a contribution. Only in 1994, when Northampton appointed him director of rugby, was he able to devote himself to rugby full time.

His all-round record as a coach speaks for itself, but it will almost certainly be his record with the Lions that writes his name deepest into the game’s annals. He has had one huge advantage — that in an era where England have more often than not been the dominant home nation, his background equipped him to be trusted and accepted on both sides of the Anglo-Celtic faultline.

But it took more than just that happy accident of birth and descent to make him so admired and successful. The verdicts of outstanding Lions tell their own story. Martin Johnson, his captain in South Africa in 1997, reckoned him “an exceptional coach, a guy with tremendous vision and tactical awareness, always ready to try new things and happy to give his players responsibilities.”

Sir Ian McGeechan is the face of the British and Irish Lions. David Rogers/Getty Images

Robert Jones, scrum-half in the victorious tour of Australia in 1989, called him “one of the best coaches I have ever played for”, recalling that “He did not dictate. Everyone had his say” and that “he wanted everybody to be involved and to be able to work closely together.”

Rob Andrew, who went to Australia in 1989 and New Zealand in 1993, credited him for transforming his career, saying “I only worked for him for two summers. I wish it had been longer.”

Jim Telfer, with whom he formed a hugely effective good-cop, bad-cop combination for both Scotland and the Lions, reckoned that — perhaps because of his dual qualification — he spoke better about Scotland and Scottishness than anyone else he had known. His pre-match speech before the Grand Slam decider in 1990 has gone into history, but so too has his talk to the Lions before the second test against the Springboks in 1997. Gregor Townsend recalled it as “packed full of emotion and intelligence and spoken with the humble authority that Geech has quietly projected throughout his coaching career.”

His attachment to the Lions was such that, four years after saying in New Zealand that he was only likely to come back “if they’re taking coaches in wheelchairs”, he became chief coach for the fourth — and presumably last — time in South Africa in 2009. A relentless competitor, who has memorably described New Zealand rugby players as ‘Scots who have learnt how to win’, he will not have enjoyed losing the series. But this in its own way was as much an achievement as his victories in 1989 and 1997, a rare Lions tour in which the series was lost but did not break into bitter recrimination — as its predecessors of 2001 and 2005 had done — and which did much to restore the credibility of the whole concept.

“What he has achieved makes him beyond doubt one of the modern game’s great figures.”

Huw Richards

Amid that litany of achievement is one great ‘might have been’ — his turning down the invitation to coach England. Might he have added ‘World Cup winner’ to his CV and, presumably, acquired his knighthood a few years earlier than he eventually did? For those who have argued, particularly since the failure of the 2005 Lions, that any half-decent coach could have taken the trophy given the talent at England’s disposal, the answer is presumably yes. But even for those of us who feel that Sir Clive Woodward played an immense part in their success, is there any reason to believe that Sir Ian — as he became in 2010 — might not also have accomplished the deed?

There is of course, as with all counter-factuals, no definitive answer. And what he has achieved makes him beyond doubt one of the modern game’s great figures. That game will doubtless unite in wishing him a very happy birthday, and hoping that there are many more to come.

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