WHEN the Scotland and Georgia squads line up before kick-off at Murrayfield on Friday, do not be surprised if the broadest smile on show belongs to Blair Cowan. Not only will the London Irish openside, if selected, be winning his first cap for four long years; he will also be determined to drink in every moment of the experience.
Now 34, Cowan has had ample time to reflect on the first stage of his Test career, which brought him 17 caps between 2014 and 2016. There were some high points, of course, but on reflection he is convinced that he was never able to appreciate it fully. More mature and more relaxed these days, he has decided that without enjoyment there is little point in playing.
He had always hoped that he would be given another opportunity to play for Scotland: giving up has never been part of his nature either on or off the field. Even so, after such a long absence, he admits it was an unexpected pleasure to be named in Gregor Townsend’s 40-man squad for the six autumn Tests.
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“It’s always a pleasant surprise,” Cowan says. “No matter how long you play rugby for, the feeling of actually getting that phone call never changes. To be honest, I’d never shut this chapter in my career, but as you get on a bit and the team evolves you become realistic – to the point that it was a really nice surprise.
“There had been a little bit of contact. Nothing of real substance: he [Townsend] has just said he’s been happy with how I’ve been playing and he’s been impressed. As it got close there were a few more phone calls, but at no point were there any major signs that I was going to be involved, so it was still a huge surprise when I got that actual phone call.”
Test rugby can be a pretty tense affair, and, having had ample time to reflect on what he hopes was only phase one of his international career, Cowan believes that even in the aftermath of a game he was never able to properly relax and enjoy the experience. Now, though, while there has been no change in his committed style of play, he is convinced that he will be able to savour the occasion – and help his team-mates do so too.
“My mindset going into a game is always going to be the same: I like to ride high-intensity into a game. That’s the style I play – I love being emotionally attached to a game. Then either pre- or post that stuff, I just enjoy the people around me, enjoy sitting back and thinking about the game and saying ‘Wow, that was pretty amazing’.
“There were times, say at a sold-out Murrayfield, when you didn’t actually sit back and reflect on how special it was. Those are the hindsight moments where I wish I just enjoyed that and looked at it for what it was instead of worrying too much about the following week or training or the things I did wrong.
“I think experience is always going to be one of the things that I can offer. I’ve been through the good times and the bad times through my career, and learned how to adapt and come through them to set you up for the following week as best you can. I’m not going to change anything when it comes to my game – they’ve brought me here for a reason and obviously like how I’m playing. I’m just happy to be here and I want to be as positive an influence as I can around the place, and wherever I can help, I’ll definitely help.”
The good times and the bad times were rolled into one in the biggest game of Cowan’s career, the 2015 World Cup quarter-final against Australia in which Scotland lost by a point thanks to a dodgy penalty. The highlight was actually being involved: after not even being included in Vern Cotter’s squad for the tournament, he was first called up as injury cover, and then thrust into the starting line-up against the Wallabies. The low point: the 35-34 defeat, and the emotional aftermath which took some time to recover from.
“Yeah, I mean my career’s never been smooth sailing, that’s for sure. One minute I’m not in the World Cup squad, three weeks later I’m starting in the quarter-final.
“We should have won. At the time I probably let the emotion get to me and it probably disrupted my form a good few months after that. That wasn’t the one game in particular, it was the whole rollercoaster of what we do, especially when you get to international level. Not making the squad, coming back in – the ups and downs mentally.
“After that World Cup, there were some tough times mentally. Luckily enough, I’ve had plenty of time to learn from those feelings and how to control them, and have triggers where I’ll get into a better space so I won’t fall into those traps, because there were some dark times that came after that. I think every player experiences it. It doesn’t matter at what level, there are those dark periods – just the big comedowns and not dealing with them well.
“I was probably too afraid to ask for help. I probably dealt with a bit of depression, and what I thought were the answers were the complete opposite and made things worse.
“That went on for a period. I’m not blaming anyone: it’s simply on me and how I was dealing with certain situations. I was lucky enough that some people recognised it: I was able to talk to the right people to guide me through it. I’ve got such an amazing support base in my family and the people around me. It was nothing to do with Scotland. It was just the ups and downs, and I was in a young state of mind. It wasn’t anything directly to do with anything: it was just my own head space that I needed to clear.
“Once everything was sorted off the field, I realised how much I loved the game of rugby and just started enjoying it. The majority of the change in me has been off the field – I’ve got all my affairs in order off the field.”
Given Townsend’s hint when he announced his squad that he would draw heavily on England-based players for the Georgia game, there is a fair chance that Cowan will win that 17th cap. He cannot expect to take part in all of Scotland’s six games this autumn, but it would be fitting if, in addition to making his return this Friday, he were to get a run out in the Nations Cup against a Fiji side now coached by Cotter.
Listening to Cowan talk about the over-seriousness and lack of enjoyment of his times playing for Scotland earlier this decade, it may be tempting to reach the conclusion that some of that was down to Cotter, who could never be mistaken for a ray of sunshine. But if there was tension then between the player and the coach, it is firmly in the past, and any reunion will be on friendly terms.
“His resting face wasn’t the most welcoming, but it was all good,” Cowan says of his old boss. “He gave me my opportunity in some big games, so for that I thank him.
“If I do get to cross paths, we’re both grown enough men to say hello and enjoy each other’s company for sure. I know a few of the Fijian boys, so it will be interesting to see how they respond to Vern, that’s for sure. No, it’s all good; there’s no issues with our relationship. I’ve got respect for Vern.”