11202017

Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland are rugby’s Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson, says Scotland legend Gavin Hastings

Gavin Hastings is under orders from his son to bring eggs and milk back home with him. He might be a former Lions captain, but part of Hastings’ duties this morning is to drive Adam, a talented fly-half with Bath, to a Scotland Under 20s meeting at 10.30am prompt.

It is a week before the start of the RBS Six Nations and the winds of Storm Gertrude are whistling menacingly through Edinburgh’s stone streets. Hastings sips a coffee in the relative peace of a little cafe only a five-minute ride from gale-lashed Murrayfield and considers the rugby feast that lies ahead.

First up is the Calcutta Cup, a trophy fashioned by Indian craftsmen from melted silver rupees and first fought over between Scotland and England in March 1879. Much sporting history, not to mention some bad blood, is crammed into the story.

Scotland legend Gavin Hastings at home in Edinburgh
Gavin Hastings clears his lines

Scotland legend Gavin Hastings at home in Edinburgh (left) and in his playing days (right)

Hastings, captain of Scotland for 20 of his 61 caps as an outstanding full-back, played his part in the folklore by, among other triumphs, winning the Grand Slam in the most fabled Calcutta Cup instalment of them all, in 1990.

But it will all be new for Eddie Jones, the smiling Australian taskmaster who was recently appointed as England head coach after the country’s acute World Cup embarrassment of being eliminated in the group stages under Stuart Lancaster.

‘The question I ask is this,’ says Hastings. ‘Would Eddie Jones have got the England job had Japan not beaten South Africa? Would his stock have been as high? You would have thought not. That said, you have got to say that was an extraordinary game. It was a wonderful result for world rugby.

Hastings was captain of Scotland for 20 of his 61 caps and won the Grand Slam in 1990

Hastings was captain of Scotland for 20 of his 61 caps and won the Grand Slam in 1990

‘I thought Lancaster was a bit like Kevin Keegan. He didn’t know how to take England to the next level. He did a brilliant job early on of bringing the spirit back. That had to be done. But I don’t think he was a good enough coach to move them on. He struggled. And when he lost Jonathan Joseph, they panicked.

‘They revamped the whole backline against Wales because of one injury. Suddenly they were not picking George Ford at stand-off. It changed the way they had been playing for months.

‘Now, with Eddie’s arrival, there is a huge amount of optimism. But actually, in a way, England’s performance in the World Cup was not all that bad. They didn’t get out of the group, no, but they would have done if they had kicked at goal against Wales — and anyone with half a brain knows that it was crying out for kick at goal, because they only needed to draw.

The pressure will be on new coach Eddie Jones as England teams are expected to win big matches

The pressure will be on new coach Eddie Jones as England teams are expected to win big matches

‘If England had got through to the quarter-finals they could then have played like Scotland, who did magnificently against Australia and almost won what would without question have been our greatest victory of all time.’

Jones’s twinkle-eyed contribution to the pre-Six Nations hostilities has been to say that Scotland ‘carry the pressure of favourites’, having progressed further in the World Cup.

‘Do you honestly think anyone is taking him seriously?’ asks Hastings. ‘There aren’t many Mourinhos in rugby and perhaps Eddie has a bit of that. But the biggest wind-up merchant is [Wales coach] Warren Gatland. He is the closest to Alex Ferguson that we have. He winds people up, and to hell with the consequences. He says it deadpan, but is laughing his head off behind the mask.’

The experienced coach has coached three national teams, Australia, Japan and England

The experienced coach has coached three national teams, Australia, Japan and England

Hastings can see a bit of the 'special one' Jose Mourinho in new England coach Jones

Hastings can see a bit of the ‘special one’ Jose Mourinho in new England coach Jones

By Hasting’s estimation Wales, who have won the Grand Slam the last two times the Six Nations followed World Cups, are strong contenders. A revitalised France, who were ‘just awful’ in the autumn, are ‘capable of a strong challenge’. For England it may be ‘too soon’.

Hastings, however, is cautious about Scotland’s chances on Saturday. History warns him to be so. In all his career he beat England only twice, in 1986, when, as a greenhorn, he kicked eight out of eight, and in 1990. That latter occasion gave rise to an absorbing book, Tom English’s The Grudge, which drew together the strands of cross-border history.

It cited Mrs Thatcher as a hate figure and claimed that England captain Will Carling was detested as the embodiment of her ‘snarling, brutish and all-conquering’ credo.

Scotland prevailed 13-7 in, we can say with tongue in cheek, their greatest triumph since Robert Bruce saw off Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314. Flower of Scotland harks back to that skirmish 702 years ago. But just as Culloden — the equaliser 432 years later — followed, so Scotland’s victory has met subsequent England success: since 1990, Scotland have beaten the auld enemy just three times and won only one of their opening Six Nations fixtures in 16 years. ‘That is truly woeful,’ sighs Hastings.

Favourites Wales have won the Grand Slam the last two times the Six Nations followed World Cups

Favourites Wales have won the Grand Slam the last two times the Six Nations followed World Cups

Hastings says Gatland is rugby's answer to former Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson

Hastings says Gatland is rugby’s answer to former Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson

But under Vern Cotter, the poker-faced New Zealander who has wrought so much improvement, are there not grounds for optimism? Hastings is even-handed in his appraisal. ‘Will we beat England? No. Can we beat England? Yes.’

He singles out fly-half Finn Russell as Scotland’s ‘missing link’, saying that the Glasgow Warriors man is as good in his position as anyone in the Championship, possibly barring Wales’s Dan Biggar. He also respects Scotland’s front five and he hopes that centre Mark Bennett is fit after his shoulder injury.

He likes the cut of Cotter’s jib, saying that he has that ‘hard-edged character’ of Jim Telfer, the famously ferocious forwards coach behind the 1990 success, who as a player is said to have sought the biggest boulder he could in the River Tweed and repeatedly lifted it above his head on a Friday night in the hope of giving himself an advantage over his opponent the next day.

‘I don’t know if that is true,’ says Hastings. ‘I am too scared to ask Jim.’ Hastings, turning to the here and now, says: ‘I wrote to Vern and Greig Laidlaw [the captain] after the World Cup inviting them to be proud of what they achieved. I said, “You can use this as a stepping stone towards better things”.

‘I genuinely believe that, but what they did at the World Cup does not bring a guaranteed promise of success in the Championship. So I am cautiously optimistic, but the Six Nations is a special competition and too gruelling a format to take anything for granted.

‘Vern has given them belief. He’s given them a game plan. Under previous coaches there was not much of that. They sometimes threw the ball around at the back. It looked pretty, but was going nowhere.

‘So, yes, we might do it on Saturday. But, as always with Scotland, they will have to play their best to beat England playing averagely.’

Hastings takes his leave of the cafe, and walks back into the howling wind. He is too late to take his son’s breakfast home for him, but he drives off to ferry him to his squad appointment on time.

‘I am just an observer and commentator now,’ says Hastings. ‘I still get peed off it we don’t win a game. But now that feeling only last for 10 minutes, thankfully.’

It was a welcome degree of perspective in the week of one of rugby’s most-hyped collisions.

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