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On the way up

As barely a year has passed since England's disastrous Rugby World Cup campaign levered open the can of worms that was the sport's administration south of the border, it is tempting to ask Sir Ian McGeechan what on earth he had been smoking in the moments before he agreed to lead a review of the affairs of the Twickenham-based Rugby Football Union.

Sir Ian McGeechan is optimistic about this Scotland team   Photograph: PA
Sir Ian McGeechan is optimistic about this Scotland team Photograph: PA

But then, McGeechan has a bit of previous in these matters, and far from being daunted by the back stabbing, the plots and the Machiavellian intrigues of the RFU, he can reflect on another period of his life where such shenanigans were also commonplace. Or, as he puts it himself: "After SRU politics, this is easy."

The 66-year-old is referring, of course, to that interlude, between 2003 and 2005 when he took over the reins as Scotland's director of rugby from his coaching compadre Jim Telfer. He arrived just at the point when Murrayfield was heading for one of its periodic meltdowns, an episode ignited by the reluctance of the SRU general committee's blazeratti to relinquish age-old powers and pass them to people who actually knew what they were doing.

It was an uncomfortable time, not just for McGeechan but for those who preferred to cherish the memories of his contribution to the Scottish game as a stylish fly-half/centre who won 32 caps between 1972 and 1979 and, subsequently, as the head coach who plotted England's downfall in that momentous Grand Slam match at Murrayfield in 1990. After his departure from Edinburgh, he admitted it had been a mistake to take on the role in the first place.

In truth, McGeechan, who was born in Leeds to Scottish parents, has spent his entire life with one foot on either side of Hadrian's Wall so it would take a particularly febrile mind to see his association with the RFU as some sort of treachery. In any case, when he sat down to talk rugby at a venue in central London the other day, his lingering affection for the game in Scotland was unmistakable.

So although his professional head may be focused on Twickenham next weekend – England take on Fiji on Saturday – his heart will be in Edinburgh the following day as Scotland host the All Blacks at Murrayfield. As the Scots have never beaten New Zealand in 107 years of trying, it is a ferociously difficult assignment, but although McGeechan stops short of predicting a home win he is happy with what he has seen of the side just lately.

"Edinburgh had a superb season in Europe," he observes. "Glasgow are going well now. It is important that they are competitive and getting results because it builds up the support base and gets people talking about rugby all year rather than just at international times.

"Overall, I think the Scotland squad at the moment probably looks as good as it has for seven or eight years. I think Andy Robinson has done a really good job there. I'm one step back, but the vibes seem so much better than they were.

"The summer tour [which produced wins against Australia, Fiji and Samoa] was brilliant. Sometimes you just need to win by an odd point rather than lose by an odd point and the whole feeling changes and confidence increases."

The weight of history is an onerous burden for the Scots who take to the field in a week. McGeechan made his Test debut against the All Blacks in 1972, but played more often against them in the red of the British & Irish Lions than his native blue. Yet in four matches for the Lions and three for Scotland against the All Blacks, he tasted victory only once – the second Test of the Lions' 1977 tour to New Zealand.

After hanging up his boots and donning a tracksuit, he did have the joy of guiding the Lions to a 20-7 victory against the All Blacks in Wellington in 1993, but the series was lost when they went down 30-13 in Auckland the following week. It was a painful experience for McGeechan, but still not a patch on the agony he suffered when Scotland came within three points of breaking their hoodoo in losing 21-18 on the same Eden Park ground three years earlier.

"My biggest disappointment still is losing to the All Blacks in 1990. We should have beaten them and it would have happened but for some refereeing decisions," he says. "Even the New Zealand public accepted that Scotland should have won that day. That was the best Scottish performance I was ever involved in. Tactically and technically we showed what we could do. When you lose a game like that your disappointment is much greater. The opportunity was undoubtedly there to come out with a win in New Zealand against the All Blacks side who hadn't lost since the 1987 World Cup. That was one of the special Scottish performances."

Even in the context of last season's Six Nations whitewash, some eye-catching cameos by individual players led some commentators to suggest that Scotland's representation on the Lions' 2013 trip to Australia could look far healthier than in 2009 when McGeechan, as head coach for the fourth time, selected just two of his countrymen in the original party – another two were added as later replacements – for the combined side's tour to South Africa.

McGeechan will accompany the Lions next year, but will have no say in the running of the tour. But even in light of his earlier remarks about the quality of the current Scotland squad, he does warn that places will not come easily.

"Lions selection is so different from any other that you do," he said. "A player is picked out of his peers in four countries. As Lions coach, you can see what a player can do in one context but you have to think of how they will play in another. Sometimes it's about drawing something out of a player and you have to look beyond the individuals to the team.

"The back row is going to be incredibly competitive. There are back-row players around just now who would normally go on the Lions tour but just won't be able to win a place because the competition is so strong. There are so many good players in all four countries, so a lot of it will come down to performance over the next five or six months."

o Sir Ian McGeechan is the ambassador for FirstCape wine which has launched www.lionswineclub.com in association with The British & Irish Lions. For more information about FirstCape wine visit www.firstcape.com

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