Ian McGeechan’s knighthood a fitting reward
In the age of professional Rugby Union the very fact that British and Irish Lions are still a relevant and purposeful entity can be almost solely attributed to Sir Ian McGeechan.
A player in the infamous 1974 series and head coach on four tours, he embodies everything that sport’s greatest anomaly has come to represent; comradeship, defiance and above all desire to play a unique brand of pulsating, attacking rugby that has secured the future of the Lions for the foreseeable future.
As a coach Geech’s record will stand the test of time. A Grand Slam with Scotland in 1990, a European Cup with Wasps in 2007 and Lions series victories over Australia in 1989 and famously over the World Champions South Africa in 1997.
And it is for his achievements in South Africa that the fondest of memories will be reserved. His part in the ‘74 team is often overlooked but McGeechan, who earned 32 caps for Scotland, played in the centre for Willy John McBride’s ‘invincible,’ team on that absorbing, controversial tour.
The ’74 series, itself almost a victim of the anti-apartheid political sentiment, was to be the last visit by the Lions for 23 years as the South African’s were isolated from international competition.
By the time they returned, with McGeechan as head Coach, professional Rugby was in its infancy and the Springbok’s were World Champions following the jubilant, unified scenes that followed their victory on home soil two years previously.
The Lions arrived as underdogs with as much a diplomatic brief as a rugby one but won the first two Tests, clinching the series thanks to Jeremy Guscott’s famous drop-goal to clinch a thrilling 18-15 win in Durban.
Geech returned home victorious but the next stage in his career, guiding Scotland through the tumultuous early years of professionalism was to prove his least successful.
But the move south to the opulence of the English Premiership with Wasps reinvigorated his career and McGeechan guided the London club to their second Heineken Cup triumph, a convincing 25-9 victory over Leicester.
By the time the 2009 Lions tour approached the clamour for McGeechan to lead it was almost deafening. Despite the jubilant opening to the professional era the 1997 series win had provided, defeats to Australia and a crushing whitewash at the hands of the All Blacks in 2005 had highlighted the nigh on impossible task of meshing a group of players from four separate countries in a matter of a few weeks, before unleashing them against the best of the Southern Hemisphere.
The 2005 effort in particular appeared to have sapped every last drop of the beloved Lions spirit. Sir Clive Woodward had led England to a World Cup but he appeared a rookie when it came to a tour of such magnitude and the very future of Lions series began to be called into question.
In many ways, despite the 2-1 series defeat, this summer’s series was McGeechan’s finest achievement. Having led the midweek side at Woodward’s request in 2005 he had witnessed first-hand the calamitous effort in New Zealand and could identify its flaws.
With precious time to prepare the players following a sapping club and international season, Geech took them away from the training pitch and away for a bonding sailing trip. Individual rooms, introduced by Woodward, were abandoned and players encouraged to bond outside their own national cliques. The midweek team and test squads were reunited and so it appeared was the very core of the British and Irish Lions.
South Africa were once again World Champions but the Lions threw themselves wholeheartedly at their task to produce one of the most absorbing test series of all time. Stephen Jones, the highly respected rugby correspondent of The Sunday Times called the Lions the finest attacking side of all time and but for a few quirks of fortune the result could have been so much different.
For the Lions to continue to exist they must learn their lessons from the South African tourists and Sir Ian is likely to take on a consultancy role when they visit Australia in 2013. The two are almost inextricably entwined and rugby lovers across the world owe Geech a debt of gratitude. A knighthood then seems a pretty good place to start.