THE loss of WP Nel to a neck injury this season has allowed Zander Fagerson to prove that youth does not need to to be a limiting factor when it comes to playing tight-head prop at the highest level. But it has also brought in to sharp focus just how shallow the pool is in Scotland when it comes to producing big men capable of providing the platform upon which the nimble footed entertainers behind the scrum can perform.
With Moray Low struggling for game time at Exeter, and Jon Welsh out of favour with Vern Cotter despite being a regular starter at Newcastle Falcons, the national team have been relying on Simon Berghan (who has hardly set the heather when managing only three starts and 21 appearances off the bench for Edinburgh during his three and a half years since arriving in Scotland from New Zealand) as back-up to Fagerson.
The good news is that there are a few youngsters threatening to become genuine challengers for the dark blue number three jersey in the not too distant future. It would be pushing it to say that there is a conveyer belt in operation when it comes to producing players capable of anchoring the Scottish scrum, but a couple of Dunfermline boys are showing real potential.
Murray McCallum signed his first full-time professional contract with Edinburgh last week. The 20-year-old came to prominence as a loose-head, but that was more to do with accommodating him in the same age-grade teams as Fagerson than anything else, and the consensus is that tight-head is his natural calling.
Meanwhile, Adam Nicol plays his club rugby at Stirling County and has been a mainstay of the Scotland Under-20 team during this Six Nations campaign. He may have chosen a less trodden route to the top, but the 19-year-old has his sights firmly set on adding to his solitary appearance so far for Glasgow Warriors against the Ospreys three months ago.
“It was during the Autumn Tests and Zander was away with Scotland and Sila Puafisi away with Tonga so I was invited along to train with the team and got called back the next week as 24th man travelling with the squad to play the Scarlets. Then the week after that I was on the bench against the Ospreys and got about half an hour at the end. I came on as a head injury replacement for Darcy Rae and won a penalty with my first scrum, so that was a huge confidence boost for me – its probably the best start you can get as a prop,” he recalls.
“I train with the Warriors quite a bit. It’s a big step up but really good because it shows what the pro environment is like. It is an opportunity to learn from more experienced people – I’ve been scrummaging with the likes of Corey Flynn, who is an All Black World Cup winner, and he’s given me little things I can improve on. The really pleasing thing was that I don’t really feel that I was too far out my depth. I know I have a lot to learn and a lot to improve on, but it is something I can really do.”
Nicol is the only home based forward to have played for the under-20s this year who is not a member of the BT Sport Scottish Rugby Academy. He was a part of the programme for a brief time during the summer of 2015 before quickly deciding that it wasn’t for him – but don’t dare suggest that this reflects any sort of lack of rugby ambition.
“In the summer before I went to Glasgow University I got offered a stage two deal and I did it for two or three weeks, but I just realised that all I was going to be doing was studying and training and I was going to miss out on a lot of stuff that being an 18-year-old student is about. I just wanted to embrace university life and not be constantly saying I can’t do this and I can’t do that because I’ve got the gym to go to or I’ve got to be up at 6am to go train the next day,” he explains.
“Now I can go into my lectures until 11am, go to the gym after that, have my lunch and then go to a lab. I’m more flexible when I do it on my own – I can fit it around my own schedule.”
“I’m quite a motivated and hard-working person and this way I can still train hard on my own terms as well as live a student life and see what university is all about. I suppose it was a bold move to make, but I discussed it with my coaches and my family, who were all very supportive – they said that if it is what I want to do then they’d help me find a way of making it work.”
“I train Tuesday and Thursday at Stirling County and I’m in the gym Monday, Wednesday and Friday doing my own strength and conditioning stuff, plus play Saturday; so I’m still training pretty much full-time. I go to the university gym, which has just been renovated and is a fantastic facility.”
“The university have been really great. Last year I had an essay due right in the middle of the Six Nations and I got a bit longer, and I’ve been able to move the dates of lab tests. I was awarded a full blue this year and a memorial trophy for the most outstanding first year, so its really good that they recognise the hard work I’ve put in.”
