JAMIE BHATTI always wanted to be one of the boys in blue, but for a while it looked as if it was the police force and not the national rugby team which would give him the opportunity to realise that ambition.
Fortunately, his attempt at joining the constabulary did not go quite according to plan, and law enforcement’s loss has been Stirling County, Melrose, Glasgow Warriors and now Scotland’s gain – with the 24-year-old loose-head prop rising through the ranks at a remarkable pace thanks to a combination of good luck and determination to make the absolute most of every opportunity which comes his way.
Bhatti represented Scotland at Under-20 level but wasn’t taken on by the SRU when he graduated from that programme, so he carried on playing with his hometown club of Stirling County, took a job working in a local abattoir and started thinking about what he was going to do next with his life.
“There was a time when I thought the pro thing had passed me by,” he admits. “When I was at Stirling I was looking at other careers. I applied for the police but I messed up the interview for that. I passed the fitness test, I passed the written test and then came to the formal interview and I made a mess of it.”
“I just froze on the spot. There were two of them in front of me firing the questions and I just panicked. It was all a bit formal and I had the suit and tie on,” he adds, indicating that he is far more comfortable in shorts and rugby shirt.
“It was maybe a godsend I didn’t get in. At the time, I worked at Scotbeef in Bridge of Allan but that would not stop me playing rugby – I would just have done it socially. But if I had got in the police I would have stepped away from rugby.”
Bhatti moved from Stirling County to Melrose for the start of the 2015-16 season and joined the Scottish Rugby academy set-up as a stage three [full-time] player the following year. He picked up six appearances for Glasgow Warriors [five off the bench] as cover during the international window during the 2016-17 campaign before being offered a fully professional deal for the start of this season.
With South African recruit Oli Kebble ruled out for 10 to 12 weeks after injuring his foot on his home debut, Bhatti has wasted no time in making the Warriors number one jersey his own – and as if that was not enough to be getting on with, he is now also a full internationalist having come off the bench against both Samoa and New Zealand during the last ten days.
Given that the SRU yesterday started the process of identifying the clubs which will become Super Six franchises – an initiative with the stated aim of making ‘the top tier of domestic rugby an ever more effective feeder of talent into the full-time professional game’ – Bhatti’s s story is a timely reminder of the current value of the BT Premiership as a safety net for players who do not make the cut at the first time of asking.
“I was saying to [Scotland forwards coach] Dan McFarland in the changing room before my first cap that in April this year I was in the same changing rooms playing in the Cup Final for Melrose against Ayr. Six months later I am in there getting ready to run out for Scotland,” he chuckles.
“This time last year I was actually sitting in the stands watching the Autumn Tests against Australia and Argentina – I never thought I’d be running out on the pitch myself.”
“I wouldn’t say it is a shock to the system. We all play against guys at that level in Europe and in the PRO14 – it’s just another game of rugby so you go out there and a guy runs at you and you either tackle him or try to run over him.”
“But is has all come pretty quick. I’ve not really got time to reflect on it now. I think after the Autumn Tests I’ll probably sit back and think about it and it will hit me then – but for now I’m just taking each week as it comes and enjoying the experience.”
Bhatti’s second cap in Saturday’s modern classic against the All Blacks might have been even more memorable had a controversial moment in the 71st minute gone differently, when Jonny Gray picked up from the base of a ruck directly under the New Zealand posts only for opposition captain Kieran Read to reach up off the deck and slap the ball out of his hand. Bhatti picked up and had an unchallenged five-yard run to the line, but referee Matthew Carley blew his whistle and stated that Gray had “lost control of the ball” – which, even discounting Read’s illegal intervention, was a strange call given that the ball went backwards towards Scotland’s line so could not have been knocked-on.
Scotland were playing advantage at the time after a Beauden Barrett offside so were awarded the penalty. They opted for the scrum, but were splintered by a ferocious All Black drive and a brilliant opportunity evaporated.
“The ball came squirting out from Jonny’s hands and I picked it up and as I picked it up the whistle went so I didn’t celebrate. I am not a referee but I would say it should’ve been play-on. I never saw the slap at the time but you do as you do, I reacted to it, picked the ball up and the sticks were there so that was it,” he shrugs, clearly reluctant to dwell on something he cannot change.
And quite right, too, Scotland have no time to look backwards with Australia arriving at BT Murrayfiled next Saturday. With Darryl Marfo nursing an ankle injury, Bhatti could be in line for his first start for Scotland.