WHEN a player has been out of the limelight for a while, it can be all too easy for us to unjustly ignore his progress. When the player in question has reached a certain age, we might even presume he has swapped the limelight for the twilight of his career.
At 36, Scott Lawson is certainly closer to the end than the start of his playing days. But ask the hooker if he is taking it easy now, or suggest that he is only in the Scotland squad to make up the numbers, and you will receive a polite if unequivocal rebuke.
The last of Lawson’s 46 caps to date was back in 2014, but he has hardly been inactive since then. Not only has he been part of a steadily improving Newcastle Falcons side, he is confident that his own game has been getting gradually better too.
In part, that improvement is a natural product of maturity and experience, and is the norm for front-row players as they move into their middle 30s. In Lawson’s case, however, it is also a very conscious process: he has combined coaching with playing for several seasons, and that, he believes, enables him to have a more beneficial impact on his team-mates than would have been possible if he had merely stuck to playing.
He has worked with the Scotland Under-20s for the past couple of years and is also head coach of Tynedale, the Northumbrian club who are currently in the fourth tier of the English game. Such activities might well take up more of his time in the years to come, but he is certainly in no rush to give up playing, and on the evidence of a press conference at Oriam on Monday he is as enthusiastic today about his involvement with the national set-up as he was 13 years ago when he won his first cap against Romania.
“The biggest thing for me is that I still enjoy it,” he explained. “You see some guys at 30 and they’re mentally done. They don’t enjoy the strains of it, the pressures, the regime.
“It’s not a bad job, it’s the best job in the world, but there are pressures and some people are built to do it and some aren’t. Whether it comes from injury or mental strength to keep doing the same thing over and over again, and strive to improve and always try to get better . . . I thrive on that.
“There will come a time – it is a professional game – when you don’t have a professional contract and will not be able to train,” Lawson continued after being asked if he foresaw a point when he would retire. “That will either be my decision or the coaches’ decision. Whatever club you’re at, your family will play a part in that.
“At this time I still feel I can play. It has not even entered my head at the moment. As far as my official international retirement goes, it’s something that would never happen. I play for Newcastle every week and aspire to be an international rugby player. I have looked after my performance at Newcastle, kept my standards high, looked after my fitness, my diet, and thrived, still competitive on a weekly basis. You get your rewards from working hard and being a good professional.”
Lawson may owe his place in the squad to the injuries that have ruled out Ross Ford and Fraser Brown. If he is in the matchday 23 to face Wales a week on Saturday, that may be because George Turner, too, is now sidelined. But other hookers were available to head coach Gregor Townsend, so the Newcastle man rightly insists that his selection is not merely by default.
“I’m here because I’ve played well for Newcastle the last however many games. I went to Newcastle and have been there four and a half years. I was fortunate to play against Gloucester [one of his former clubs] and it was my 100th game for Newcastle in just over four years. You’re talking 20 to 25 games for four years in the Premiership.
“I like to think I’ve matured. I’ve got better and more experienced. But I’m still the same player: the same energetic, enthusiastic player that I’ve always been. The best part of 10, 13 years of Test-match rugby experience to call upon in pressure situations. Hopefully you can do your best with what’s required.
“When you first come in, people say that as a front-row you’ll not be good until you’re in your 30s and you don’t really believe them. But the ability to problem-solve, to fix things from scrum to scrum, has definitely been one of my main improvements over the last four or five years – and even in the last 18 months to two years at Newcastle where we’ve had a really good set piece and scrum. So when I look back to my younger playing days I think it’s been my scrummaging, my lineout has been the perceived weakness of my game when I was younger, as it is with all young hookers: and now it’s the thing I’d pride myself on the most.”
Perhaps seeing himself improve like that is one of the reasons Lawson is so enthusiastic about keeping on playing, but the longer-term explanation may simply be the professional attitude he brings to his work. Whatever profession we work in, many of us tend to think it is natural to get a wee bit lazier as we age, to put less pressure on ourselves to perform and insist that we deserve to take it easy. But funnily enough, those who achieve most in life are those who fall prey to that attitude the least, and Lawson for one certainly feels it no harder to get out of bed and go to work now than he did when first playing for Glasgow 16 years ago.
“You become more professional; you learn how to look after your body,” he explained. “I genuinely don’t find it any harder. At Newcastle we had a real shift in our conditioning, our approach to the game, and I’m feeling as good as I ever have done. Take all that knowledge you’ve got, allied to feeling good physically, [and] I’m really looking forward to the challenge that an intense Six Nations Championship brings.”