The legendary former Lions captain Gavin Hastings on the pros and cons of sports culture, coping with family illness and contributing to Cambodia’s game.
He’s the archetypal bonny Scotsman. Affable, knockabout nature and quick to laugh. His build looks made for the rugby pitch: toweringly tall, broad shoulders, chiselled jaw. But last week, his elbows resting on the peeling walls of one of Phnom Penh’s most iconic structures, the White Building, former rugby player Gavin Hastings seemed ruffled. He couldn’t take his eyes off a wiry teenager perched precariously on a beam, three levels from the ground, casually nailing a slab of tin to a roof.
“Jeez, life wouldn’t be easy here would it?” he murmured.
It was a lazy Saturday morning at the former social housing site – fish strewn over rattan baskets to dry and Cambodian power ballads wafting through the air. It was a morning of contrasts for Hastings: from a five star buffet breakfast to a cacophony of squeals and songs on the rugby field, via a passing protest outside the Council of Ministers and then the White Building.
Here on a whirlwind tour to promote Cambodia’s nascent rugby body, The Cambodian Federation of Rugby, at its annual gala at Raffles Le Royal, the 51-year-old was wide-eyed, taking it all in.
The legendary Lions fullback and former Scottish rugby captain had only arrived in Phnom Penh the previous evening and had been “out with the lads” until the wee hours, he conceded, but the next morning he was up before 9am for a succession of rugby clinics for over 700 disadvantaged children from former Hollywood producer Scott Neeson’s Steung Meanchey Cambodian Children’s Fund, Krousar Thmey School for the Deaf and French NGO Pour un Sourire d’Enfant.
Hastings’ sporting career has taken him around the globe – Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan and all around Europe – but last week’s visit marked his first time to a developing country. His first impressions of the heady, peak hour Russian Boulevard overwhelmed him, he said earlier that morning, in the car on the way to the rugby pitch. “I just started laughing, when we turned out of the airport and into the oncoming traffic…I just thought this is nuts! Just chaotic.”
Another former British Lion, the celebrated late Independent and Observer rugby hack Clem Thomas once hailed Hastings the “delightful Scot”, equally as respected off the field as on, “the epitome of the rugby man; brave, resolute, adventurous and one who loves a party.” Whatever the stereotype of the rugby union player is, and whether Hastings conforms to it or not, the man’s sensitive nature is apparent - whether talking about his wife Diane’s struggle with Parkinson’s disease, the disadvantaged groups he works with or simply through his affection for kids.
Hastings’ height and sturdy stature were always going to lend him to the sport, but his love for rugby union was amplified, he said, when in the early 1980s he captained George Watson’s College (a day school in Edinburgh, where he was born) in their first win against an English team. His career took off from there and he soon captained the Scottish national side and the British and Irish Lions (the popular touring test side), winning 61 caps for Scotland – a record for any Scottish player. He’s the country’s leading points scorer and set the record for most points scored in a test series in the Lions’ 1993 Australia tour.
Hastings retired from international rugby in 1995 and has done anything but slow down. Now a HSBC ambassador for the sport, he travels relentlessly, speaking at galas, lunches, colloquiums, away for six week blocks at a time, as he is now, en route to the June and July Lions tour in Australia (“a big deal”, he says – the 2001 Lions tour there injected over $100 million into the economy while Australia’s Ticketek sold out of tickets to the events within minutes).
Hastings maintained his rugby affiliation in a slew of media commentating gigs and through launching a sports marketing business.
But it was the diagnosis, in 2003, of Diane’s degenerative brain disorder that prompted him to reassess his life and values.
A year shy of 40, in 2003 Diane was ensconced in the routine of motherhood, ferrying Adam, seven at the time and Holly, five, to and from school, making lunches, helping with homework. Yet feelings of defeat and depression nagged her, and when her right hand began to tremor, she sought medical attention. Parkinson’s was diagnosed straight away – Hastings found out over the phone, in Australia for the Rugby World Cup.
