CONNOR BOYLE faces a dilemma this weekend because Friday’s match between Edinburgh and Benetton at the Hive Stadium is ‘Club Appreciation Night’ with players invited to wear the socks of their own local club, and the openside flanker is torn between going for the red, black and yellow of Stewart’s Melville, where he went to school, or the maroon of Watsonians, where he turned out whilst an academy player on the fringes of the capital pro squad.
“I was originally going to go down to Hartpury for my final year of school, to get exposure to a higher standard of rugby, but then decided against that so played the first half of the season with the school in the Cup and the Conference, then the second half of the season for the Stew-Mel club team to get some adult rugby under my belt,” he explains.
“Jack Blain [his old schoolmate and former Edinburgh wing who made a big impact at Super Series level with Heriot’s during the second-half of the recent Super Series Championship campaign] also played for the FPs that year – I think he scored three tries in one game against Kelso which made people sit up and take notice – although he missed most of the second half of the season with a concussion.
“I really enjoyed it. We weren’t very good – I think we got relegated out of National One that year – but we had a lot of fun, a good coach in Gordon Henderson [now head coach of Selkirk] and I learned a lot about the game.
“When I played Scotland Under-18s at the end of that year, that experience helped massively because I had been playing against men, with and against people who understood the game.
“Stew-Mel is a great club,” he adds. “There are a lot of characters around the place and some of my friends still play here – I just spent the weekend with Jamie Sword, who is the club captain – and I live nearby so I enjoy coming along and watch when I have chance.
“But there is a lot of competition in this part of the town so the fact that they are still in National Two is testament to the club.”
As an aspiring young player, Boyle knew he would have to go elsewhere to play Premiership level after leaving school in 2018, and choosing Watsonians inevitably raised a few eyebrows around Inverleith.
“I think there was a bit of disappointment because there is that rivalry there, but realistically they knew it was what I had to do. The fact that Stevie Lawrie was a teacher at the school and coach at Myreside at that time helped massively. He’s now the forwards coach at Edinburgh so I seem to have followed him throughout my career.
Then, turning his attention back to the issue at hand, he concludes: “I don’t know which pair of socks I’ll go for. I think I might go for one each and try to keep both sides happy.”
That is likely to be the only compromise the 23-year-old breakaway is prepared to make on Friday night, because he has started this season in formidable fashion, with his no-nonsense approach to the breakdown a key contributing factor to Edinburgh managing four wins out of five games played in the URC so far.
“It is going really well,” he acknowledges. “We had a really long pre-season so there were a lot of people itching to play and I was disappointed not to be in the match-day squad for the first URC game down at the Dragons, but I made sure I prepared well as if I was playing, and when Sam Skinner went down [pre kick-off], I was raring to go and desperate to show what I am all about. I was quite happy with how it went.
“From there I feel like we have gone from strength to strength as a team – we’ve shown improvement in each game we’ve played – and the attitude of the whole squad this year is definitely much improved.
“We are all working towards the same goal and there is much more competition in training because everyone is desperate to play.
“The people who have done the whole pre-season but are not getting much game-time are reacting positively – they are not slacking off but pushing hard to win their place, so everyone is getting better every day.”
Pressed on his own form since being parachuted in for that first match, he replies: “I think it shows the fickle nature of rugby. I thought I’d had a pretty good pre-season and in the Connacht friendly I went well, but in the Bath game I was a bit ill so probably shouldn’t have played and it didn’t go as well, so that allowed other people in my position to get ahead of me.
“I think I always knew I had that next step to get to and when I spoke to Sean Everitt [Edinburgh’s new ‘senior’ coach] he said: ‘You’ve not played well enough to start and I’m not going to take a No 7 on the bench so you are not going to be involved in this game’. And then he asked me to be angry about it and to compete harder for that spot, which I took on board and showed that I was hungry to play. So, when the opportunity came, I was able to fill in pretty easily and show what I am about, which I always knew I had, but it was about going out on the pitch and showing everyone else I could do it as well.”
Boyle came through the ranks in lockstep with fellow openside flanker Rory Darge. They were born four days apart in February 2000, played Scotland under-18s and under-20s together (with Darge tending to shift to No 8 so as to accommodate both players in the team), joined the Edinburgh Rugby Academy at the same time and signed their first pro deals on the same day in July 2020, with Boyle making his competitive debut against Connacht on October 25th of that year and Darge’s bow coming three weeks later against Leinster on November 16th.
