AS Richard Cockerill, and indeed Gregor Townsend, chew over their current lack of options at loose-head prop, it will not have escaped their notice that a 25-year-old who was once regarded as one of the most exciting prospects in the Scottish game has returned from injury and is currently making significant waves whilst wearing the number one jersey for Ayr in the BT Premiership.
Robin “Bomber” Hislop played two years and 18 games for the Scotland Under-20 team between 2011 and 2012, turning out alongside the likes of Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Mark Bennett, Hamish Watson, Jonny Gray, George Turner, Jamie Bhatti, Alex Allan, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and the recently anglicised Gary Graham.
During that period, he also graduated through the Scottish Rugby Academy set-up to become a full-time member of the Edinburgh squad for the 2011-12 season, making his debut for the club when still a teenager and chalking up 20 appearances in total in the PRO12 and the Heineken Cup (as the tournaments were then known).
But then a broken leg suffered during training ahead of the 2013-14 campaign caused a serious disturbance to his career trajectory.
When Hislop returned to action he was ready to battle for a chance to become a regular in the Edinburgh team, but was left frustrated by the lack of opportunities available to prove himself to new head coach Alan Solomons.
“At that stage, everyone outside the match-day 23 had to go and train with the academy, and I just felt that I had already been through that phase of my career and had worked really hard to move beyond that,” recalls the player.
“I was asking the coaches what I need to do to get more game time, and they were telling me that my scrummaging needed to improve – which I’m sure is the same for every 20-year-old prop – but I felt I wasn’t getting the challenge I needed in that respect when I was being released out to play in the Premiership.”
“It was a really good league at that stage – as it is now – in terms of skill and fitness, but that physicality from being in a full-time environment was lacking, and that’s what I really needed.”
The final straw for Hislop was when he was sent out to get game time for Currie only to fall foul of the player release protocol which states that there can only be a maximum difference of two in the number of professional players in each team in a BT Premiership game (unless a wider differential is agreed to by both clubs).
“We had four and the opposition had none, so the coach chose to take Stuart McInally and Tom Brown – which was fair enough because they were the players they believed would make the biggest difference – but it left Andrew Turnbull and myself kicking our heels,” recounts Hislop.
“I had played 20 times for Edinburgh, had worked really hard to get back from injury and now I couldn’t get a game in the Premiership. I just wanted to play rugby, so my agent got me a loan deal at Rotherham and I loved it. I played every week and it is a really tough competition for the front five, which is exactly what I needed.”
Rotherham finished fourth in the English Championship at the end of the campaign, qualifying for the Premiership promotion play-offs. That summer, Edinburgh asked if he wanted to come back for the final year of his contract but made it clear that he would start the season as third or fourth choice, so he decided to stick where he was.
Another run to the play-offs for Rotherham and selection in The Rugby Paper’s Championship Team-of-the-Season felt like vindication of a bold decision, but when head coach Lee Blackett moved on to a role with Wasps in the English Premiership, things began to fall away during the 2015-16 season and his new club ended up tenth in the table at the end of the campaign. Hislop was grateful when South Yorkshire rivals Doncaster – who had finished second that year – offered him a change of scene.
Hislop started last season like a runaway train, playing in all 13 Championship matches through to January 2017 for Doncaster, but then exacerbated a neck injury which required surgery.
“I had a disc replacement. My neck was actually alright, it was just a bit of weakness in my arm. I had been playing with it for the last couple of years but I took another knock and enough was enough – I needed an operation,” he explains.
There was, however, far more important things to worry about at this point. His father, Brian – progenitor of the Bomber/Bomb nickname and one of the all-time great characters of Borders rugby – had been diagnosed with cancer, and was fighting a brave but ultimately unwinnable battle against the disease.
The younger Hislop packed his bags and moved back home, spending the tail-end of last season working on the family farm just outside Langholm. Brian passed away at the end of May.
When the time came to start thinking about his own rugby career again, Hislop put feelers out across the BT Premiership, knowing that his unavailability until October meant that he wasn’t a particularly attractive prospect to any pro teams.
“I think I probably needed that six months out the game. I maybe could have come back a bit earlier but it wouldn’t have been good. It is just unfortunate that the injury happened when it did because I had some good options on the table to come back to Scotland, but Edinburgh needed someone who was fit at the start of the season, which I wasn’t going to be, so that sort of ruled me out. It wasn’t to be,” he says.
With his girlfriend based in Glasgow, Hislop naturally looked westward. After speaking to Ayr and landing a job as a development officer in Garnock, he decided to throw his lot in at Millbrae.
His first game for his new club was not one for the scrapbook, with Hislop coming off the bench in a 12-48 hammering at home to Watsonians, and there was another set-back for last year’s champions on their own patch when they lost 12-14 to Currie Chieftains before Christmas – but last Saturday’s shock victory at Melrose served notice that Ayr are not going to give up the title without a fight.
“We went down there with a pretty simple game-plan to take them on up-front, play the game in the right areas, and having David Armstrong back at scrum-half [after three montyhs out with a broken arm] was a massive bonus. We started really well – played a couple of phases, got into their 22, got a scrum penalty, kicked to the corner, didn’t get the ball over but scored through some pick-and-goes – and I think that just bred a lot of confidence,” says Hislop.
“The important thing now is that we make sure that wasn’t just a blip, that we go to Stirling this weekend and back it up. Then we’ve got a derby game against Marr and there is a lot of excitement around the club about that. When I first came back we were in this pattern where we would play a game then have a week off before getting another game – which was maybe a blessing in disguise – but now I am really looking forward to getting through a run of matches in January.”
Beyond that, the professional dream continues to burn brightly, but he is in no rush to force the issue.
“If a good deal comes along – in either Scotland or England – then I will cross that bridge when I come to it, but at the moment I am very grateful for the opportunity I have been given with Garnock. It is hard work but flexible so I can fit in a decent amount of training, so I’m really happy to just keep cracking on with that,” he says.
Given the heady ascent Darryl Marfo made at the start of the season from relative obscurity to being a Scotland internationalist, it is only natural to wonder if Hislop (who is two years younger) might have managed a similar journey – but the man himself is not inclined to waste valuable time thinking about parallel universes.
“Maybe things would have been different if I had stayed in Scotland but I made some great friends down there and definitely improved as a rugby player,” he shrugs.
Whatever happens next, he is clearly comfortable that the experience he gained in Rotherham and Doncaster will stand him in good stead.