“Her illness really helped me to understand other people’s challenges as well…I am not, however you may determine what a typical rugby guy is…I’m not that. I played rugby a long time ago - hopefully I am able to offer something back and I have a desire to do so…I hope I don’t sound too sycophantic.”
“Diane is a very strong and determined person. At that time she just wanted to be a great mum to her kids and she has achieved that, and then some, you know. Hopefully when I am at home, I am a comforting factor in her life…one that she finds supportive and helpful. I love my wife to bits and we have a wonderful relationship.”
Did he feel guilty he wasn’t there when she was diagnosed?
“Yeah, look, of course…ultimately though I’m required to do this travel…it’s how I earn my living, speaking, but being an ambassador allows me to have a lifestyle where I’m home for a chunk of time and then away from my wife and kids for a chunk of time. I’m really looking forward to being with them this summer.”
At the moment of Diane’s diagnosis, Hastings said, his life was split into the “then and now”. While he was involved with charities before Cambodia – he had raised money for disadvantaged children through Scottish rugby charity Wooden Spoon and The Sandpiper Trust, which equips doctors and nurses in remote areas of Scotland with emergency medical equipment – his charity work intensified along with his wife’s illness.
“I’ll be honest; I hadn’t paid Parkinson’s any attention until Diane was diagnosed. It’s like anything, if you’re affected by something. I think most people get involved in charities because of personal connections. All of the groups I work with I have a link to, somehow.”
He now works with the UK Parkinson’s Foundation, Australia’s Shake it Up group, has spoken at the World Parkinson’s Congress and in January last year ascended the soaring Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise money for Parkinson’s research and to mark the 70th birthday of Parkinson’s sufferer and former boxer Muhammad Ali - “a wonderful moment in my life.”
And now his latest cause, talking tackles and manoeuvring flankers with underprivileged Cambodian children.
“At end of day it’s about raising money for these kids to play rugby…and if this gets them a better quality of life, even if I’m here for a few days and making a tiny contribution.”
With a heaving expatriate community hailing from the British Isles and the Antipodes, it’s not surprising local rugby has gleaned a niche following here in Cambodia, but the federation’s secretary general James Sterling said 90 per cent of the 15-strong national side is made up of Cambodians who have an “absolute passion for the game.”
“Rugby isn’t a massive sport in Asia…apart from colonial places like Hong Kong, Malaysia…and in Japan, who play the big boys, it’s been huge since before the second World War … but it is coming up rapidly in places like Cambodia and Laos,” he said.
Development officer and coach Dan Wetherall was similarly sanguine.
He had just returned from a meeting with the National Olympic Committee to discuss the options of having an office in the same building and the prospect of a Rugby Sevens Olympics side (a team of seven will be selected from the current national team of 15 players).
“It’s starting to make a real footprint… the Olympics is a genuine pathway. The [Cambodian] body type is much more suited to [Rugby] Sevens…it’s a fast game. Cambodia has traditionally struggled in the 15s because the big guys can grind them down. We’re competitive, but body size matters, that’s why we have some expat players, just to compete. That’ll all change with the Sevens team. Cambodians are strong, they’re all quite wiry and built.
“We started off with 30 kids from CCF and now I have 167 coming along every Saturday morning, that’s the positive affirmation for me. We started last September so that’s under a year.”
A group of five girls gather around Hastings before leaving the 3G pitch. “I’ve played for one year now,” grinned 14-year-old Srey Neang. “I feel powerful! I want to play rugby when I’m older professionally.”
The federation also partner with Paz y Desarrollo (PYD), a gender equality NGO.
“We’re really pushing that line, it’s important to us, to break gender stereotypes. It’s a real platform for girls to foster self esteem and empowerment. More and more girls continue to come week after week and love it- to be honest it’s more a fluke than anything else…but this lot here today will hopefully be playing in our under 16s and 18s next year.”
