McGeechan hoping for Scotland to spoil party for England

In one of the more wide-ranging careers in the whole of British rugby union, Sir Ian McGeechan has probably seen it all.

From muddy pitches at Kirkstall in the 1960s to life-changing tours as the leader of the British and Irish Lions, McGeechan has sampled everything the amateur and professional game has to offer.

Even now, nearly 50 years since he first donned the green and black of Headingley, McGeechan remains active as one of the sport’s most respected administrators, having just finished a root-and-branch review into elite rugby in England and serving as Leeds Carnegie’s executive chairman.

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But amid all the highlight reels of tries scored by himself and his players, of trophies hoisted high above his head, the Six Nations retains a special place in the affections of McGeechan.

Whether as a player for Scotland, or in two spells as a coach, the famous annual tournament has provided him with some of his fondest memories.

His involvement in the then-Five Nations began in 1972 and ended four decades later in 2005 when he relinquished the Royal Blue reins for a second time.

Through that time he has lived through all the highs and lows thrown at him by a competition that to this day still sends a shiver of excitement down his spine.

“For me the Six Nations is the best competition in world rugby, outside of the World Cup,” enthused the 66-year-old.

“The atmosphere it generates is really special and unique, whether you’re a player or a coach. It always gives you that extra element of excitement.

“And I think the players and coaches, and the fans, all buy into that.

“The grounds are fantastic as well. Every venue has its own history and every fixture has its own history, which gives it a unique quality as a competition.

“Each team and each game presents different challenges. They’re different environments to play in. Each game has its own personality.”

None more so perhaps than the match he will attend along with 80,000 rugby fans in south west London this afternoon, in the latest edition of the Calcutta Cup.

Rugby’s oldest foes have been duelling at least once a year since 1871, with hostilities put on hold only for two world wars.

McGeechan – who was born in Leeds but played for Scotland because of his ancestry – has been involved in nearly two dozen of them.

“There were some great days, particularly at Murrayfield,” he recalled.

“Andy Irvine kicking a last-minute penalty (1974) springs to mind.

“The grand slam game at Murrayfield in 1990 (Scotland won 13-7 with McGeechan as coach) is another one. It was an unbelievable day and an unbelievable atmosphere.

“For me as a coach that was a special occasion because I saw players doing the right things at the right time, all of which you have taught them. That’s special.

“There have been some excellent performances against some really strong England sides.

“I remember from my playing days at Twickenham, it was just constant grafting, it was always very hard work.

“As a coach the job was always to keep England thinking by not being afraid to try certain things and also by backing your players and your own tactics.

“Scotland will have to do that again today.”

The nation he represented 32 times, nine as captain, arrive at Twickenham today as the inferior relation to their hosts.

Where England begin the Six Nations as second favourites behind France, with eight wins from their last 10 games in the competition, Scotland appear a shadow of their former selves.

They haven’t won eight games in the last half-dozen championships, let alone two, and come into the game off the back of a dismal defeat to Tonga last autumn that persuaded Andy Robinson to hand in his notice.

The wily McGeechan, though, believes it would be churlish for Stuart Lancaster and England to underestimate a Scotland team he genuinely retains hope for, even if they are supposedly in transition.

“As a squad they’re pretty well-established with quite a lot of experience and a lot of young players coming through. It’s only in the coaching where there’s a new look,” he said, in reference to interim head coach Scott Johnson.

“Having someone like Dean Ryan involved will ensure they have a pretty strong forwards pack.

“He’ll know what to expect from them and it will make the Scottish pack stronger.

“I was disappointed Andy Robinson resigned. I thought he’d done a really good job with the players and some of the results hadn’t reflected the progress they had made as a group.

“They were competitive against Australia and in parts of the game looked very good.

“The summer tour as a whole was very good with three wins, and a result like the Tonga one can always happen.

“But the first game up in a Six Nations is a different matter altogether and a different atmosphere to how it is in November against the southern hemisphere teams.”

If Scotland are to be written off at an opponent’s peril, then this particular well-versed observer is intrigued to see how the developing narrative of the England team unfolds over the coming weeks.

McGeechan has France as favourites for the tournament because of their balance of experience and flair, but sees the February 23 game between the Red Rose and Les Bleus at Twickenham as a potentially decisive game.

McGeechan, who has been looking into top-level performance in England since the autumn, said: “One of the factors that I think is often overlooked in the Six Nations era is that with the odd number of games a team plays, those that have three games at home have an advantage and for me it’s a significant factor.

“England played exceptionally well against New Zealand. They’ve got to remember what they did that day, what worked for them, and it’s a big tournament for them as they look to build on it.

“England will be looking for consistency in their game, to help them become a threat every time they play. It’s a team that has done a lot of growing over the last six months. England will be realistic about what they have to do and how they have to go about it.”

As for Lancaster, someone he knows well due to their links with Leeds Carnegie, this Six Nations will provide a real test of how the England head coach handles expectation.

“If you are doing things well you are building expectation and you then have to manage that expectation,” said McGeechan. “That’s what good sides have to do.

“And the expectation is on England to make the most of that performance against New Zealand.”

Starting with a victory over Scotland, something McGeechan knows all too fondly, is never easy.