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Heart of a Lion

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Simon Austin | 12:35 UK time, Wednesday, 14 October 2009

"They need to know what they want and I need to know what I want, it's about things fitting."

Ian McGeechan was hardly offering a "come and get me" plea to Harlequins, but he wasn't dismissing the prospect of becoming their new director of rugby either.

After several bleak months dominated by the Bloodgate saga, this is a small ray of light for fans of the London club.

McGeechan insisted Quins had not been in touch with him but added tantalisingly "if it comes up you look at it".

Ian McGeechanMcGeechan has been involved in a record seven Lions tours

It's easy to understand why Quins might be keen to land the Scot. How better to recover some respect and credibility after the damage of Bloodgate?

Not only is McGeechan one of the most successful coaches in the history of the British game, he also represents its best values.

Here is a man who took long unpaid sabbaticals to coach both Scotland and the 1989 Lions, leaving him struggling to pay the mortgage.

And one who didn't think twice about quitting a job he enjoyed when an over-zealous headmaster left him with a straight choice between teaching and rugby in 1990.

"I just think rugby is the best team game there is," he says. "When I first played the game it started a love affair that has lasted 50 years."

McGeechan also seems to be universally liked and admired. When I asked former England captain Will Carling what he thought about the panning he receives in the Scot's recently-released autobiography, "Lion man", he simply said: "I'm a big fan of his, I'll have to take a look."

The book offers a fascinating insight into the character and methods of the legendary coach. His modest, understated manner was probably inherited from his father, who died from lung cancer at the age of just 48.

One of McGeechan's biggest regrets is that his father never saw him play for Scotland. This makes the story of his first cap, against New Zealand at Murrayfield in 1972, particularly poignant.

Shortly before kick off, the band major approached him and told him he had been brought up with his father, Bob, and fought alongside him in the Second World War.McGeechan's autobiography

"He told me he regarded him as a terrific man," McGeechan remembers. "Emotionally it hit me with tremendous force and nothing that happened in the game could have been quite so emotional."

McGeechan is an emotional man, as anyone who has watched the official 2009 Lions DVD will know. The documentary shows him breaking down in tears as he addresses his players before the third Test in Johannesburg.

"Emotion is crucial - you have to love what you're doing and hate losing," McGeechan says. "It's got to be emotive, it can't be pure science."

His approach is in stark contrast to that of Sir Clive Woodward, who McGeechan worked under on the 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand.

"He (Woodward) was always splendidly efficient and clever but perhaps not as emotional as some of us," McGeechan remembers. "He lacked the personal touch. It was all a bit clinical, even antiseptic."

McGeechan's softly-spoken manner belies a fiercely competitive spirit, though, which he has always tried to transfer to his teams.

He believes this is a legacy of his time as a player, when he had to compensate for a lack of size with bravery and aggression.

"If you are smaller, people generally see that as an easy route," he says. "If I could break ribs legally, by hitting them hard enough, I would do it."

Sometimes his teams have transgressed from competitiveness to the edge of legality though. Perhaps the strongest example of this came in the second Test between the Lions and Australia in 1989, which is now widely known as the "Battle of Ballymore".

Having lost the first Test rather tamely, McGeechan instructed his players to stand toe to toe with their counterparts. The result was a fired-up Rob Jones stepping on Nick Farr-Jones' foot in the opening minutes, provoking the first of several mass brawls.

A rather shocking picture of Farr-Jones' bloodied, battered and bruised face is included in McGeechan's autobiography, serving as testimony for quite how brutal the match was.

"I blame myself for 1989. I over-motivated Rob and he probably went too far," he says. "We had the same approach in 1997 but were probably smarter and more structured in the way we went about it."

The central plank of McGeechan's coaching philosophy, which he emphasises time and time again, is the importance of the team.

"I have always worked hard on trying to get the character and chemistry of a group right," he explains. "I am always thinking: 'Will they work together under pressure? Will they stick together? Will they enjoy each others' company?

"When you get that right, you generally end up with very strong performances on the field."

This is why the 2009 Lions were able to exceed expectations and come so close against South Africa this summer, McGeechan believes.

McGeechan and team-mate Dick Milliken on the 1974 Lions tourMcGeechan and team-mate Dick Millicken on the 1974 Lions tour of South Africa

It also explains why McGeechan struggled to empathise with Carling, who never seemed to come to terms with the concept of the Lions.

The England skipper pulled out of the 1989 tour through injury, although there could have been an element of "taking his bat home" after Finlay Calder was named captain, McGeechan suspects.

He was almost sent home from New Zealand in 1993 because of his poor attitude and then in 1997 he withdrew from consideration, "therefore becoming the only player I can ever remember opting out of a Lions tour, a sad decision," says McGeechan.

The Scot also implores James Haskell - who he worked with at Wasps and who now plays for Stade Francais - to remember the message that the team is key. You suspect that McGeechan has little time for show boaters.

"I feel that James has been badly advised, particularly with the idea being put around when he was negotiating that there was such a thing as 'Brand Haskell'," McGeechan writes in the book.

"There is James Haskell the rugby player...the brands are Wasps and England."

He also urges fly-half Danny Cipriani to focus fully on his rugby. "Danny faces the challenge of being the best player he can be and putting everything else to one side," he says.

"He is seen in some areas as a playboy, but that would be unfair, because he is supremely dedicated when he has his rugby head on."

What now for McGeechan himself?

The Scot has enjoyed his brief break from rugby following the Lions tour, writing his book, doing some corporate work and leading his daughter down the aisle.

He will work as an adviser for the Lions in 2013, but this will be the extent of his involvement and he doesn't even know if he will work as a coach or director of rugby again.

Whatever happens, his love affair with the game is sure to continue though.

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