“The bulk of our players come from poor socio-economic backgrounds, coming from NGOs and charities, which makes us a very unique federation, where as traditionally rugby union has developed as a very middle-class, private school sport. So we may in fact be changing the shape of rugby union in Southeast Asia,” Sterling added.
Hastings was impressed.
“You know, rugby and football, they’re tied into a masculine culture but it doesn’t have to be that way. Look at all of the girls out here today. That female coach, [the 24-year-old Peou Sophoan, who, through PSE completed a refereeing course with the federation and is Cambodia’s first female umpire, travelling with the national side to Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam and completing courses in Australia] I was so impressed…what an achievement. I absolutely love that. She has passion, it’s fantastic.”
Reflecting later, he said the team demonstrated “such natural skill”.
“I think there are some important life skills that rugby, more so than other sports, can bring – really working as a team, if we do this together we can score, following desires, discipline, dedication.”
However the life of the professional rugby player has changed since Hastings’ started his sporting career, something the 55-year-old regrets.
“It was very different then, we all had full time jobs, we weren’t paid for playing. Trained in our spare time. And then we had these wonderful opportunities to travel. The dedication now is much more intense. There’s no comparison. But I think of the skills I now have - I’ve chatted to people from all walks of life, drank with local fans…I don’t think the players now get to experience what we did, they’re off to Australia flanked by five security guards…they’re sheltered.”
He said he finds it hard to navigate the murky off-the-field world of elite athletes in today’s culture and the increasing number of rugby and football players bound up in sex and drug scandals.
“Look I’m not saying we were saints but there’s a different culture now.”
Hastings drew a distinguishing line between football and rugby, particularly in the UK.
“I’m disappointed that rugby will never be as big as football in England, in Scotland. I think about that juxtaposition of the Olympics last year in London, what a huge success – Olympians and Paralympians training for their whole lives in pursuit of representing their country, basically doing it for nothing. And then the football season starts soon after and these pretentious footballers come along, prima donnas that get paid millions and millions of pounds every year and behave badly, without respect.
“I am not interested in them, I have nothing in common with them. I haven’t received a penny from playing rugby, but what it gave me was confidence, communication skills, being mindful, how to get along with people.”
He genuinely believes rugby can “change lives”, and enthused about the news that Rugby Sevens (seven players rather than 15 and shorter, speedier games) had officially been recognised as an Olympic sport and will make its debut in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“Rugby has the potential to grow at a huge rate. Wonderful values – history, tradition, integrity, respect. Now there will be the ability for people all around the world to play it at Olympic level.
“I think rugby (sevens) could become massive here – it’s huge in Japan, Korea, Thailand. Size doesn’t matter, it’s about speed and pace and having a bit of heart.”
“I saw all of that in the kids today, a natural instinct, ability that I haven’t seen in a group of kids before. And a real joy, a real happiness, in the face of adversity too.”
Hastings will return to Cambodia – he has only scratched the surface of the country, he said.
“The people are so inviting, they’ve astounded me. I really want to bring my family back, that’s when travel feels really special. And, you know, I’m conscious that if I don’t do this in the next four or five years, given Diane’s situation, well I don’t quite know if it will be possible after that. So I’ll be back soon.”
The statement seems telling of his honest practicality. Hastings isn’t shy and speaks his mind.
A drive past Phnom Penh’s monolithic Nagaworld casino elicited a “that’s revolting” remark, while he was eager to learn more about the protest and Cambodia’s political landscape, as well as the approaching elections. There’s something raw in Hasting’s language and he seemed to take a genuine interest in the world around him.
As we he left the White Building, Hastings mused that he’d like to return to the community. “The people here are happy and smiling, to my mind I love that. I’m pleased I have seen that side of humanity. I’m not appalled by that building, I’m glad I have seen it, and I would like to try and help, if I can sense an opportunity…to even make a tiny difference in their lives.”
* On July 7 the Cambodian national team will play against Brunei at the Old Stadium in Russei Keo, north of Tuol Kork. In the morning they hope to have up to 1000 children take part in free rugby clinics. Information: firstname.lastname@example.org