IT is not every day that a teenage rugby prospect is in a squad with two players who have 99 Test caps between them, but for Scotland age-grade cap Archie Smeaton that will be the case on Thursday.
Back-row Smeaton, 18, has been named on the bench for Cambridge University as they prepare to take on old rivals Oxford University in the famous Varsity Match at Twickenham.
This will be the 138th playing of the men’s fixture dating back to 1872 and, after former Scotland Under-20 cap Fraser Gillies played alongside Wales and British & Irish Lions centre Jamie Roberts in 2015, it is now time for Smeaton to play with some big names.
He will look to come on and make an impact in the fixture which Oxford won 12 months ago and when he does enter the fray he will likely have second-rows James Horwill and Flip van der Merwe for company. The two 34-year-olds are enrolled in the EMBA business course at Cambridge this year, but are much better known for having 62 and 37 Test appearances under their belts for Australia and South Africa respectively.
Horwill skippered his country regularly and also played in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, while they both have plenty of Super Rugby and top level experience in the locker.
“They have been brilliant,” said Smeaton, who played forScotland Under-18 in 2018 and is hoping to be in the Under-20s mix this term. “When they first came into training I guess we were a bit in awe of them because of what they have achieved in the game and because they are huge human beings, but they are both so humble and down to earth that the squad took to them straight away.
“They are always so good at offering advice to the younger players and as a pack of forwards we just love training and playing with them. At line-out and scrum time we have just learnt so much from them and the tips they have been passing on in the lead-up to this match have been invaluable.
“They are just friends to us now rather than big stars and we are all in it together as we look to put in a big performance. Playing at Twickenham will be amazing, too. I think James and Flip will be really good in the hours leading up to the game to keep us calm and focused.
“We have been building up to this game since the summer and to think that I will be playing in such a famous stadium alongside such big names is quite surreal, but an opportunity I want to grasp with both hands.”
Becoming an exile
Smeaton grew up in Beverley near Hull in England and played during his early days at Hull Ionians. In senior school he played at Hymers College and that led to him being involved with Yorkshire Carnegie and the Scottish Exiles programme.
“My grandad is Scottish so I knew about that connection and I enjoyed getting involved with Exiles sessions,” the student, who is now in his first year studying natural sciences, explained.
“From there I went on to play for Scotland Under-16s in Wales and that was a good experience. A lot of the guys already knew each other from school and such like, but they all made me feel welcome.
“I was then picked to play for Scotland Under-18s in early 2018 and we played a couple of warm-up games before the competitive fixtures came around. We were seen as underdogs for the tournament [the Six Nations Rugby Festival] in Wales, but we beat England, France and Ireland … what a feeling that was. I think we shocked a lot of people, but we had a very tight group.”
Smeaton started the last two of those three matches in March and April last year and clearly impressed watching scouts because not long later he had a phonemail from Twickenham.
“It was a hard one for me because I had loved playing for Scotland, but if you are a member of an English club’s Academy it is expected that you will play for England if selected so I went on the summer tour to South Africa,” Smeaton explained. “Out there we played South Africa, Wales and France and it was a whirlwind few months for me.
“Then I was injured last season just before Christmas meaning I missed out on any more representative honours. We don’t know what the future will hold, but I loved playing for Scotland and, who knows, I may be in the under-20s mix.”
That is for another day though, for now Smeaton’s full focus is on the Varsity match. There are a few other players in the Cambridge men’s squad who have Scottish connections – Chris Bell, Charlie McCallum and Dougal Russell – while Scotland age-grade cap Coreen Grant is set to play for Cambridge’s women’s team earlier in the day.
The former Royal High School pupil, 21, is also a member of the Saracens Academy and will look to make her mark on the 33rd Varsity match as Cambridge go looking for a third win on the spin.
“The Varsity match has such a history while I have played at Twickenham for Durham University before and cannot wait to go back there,” said Grant.
- The men’s Varsity match is at Twickenham at 3pm on Thursday, with the women’s match at 11.30am, and both games will be shown live on ITV4.