Gavin Hastings on making history with the Lions on ‘the tour that time forgot’
In these Covid times he had little option. The Lions, who kick off the tour against the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg this evening, will spend the trip in a bio-secure bubble, leaving only to play matches in front of what are likely to be empty stands.
There will be no travelling fans and most probably no home ones either.
For Hastings part of the victorious tour to Australia in 1989 and then a proud captain in New Zealand four years later, it’s tough to take and his heart goes out to players denied the full Lions adventure.
“Och, the Lions are just momentous and in a way I feel sorry that it is not going to be the experience it has been in the recent past,” he said.
“Since my first days as a Lion in 1989 - well 1986 actually - it’s just been part of my life every four years. I’ve been on every Lions tour since 1989 so obviously this is going to be a bit different.
“I’ve been very lucky to work with sponsors or on television or radio so there has always been a reason for me to go and follow the Lions, and as a former captain I’ve always been very very keen to do that. You realise how special it is when you’re on a Lions tour and it is very exciting.
“But obviously this time we ain’t going anywhere. We will be here at home watching it on television like everybody else.”
Although 1989 was his first tour, Hastings got a taste of the Lions three years earlier when he played for them against a Rest of the World XV in Wales.
The match was to celebrate the centenary of the International Rugby Football Board and ‘The Rest’ - a team made up of players from Australia, France, New Zealand and South Africa - won 15-7.
“It was a one off Test match in Cardiff,” Hastings explained of his Lions debut. “We should have gone to South Africa at that time but obviously it was right in the midst of apartheid and the tour was called off. And then, all of a sudden, we got to hear that a Lions team was going to be selected to play against the Rest of the World.
“That was exciting in its own right but obviously nothing like the experience of going on a Lions tour.”
Hastings, who had made his Scotland debut alongside brother Scott against France earlier that year, had only five caps to his name before making his Lions bow and found himself up against luminaries such as Serge Blanco, Michael Lynagh, John Kirwan, Wayne Smith, Nick Farr-Jones and Murray Mexted.
It was an intoxicating experience and he would go on to cement his status as a legendary Lion in Australia three years later as part of the only Lions squad to win a series after losing the opening Test match, an achievement which still leaves him slightly perplexed.
“Yes it’s strange in a way and I’m surprised at that but I suppose it just shows that it takes a hell of a lot out of you to win a Test match. And to back it up the following week is pretty tough as well.”
The Lions of 1989, coached by Ian McGeechan and captained by Finlay Calder, are revered now as rugby greats but, as Hastings explains, they were a callow bunch.
“There were only two players in that squad who had ever toured with the Lions before, to New Zealand in ’83, and that was Bob Norster and Donal Lenihan, both second rows. Can you imagine having only two previous tourists?” said Hastings, a Land Rover ambassador.
“So it was like a brand new start for all of us. None of us was really aware of what was happening and we just took to it like ducks to water and really embraced the concept of the Lions.
“We just loved it, got a bit of momentum and we kept winning all our games leading up to the first Test and then all of a sudden we were hit with this thunderbolt against the Australia team and we were absolutely mullered.
“That was a real wake-up call for us all and I suppose it was the way everyone reacted to that defeat that ultimately brought us back and allowed us to have some success.”
The Lions had won six games on the trot before that juddering 30-12 first Test defeat against the Wallabies in Sydney.
It was the heaviest loss the team had ever suffered at the hands of Australia but there was a steely determination about the tourists of ’89 whose achievement in turning around the Test series is often overlooked in the rush to acclaim other Lions vintages.
Hastings thinks the scheduling of the matches didn’t help.
“Looking back now, it was almost a tour that time forgot,” he said. “The games were all played in the middle of the night, it’s just the way it was.
“But I’ll always remember Fin Calder’s great quote. It was after the first Test, he was interviewed by Nigel Starmer-Smith who said to him, ‘What would you say to all the fans in the UK and Ireland who got up in the middle of the night to watch this game?’
“I think Nigel Starmer-Smith was wanting a bit of an apology but Fin immediately said: ‘What I would say to the fans is make sure you’re watching next week. Get up in the middle of the night and watch the Lions.’”
The nocturnal armchair fans were rewarded as the Lions roared back in Brisbane, defeating Australia 19-12 with a much-changed team to square the series.
Hastings’ try with less than five minutes remaining put them ahead for the first time and Jeremy Guscott sealed the win in a bruising encounter in Ballymore which left four Australians – Greg Martin, Steve Tuynman, Lynagh and Farr-Jones – needing 25 stitches between them.
Calder had been vindicated.
“What Fin meant was that ‘we know we have let ourselves down but we're going to sort it out and you do not want to miss the performance next week’. And he was right. We came storming back, won the second Test and then won the deciding Test a week after that.”
The 19-18 win in the third Test in the Sydney Football Stadium clinched the series and made the whole squad and coaching staff walk taller.
There were nine Scots in the ’89 squad – Hastings and Calder were joined by David Sole, Scott Hastings, Derek White, Craig Chalmers, Gary Armstrong, John Jeffrey and Peter Dods – and although some endured a mixed experience in terms of the Test team, Hastings is in no doubt the tour helped sow the seeds of Scotland’s Grand Slam the following year.
“There is no question that having Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy there helped in getting the number of Scots up,” said Hastings of the Scotland duo on the Lions coaching team.
“More often than not Scots have done very very well on Lions tours and I would certainly expect these guys to do very well on this particular tour. I mean they’ve had a good Six Nations and they won two games away from home and that’s a pretty good recipe for going on tour where you’re playing away, you’re outside your comfort zone and you don’t have any support.
“The guys have shown they're capable of doing it and have been rewarded with their selection.
“Now they need to suck it all up and take it all in. For me it was such an experience - it’s probably the equivalent of going to an Olympic Games for the first time. You have to relish the experience and relish the players you are training and playing with and just savour every moment and embrace it.
“Soak it up like a sponge and come back and be ready to impart your knowledge and wisdom on your team-mates because that’s how Scotland managed to win their Grand Slams in ’84 and ’90. It was on the back of Lions tours when Scots went over there and realised the other players were no better than them and that they were every bit as talented, every bit as fit, every bit as committed and every bit as determined as the players from the other nations.”
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