DARCY GRAHAM isn’t the kind of character who really needs extra motivation before taking to the rugby field. His natural energy levels, his bravery, his hunger for the try-line and his all-round competitiveness, collectively guarantee that you will never get anything less than 110 percent from the Hawick man.
However, after a knee injury suffered in training ended up ruling him out of the first four rounds of this year’s Six Nations, before the Covid crisis brought the season to a standstill, the 23-year-old insists that he is ready to produce an even more high-octane brand of rugby than we were previously blown away by.
“Obviously I got a lot longer than I expected to come back to full fitness so, selfishly, lockdown came at a good time for me,” he reflects. “It’s feeling great now. I’m flying in training and I was probably ready to play two weeks ago.
“I’m raring to go. My last game was for Edinburgh against Agen at home in January, so it’s been a few months and I’m very excited to get back.”
It is Glasgow Warriors who are going to have to contain his electrifying talents next Saturday afternoon, when rugby finally returns from the five-month hiatus caused by the pandemic.
The match, which is being played behind closed doors at Murrrayfield, is the first leg of an 1872 Cup double-header which will bring the curtain down on an abbreviated Guinness PRO14 regular season. Edinburgh are currently two points clear at the top of Conference B and need one league point from these two outings to book a place in the play-offs, while they will probably need two wins to secure a home tie (and avoid having to take on the might of Leinster in Dublin).
Meanwhile, Warriors are only really playing for pride, but that can be a huge driver. They will be determined to make a point in their first game under a new head coach Danny Wilson, at the end of a season which has not really lived up to expectations.
For his part, Graham – who has scored 15 tries in 30 games for Edinburgh so far in his career, and five tries in 11 games played for Scotland – is expecting a ferocious contest, but he hopes that his team will be able to produce in a similar style as they managed in his last outing against Agen back on 18th January, when he scored four tries in a convincing 36-0 victory which booked a place in the knock-out stages of the European Challenge Cup (they are due to play their quarter-final away to Bordeaux-Begles on 19thSeptember).
“That was definitely the best team attacking performance we’ve seen from us this season,” he said. “We’re playing a lot more expansive rugby now and we’ve got the players to do it.
“In the first few years after Cockers [head coach Ricard Cockerill] came in, him and Kitty [defence coach Calum MacCrae] really hammered into us about defence and now we’re building on that. We’re getting better and better, and we’re now not just looking to exit and kick the ball, we’re looking to play from anywhere. It’s really enjoyable.
“I’m getting more of the ball which is exactly what I want. I want to get my hands on the ball and get running, so it’s definitely suiting my style of play.”
Ready and raring to go
While there is bound to be a bit of match rustiness, Graham reckons the preparation has been as close to perfect as it is possible to be in the circumstances.
“We’ve had an eight-week pre-season,” he explained. “The first four weeks was just wee bubbles, four of us running on the pitch all spread out. Then the last four weeks we’ve been into team stuff.
“It’s been getting us back in the mode and now we’ve got a game. We’ve been cramming so much into the last four weeks, it’s been pretty intense and tough on the body but it’s about getting us ready for the knocks and bumps that are coming.
“We’ve been doing contact pretty much every day. That’s been bone on bone, or on the bags, just trying to harden us up and get us ready for what’s coming on Saturday.
“Every time we’ve had a performance session, it’s chucked down with rain so there have been a few slip-ups. But from where we were this time last year, we’re looking a lot sharper and a lot better. Everyone is still remembering stuff so we’re not back to square one or anything.
“Boys are looking sharp, they’re looking fit and the S&C team have been hammering us there.
“I was ready to explode back into it and chuck my body back into things. Nothing is going to change for me; I’m going to go out and try to perform as well as I can for the team.”
Once Edinburgh get through these two 1872 Cup games, they will be hoping to have two play-off matches as they eye the PRO14 title, and then it will be straight into European action for what they will hope will be a three-match charge to the summit of that competition as well – and if they do reach the Challenge Cup Final on 16th October, the expectation is that they will have already started the 2020-21 PRO14 season during the two spare weeks since their Challenge Cup semi-final.
As if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, the internationalists in the squad can also look forward to a six match (in seven weeks) Autumn Test window which will kick off against Georgia on 24th October.
“It’s literally one game at a time,” insisted Graham. “We’re focussing everything on Glasgow. We’re not into the semi-finals yet: we need to perform and turn up on the day. Glasgow are a really good team. They’re solid, strong and they’ve got great attacking threats. We need to be defensively sorted and be ready for them.
“There’s always a point to prove with the Edinburgh v Glasgow game. There’s always that history behind it and it’s going to be a great match.
“We’ve never been in this position before, but it would be huge for the city to get a home semi-final. Boys have not played for that long that everyone is raring to go.
“There’s a lot of games coming up, 27 games in 28 weeks or something. It’s going to be a huge season, pretty much straight through for 11 months. It’s exciting, and it’s about looking after yourself, looking after the body.”
It is a daunting schedule but you suspect Graham would be perfectly happy playing every minute of every game if he was allowed. “When you get a break, you definitely do fall back in love with the game,” he concluded.
A lions call?
There is an awful long way to go, but in the distant horizon there is the prospect of a Lions call for next summer’s trip to South Africa.
“It is in the back of the mind for everybody, whoever plays rugby wants to play for the Lions so it is there, but it is not my number one focus,” he says.
“My number one focus is getting back playing with Edinburgh and then trying to push myself back into the Scotland team – if the Lions call comes it comes, if not I am not going to get too bummed about it. I just want to keep pushing back into that Scotland team, I haven’t played a game of rugby in a long time and it is just about getting back into it and pushing from there.”