IT was a case of third time unlucky for Andy McLean this week when the Glasgow Hawks full-back was edged out of The Offside Line’s Premiership Dream Team by GHA’s Chris Hyde, despite another excellent man-of-the-match showing which helped the Balgray men secure an impressive 38-25 home win over reigning champions Marr.
“Two of the boys I train with in the academy – Aminio Bogidrau and Amena Caqusau – played in that GHA game and said he was really good, so it’s fair enough,” the overlooked man sportingly concedes.
McLean was selected for this website’s notional select XV for the two previous rounds of matches, having produced performances for Hawks against Selkirk and Jed-Forest which belied both his age (he turned 18 last month) and his lack of experience in the No 15 jersey.
“The very first time I played anywhere other than stand-off was for Scotland Under-18s at the Six Nations tournament in Marcoussis [France] during the summer, when our full-back got injured during the game against France so I got shifted to 15 for the last 20 minutes,” he reveals.
“Then Hawks picked me there against Selkirk so that was my first ever Premiership game and the first time ever I had been picked to start in a position other than stand-off, and I suppose it has been alright so far,” he adds with admirable understatement.
The Aberdonian is one of a band of promising youngsters from last summer’s under-18 cohort now making their name at either Premiership or Super6 level, alongside the likes of hooker Jerry Blyth-Lafferty and back-row Liam McConnell at Boroughmuir Bears, back-row Monroe Job at Selkirk, hooker Elliot Young and flanker Sam Wallace at Heriot’s, second-row Euan McVie at Edinburgh Accies, scrum-half Hector Patterson at Hawick, winger Caqusau at GHA and winger Logan Jarvie at Stirling Wolves.
McLean’s Hawks team-mate Eric Davey, a scrum-half, also fits into this promising 18-year-old category although he missed the summer tournament through injury.
Their achievements thus far are all the more impressive because they are ‘Covid kids’ who missed a major chunk of development time – between the ages of about 15 and 17 – due to the sport being closed down during the pandemic.
The immediate target for these guys is to make the Scotland Under-20s programme this year, and with that in mind McLean says he is fairly relaxed about whether he has a No 10 or a No 15 on the back of his jersey so long as he continues to get regular game-time.
“Matty Stewart is back this week for us. He’s a firefighter who has been on duty the last two weeks, and he’s a really good player at full-back, so we’ll see what happens,” he says.
“I’ve always been told I could play full-back, that I’ve got a good skillset for it, but I wasn’t sure whether physically I was suited to it. I’m not the biggest, and I’m not slow but I’m not absolutely rapid either. Obviously, I’d never played in the Premiership before, so I wasn’t sure what the level was going to be like, but I seem to be doing fine physically.”
Marr hooker Curran McMillan will certainly attest to McLean’s physicality, after being bumped onto his backside as the Hawks man ran the ball back from deep last Saturday.
“I’m not the biggest but I like to be aggressive,” he shrugs. “I’ve always been really small, so I’ve always had a point to prove about being able to mix it with the big boys.”
McLean’s father, Alan, is a stalwart of Gordonians, initially as a player and more recently as the driving force behind setting up and running the club’s junior section. But there was no minis section at Countesswells when his offspring first started playing so McLean junior was introduced to organised rugby at arch-rivals Aberdeen Grammar aged five, then combined that with playing school rugby for Robert Gordon’s College from primary four onwards.
“I carried on playing for both all the way up to getting put forward to the Caley under-16s stuff, and that led on to Glasgow Warriors under-16s, then Scotland Blues under-16s, but just before we headed down to Wales for the Colwyn Bay festival everything got shutdown because of Covid,” he recalls. “Two days earlier we’d got the email telling us about all the kit we were going to get, and we didn’t get any which was really disappointing … almost worse than not playing!”
His under-17s year was a write-off due to the pandemic and McLean was relieved that the rugby he managed at under-16 level had been enough to earn access to Scottish Rugby’s academy programme.
“It’s things like physio and S&C support, and we got a lot of zoom calls during Covid to keep us motivated,” he says.
Last season, during his final year at school, McLean passed the mandatory fitness test for under-18s to play at senior level in November so managed to play three games for Gordonians in National Two, but then suffered a hamstring strain which wouldn’t clear, meaning he travelled to France for the under-18s festival in the summer having managed just one and a half training games with the national age-grade side.
“I did okay,” he replies, when asked how he performed for the under-18s. “But we could have done a bit better. We beat Italy, we were competitive with France, and we lost to England by three points, which is a game we should have won, so that was disappointing. But it was great to be involved.”
Later in the summer he was nominated by John Fletcher, Scottish Rugby’s Head of Pathways, to take part in the ‘Achieve’ programme, which offered 66 up and coming athletes the chance to travel to the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham to experience the environment and be mentored by a host of sports industry experts.
“I got to watch lots of different sports, not just rugby 7s, and do workshops on things like handling pressure, dealing with the media and stuff like that,” he explains. “It was quite general because there was lots of different sports there and a great experience.”
Coming from Aberdeen, McLean wasn’t really on the radar of clubs in the central belt when he headed south to begin studying business at Strathclyde University, which is perhaps why he wasn’t picked up by Super6.
“I spoke to Glasgow Hawks and GHA, and I knew that Andrew Goudie was going to be the 10 at GHA, which was the position I was planning to play at that point, so I just thought there was a better chance of getting game-time at Hawks, which is what I needed because I’ve not played consistently for a couple of years,” he says. “I’ve only played three games so far but I’m definitely feeling the benefit.”
Of course, it helps when you are playing in a team which is performing well and winning, which is where Hawks now are after a patchy start to the season.
“We beat Heriot’s fairly convincingly at the start of the season, lost against Selkirk, then beat Jed by a couple of points, but we weren’t very happy with how we played in any of those games,” he reflects. “We had managed to perform well for the first half in both the games we won, but then fell off it in the second half, so it was about getting an 80-minute performance against Marr.
“I think we got 70 minutes but took our foot off the gas when we let them score three tries in the last 10 minutes. Fortunately, we had built up a good enough lead that it didn’t cost us, but it means we know that there is still room for improvement.
“Hopefully that performance and result kick-starts our season,” he adds. “But we’ve got Musselburgh this week, and we’re not taking that lightly because we’ve not beaten them at Stoneyhill since they got promoted.
“They haven’t won in the league yet this season but they started with two really tough games against Marr and Currie Chieftains and really made those teams work for it, and they were really close to beating Jed last weekend.
“So, we know we’ll need to play well and we need to get a result to keep building momentum going into a really tough run of games against Currie and Edinburgh Accies at Balgray followed by Hawick at Mansfield Park. The next month could define our season.”
You can bet that Scotland Under-20s head coach Kenny Murray will be paying close attention.