Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

Peter Bills: You have Scot to entertain fans too

Fed up with coaches who rule players like some tin pot dictator from the old Eastern European states?

Want to see the game of rugby union flow properly in 2010, with backs passing the ball, taking some chances and being given license to think more about attack than defence?

Well, here’s a story to warm you on a freezing cold Saturday.

Let me take you back to 1990. The location is Auckland, New Zealand, and the setting is a team meeting of the Scotland squad touring New Zealand. The Scots have lost the first Test of their short tour, 31-16 in Dunedin. They are about to play the eighth and final game of their four and a half week trip. It is at Eden Park, Auckland where, just three years earlier, New Zealand won the first ever Rugby World Cup.

At this point, it’s worth remembering one factor. Scotland had never beaten New Zealand in a Test match, going all the way back to their first meeting in 1905.

Given the manner of their defeat in the first Test of the 1990 trip, it’s fair to say that morale was hardly sky high in the Scottish camp. But there came a unique scenario, a meeting never revealed before this time, that almost changed the history of New Zealand-Scotland rugby matches.

In the days leading up to that second Test, Scottish coach Ian McGeechan laid out his game plan. It was similar to the one they’d used a week earlier in the opening Test. McGeechan had not only coached the British & Irish Lions to a Test series victory over Australia the previous year; he’d led Scotland to a famous Grand Slam triumph in the 1990 Five Nations Championship.

Thus, his stock was high, his reputation made. Yet none of that mattered to the senior Scottish players on that tour. Concerned to hear that the tactics for the second Test would be similar to the first, the Scottish players went to McGeechan and, in effect, forced him to change his plans.

Scottish centre Scott Hastings takes up the story. “We told Ian we didn’t want the forwards to dominate the game plan, as they had in the first Test. We said to him, we want to go out and attack the All Blacks. We would rather run the ball and see what happened. If it worked, fine, if it didn’t at least we would have had some fun doing so in the process.”

McGeechan was forced to accept the wishes of his senior players.

That day, Scotland came closer to beating New Zealand than at almost any other time in their history. They out-scored them by two tries to one, went close to several other scores and were unluckily beaten 21-18 only because All Blacks outside half Grant Fox kicked five penalty goals.

Now you’ve got to remember one crucial factor. This was 1990, still in the amateur era, and players still played for pleasure and a sense of fun. Of course, every country wanted to win, none more so than the proud Scots. But the absence of money in the sport meant that players still had a voice and a choice.

I wonder at the loss of those factors. Players like Scott and Gavin Hastings had a huge amount to offer the game then and they still do today, all these years later.

As Scott Hastings says: “Even today, rugby should be about more than just winning. You have to offer some entertainment to spectators, maybe even more now that it’s a professional sport.”

And of course he’s correct. Any professional enterprise seeking the punter’s cash must provide genuine entertainment, something to entice them back.

Sadly, too few coaches who can’t see the wood for the trees fail to understand this point. They’re so obsessed with keeping their own jobs that they think a win, by any means, is all that matters.

They have to be made to see they’re wrong. Entertainment was always a huge part of this game and it must remain so, almost as much today in the professional era.

Perhaps even more . . .

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