However, their career paths diverged in April 2021 when Darge moved west to join Glasgow Warriors, initially on loan before agreeing terms on a permanent deal for the following season. He hasn’t looked back, quickly establishing himself as a key man in the Warriors back-row, earning his first cap for Scotland at the start of the 2022 Six Nations and now fully established as the national team’s first pick on the openside.
Meanwhile, Boyle’s trajectory has not been quite as meteoric, and although he now has 36 appearances for Edinburgh to his name, he has struggled to establish himself as a frontline player at the club amid ferocious competition for the No 7 jersey, with Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie and Luke Crosbie having all been capped by Scotland at openside flanker.
“For me, it has sometimes been frustrating and sometimes you can understand it,” he reflects. “In Mike Blair’s first year as head coach [2021-22], I was involved in quite a lot of games and ended up playing quite well towards the end of the season – starting in a European quarter-final against Wasps which I was pretty happy with – but then I didn’t get as much game-time last year, and when I did get a chance it was pretty unstructured in terms of not having a run of matches.
“You always want to get regular gam- time so that you can get comfortable with what you are trying to do – at least that was the way I always looked at it – but this year my mindset has changed and I’ve taught myself that I don’t need those games to settle into the side. I’ve been in the team before so I know what to expect, and it is just about going out there and proving to everyone that you can be a player at this level.
“I think that’s a big change – I am not worrying about building form but just showing where I am at now.”
“I think those pressures are always there as a professional rugby player,” he continues. “It’s not necessarily make or break this season, but you reach a point where you’ve got to stop waiting for something to happen and take it yourself, so I think that’s where I have got to now – I am raring to go and just want to get out there and be as good as I can be every minute of every game.
Asked if watching Darge playing for Scotland at the recent World Cup put a fire under him, he replies: “I’m not sure who made the final decision about Rory going through to Glasgow but he certainly seized the opportunity to get a lot of game time and really establish himself. I had to wait a bit longer for game-time here, but I feel like my game has developed during that period as well.”
“Rory and I have played alongside and against each other so much when we were coming through that we are close friends, I admire him a lot as a player and because he’s the same position as me there is a lot I can learn from how he’s gone, and I’m sure he would probably say the same when we were younger about me.
“He’s gone and taken that opportunity and I know that I have the same ability as him so there is no reason why I can’t do the same.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for how he’s gone for Glasgow and now Scotland as well. Hopefully down the line I can get some game time there and kick on at that level too.
That isn’t a fanciful goal, with Everitt suggesting last week that the coming Six Nations may present an opportunity for Boyle – and that was before the player registered a man-of-the-match performance against the Bulls.
“I was disappointed with how last season had gone and I really wanted to make sure I hit the ground running this season,” he says. “So, I spent a lot of time in the off-season doing extra training and I came back in for pre-season and beat my previous best fitness and strength scores, so I’ve made that progression in terms of physical markers.
“Then having all that time in a long pre-season, I have been able to hone my super-strength which is being able to turn the ball over. I’ve spent a lot of time with [assistant coaches] Michael Todd and Stevie Lawrie working on the contact side of the game, making sure that when I come on the pitch people have previewed me and said: ‘We’re going to have to have a quick ruck because otherwise Connor Boyle is going to get on the ball and turn us over’.
“I’ve tried to make sure that is my real point of difference, and I feel like I’ve been able to show that when I’ve been on the pitch in the games we’ve had so far this season.
“As well as that, it is about making sure I am linking with the backs well, as a No 7 does, and that I’ve got an overall game, but realistically, in terms of building your own form, it is about making sure you are not scared of doing what you do best – and for me that’s turning the ball over and making a mess of opposition rucks.”
- Edinburgh Rugby is delighted to offer all local rugby clubs an exclusive 20% saving on match tickets for this Friday night’s BKT URC clash to help celebrate the grassroots game, and pay tribute to all those at club level – volunteers, referees, committee members – that help make our great game run all year round.
- To take advantage of the discount, simply go to the Edinburgh Rugby e-ticketing page and purchase your ticket(s) as normal, entering you club’s exclusive voucher code that has been sent to all club officials.