Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Tyrone Howe: Lion Man Geech’s human touch

Ian McGeechan

Congratulations to the Ulster Branch on hosting a unique and highly successful event last Thursday evening, when ex-British and Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan, came to Ravenhill to endorse his autobiography, ‘Lion Man’, and field questions about his personal Lions experiences.

LION MAN: Ian McGeechan dodged the platitudes, cliches and bullets to gave a straight-talking session at Ravenhill last week

Clearly commercialism drove the visit but, nonetheless, rather than deliver a speech stuffed full of platitudes, cliches and bullet-dodging, it was a straight-talking session with Jim Neilly at the helm and McGeechan’s candidness was refreshing and illuminating.

The subsequent Q&A with those rugby supporters present revealed further insights into the mentality of the man himself, some of the tactics he and his coaching staff employed throughout the Lions series and, finally, his reactions to some of the more controversial incidents at that time.

Given the pummelling that the Lions pack suffered in the first half of the opening Test, it was surprising to hear that the Lions staff had actually targeted the area of the front five as a potential weak point in the Springbok XV.

While “Geech” did not exonerate Phil Vickery completely, saying that the English prop had got it totally wrong in the first two scrums, he did, nevertheless, emphasise that everything after that had been illegal and badly refereed by the officials.

The fact that the scrum was more tightly regulated in the remaining two Tests suggests that the referees realised as much themselves.

One story confirmed, however, that there is an inner steel to this otherwise softly-spoken gentleman. In the aftermath of that first Test, McGeechan showed the players several off-the-ball instances in which they came off second best. The accompanying message was clear — this does not happen again.

Fast forward to the second Test and this might explain why Brian O’Driscoll took on and made his own rather forceful point to Springbok giant Victor Matfield, in their own personal squabble.

The only time you got the feeling that McGeechan might have slightly held back was on the subject of Ronan O’Gara’s clumsy challenge with Fourie du Preez, which gave the giant boot of Morne Steyn the opportunity to seal the second Test and a series victory for the Springboks.

He concentrated more on ROG’s subsequent acceptance of his dramatic role in the match and how difficult it has been for him to come to terms with this.

There was no overt criticism of the player, only an admission that in all things you need to reach a balance.

While there might be things that you would change in hindsight, sport is just that, sport, it is not life and death.

To unduly criticise players is not his style. Indeed, more than anything else, it was this humanity that came through most in our brief meeting with McGeechan. As a player with the 1974 “Invincibles” and through his coaching prowess, he is inextricably linked to the history and legacy of the Lions.

One of the final questions posed to McGeechan was what advice would he give to any aspiring rugby coach?

“Think like you are a player,” was his answer. It is this empathy and clarity in his communication which sets him apart from most and has contributed to his success. Even in these most professional of modern times, he has old school values which still count for a lot.

Above all, you came away with the feeling that you would have loved to have played in one of his teams.

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