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Former British Lions chief takes rugby union on the road
As Leeds Carnegie come to York RUFC, STEVE CARROLL talks rugby union with the legendary Sir Ian McGeechan.
THE tracksuit is off these days, replaced by a suit, but start talking rugby with Sir Ian McGeechan and the eyes still light up. It’s like being on the field with the British Lions’ legend in the cauldron of Loftus Versveld.
“I probably bore Diccon Edwards and Dave Baldwin talking,” he says of the once weekly get-togethers the trio have at Leeds Carnegie’s Headingley ground – where they chat about players, tactics and the game in general.
It’s doubtful Selby-bred Edwards, head coach of the Championship outfit, has ever found himself nodding off when McGeechan holds court.
It must have been a hard choice to end a coaching career that brought a Grand Slam for Scotland and saw him lead four Lions tours to the southern hemisphere and coach the midweek dirt-trackers on another.
If McGeechan had wanted to be on the plane to Australia next summer, when the four nations which make up union’s greatest team once again come together, he’d definitely have been reserved a seat. But in his role at Leeds, where he now looks to develop the club’s brand across Yorkshire, McGeechan feels he has returned home.
A one club man, he spent his entire playing career at Headingley.
So Leeds Carnegie’s latest venture, taking matches out across the county and starting with the club’s British & Irish Cup clash against Jersey tomorrow (3pm) at York’s Clifton Park ground, finds huge favour with the proud Yorkshireman.
“It is a good fit at York,” he explains. “It is a nice club there, the pitch is nice and it looks a great facility. I just think it is such a great thing to do. There is a good feel both ways and I hope that everyone would see it as a huge benefit for the game. Leeds rugby is in a very exciting place. It’s a very young side, but it is a very exciting side which is scoring a lot of tries.
“We just feel we would be a bit happier if we were giving a few less away. The games that have been at Headingley have been tremendous games of rugby and hopefully they can just produce the same again tomorrow.”
In Edwards, McGeechan sees a coach to develop Leeds’ emerging stars.
Formerly the Academy manager at Headingley, the one-time Selby player and coach went on to guide England Under-20s before being called back to shepherd a group that have the youngest average age in the Championship by two years.
Does executive chairman McGeechan miss the one-to-one contact with players though?
“In 2009 (at the end of the Lions’ tour of South Africa), I was happy then to say ‘that’s the head coach role finished’,” he adds. “What I want to do is really try and be as supportive as I can for them (Edwards and team) and exchange ideas with them.
“We’ve started a boot room chat and we try to do that once a week – just to talk rugby. I still enjoy looking at what I think the game is tactically, where we can take that, what the players can do.
“I quite enjoy still being able to do that without putting the tracksuit on and taking the lead as I have done for the last 30 years.
“I will watch training and then we will have a catch up – the three of us – and we are just talking about previous games, players, or just the game in general.
“It is nice and relaxed and informal and it is just good to chat and just throw out ideas.”
However you skirt around the subject, in the presence of McGeechan you always want to talk about the Lions. The man who has given his life to the concept feels the class of 2013 will be in good hands under head coach Warren Gatland.
“He is head and shoulders above everyone else as a coach at the moment at international level,” McGeechan approves. “He understands the Lions and the concept. He’s great for the players and I think it is a good appointment.
“The biggest lesson now, with the game professional and a lesson we carried forward in 2009, is that you have got to take a fit squad of players. However good a player is, if he is injured or carrying an injury you can’t take him because you don’t have time for that player to get up to speed.
“We got very close in 2009 and one of the reasons for that, I am convinced, is that as a management team we understood each other and we had a group of players who were 100 per cent fit. So from day one we were working with them and we didn’t have to worry about players who couldn’t take it on the field or couldn’t develop in training.
“That’s critical because the challenge, ultimately, is that the players have to be fit for test match rugby in week five. I managed that in Australia in 1989 and South Africa in 1997.”
The Lions are for another day. First the focus falls on York and McGeechan would love to see nothing more than a packed Clifton Park tomorrow.
“It is all about building relationships within the county,” he says. “We have a great county. I am biased. I was born here but I came through because a lot of people put their time in to help me develop.
“That happens in 95 per cent of the county today. The only difference is there is a professional layer on top. I hope that these two-way relationships keep growing and, if they do, rugby will be in great shape around here.”