Nicol is adamant that his rugby development has not been adversely affected by choosing this route.
“If you look at my performances in the BT Premiership, for a 19-year-old I think I am doing fairly well. And university-wise I have really enjoyed the last couple of years – which I’m sure helps my rugby. If you are happy in life than you are going to play better,” he points out.
He linked up with Glasgow Hawks at the start of last season, but an issue with his blood pressure identified during that short period in the academy meant that Nicol’s senior rugby career got off to a slower start than he would have liked.
“I wasn’t allowed to train for a couple of months until they figured out what it was, but its fine now. It was just a bit of a nuisance because it was through pre-season which meant I was always playing catch-up at Hawks, which isn’t easy when you are competing for a place against an experienced guy like Gary Strain,” he reflects.
“I ended up playing for the 2nd XV for pretty much the whole season, but I was also playing for Glasgow University to get some more game time, and I scrummaged pretty well when we came up against Edinburgh University which must have caught [Edinburgh University and Stirling County head coach] David Adamson’s eye. He phoned me after that and said that if I went to Stirling they could guarantee me 1st XV rugby. I just wanted to play as much as I could at as high a level as possible, so I said yes and it has worked out really well. I like it there. They’re a great bunch of boys,” he adds.
This move conveniently reunited Nicol with Eddie Pollock, his old Scotland under-18 coach, who also takes charge of the forwards at Bridgehaugh.
“Last year was a big wake-up call in terms of how much bigger and stronger everyone is, so I worked hard over this pre-season on my size, and also with Eddie on the technical side – he’s a great scrummaging coach. I feel I’ve really improved that part of my game,” he says.
Nicol’s strength and conditioning programme is provided by Ian Mitchell, his old coach back in Dunfermline, while the SRU are on hand to provide any subsidiary support such as physio he may require.
He is, of course, in good company when it comes to cerebral Scottish tighthead props. Euan Murray is a qualified vet, Geoff Cross’s is a doctor and Ed Kalman is a physicist. Nicol’s sphere of interest is geology, a passion which has its roots in his formative years living on the North Atlantic island of Bermuda.
“My dad is a chartered accountant and he took a job there. I think he fancied a change for a year or two – it ended up being eleven. I was born in Scotland, moved there when I was about six months old and came back before starting secondary school. It is basically a volcano which I found really amazing, and that was what really spurred me on. I just enjoy learning about formations, and how the world works, and stuff like that,” he says.
“Being a professional rugby player is what I have always wanted to do, but this gives me something to fall back on because you are only one injury away from never playing again. If a pro contract did come about before I finish my degree then I would look into part-time studying and that sort of stuff. I wouldn’t just drop it,” he adds.
He was a bit-part player for the under-20s last season, but has been an ever-present in the heart of the Scottish pack so far this year; and while the team are zero from three in the Six Nations, their set-piece has more than stacked up in each match.
“A lot of teams milked us for penalties in the scrum during last years Six Nations so it was probably one of the weaker parts of our game, but this year we are really determined to front up and take that away from the opposition. In the first game against Ireland we got six penalties off the scrum, which is a pretty good stat,” he says.
The young Scots face their biggest test yet when they take on unbeaten England at Franklin Gardens in Northampton on Saturday night, with the set-piece bound to be a key battleground.
“It’s frustrating because Ireland was a game we should have won; France we played really well for sixty minutes then let them run in a couple of tries in the last 20 minutes; and against Wales we never really got off the bus – so we’re looking forward to this one and the chance to put things right,” says Nicol.
“We feel we have a big point to prove after what happened against Wales – we are not going to let the same thing happen again. We’ll show them what we can do. Scotland versus England was always the game you wanted to play in when you are coming through as a kid, so there will be a big buzz about it.”
He spends a lot of his time studying mountains. On Saturday he is going to have to shift a few.
Images: Craig Watson – www.craigwatson.co.uk