THE news that Grant Stewart has signed his first full-time contract with Glasgow Warriors is a timely reminder of the important role the Premiership has played as a safety net for players who are either late developers or didn’t quite make it through Scottish Rugby development pathway at the first time of asking for some other reason.
The hooker started out in rugby with Strathaven, then moved Dalziel, before joining Glasgow Hawks when he graduated to adult rugby back in 2012. He was involved in the old SRU academy structure, played for Scotland at Under-17, Under-18 and Under-19 levels, and was on the call-up list for the Under-20s during their 2015 Junior World Cup, but by the summer of 2016 his career seemed to have stalled.
He had dropped out of the academy and was mainly a 2nd XV player for Hawks, stuck behind Jack Macfarlane in the pecking order. When Macfarlane moved south to take on a contract with Jersey Reds, Cammy Fenton was lined up for a switch from Stirling County, and only when he was redirected to London Scottish by the SRU did Stewart get his chance.
Stewart was fortunate that Fin Gillies, a former Warriors hooker himself, was now in charge at Hawks – and he took it upon himself to help the then 21-year-old address the one part of his game which was really holding him back.
“Fin was a huge influence, I can’t thank him enough for helping me out when I was there [at Hawks],” he says. “He took me under his wing with the throwing which was a struggle of mine and gave me the confidence just to play.
“He just gave me some tips and I did a lot of practising during pre-season. Every training session we’d do some one-to-one practice and he helped me out a lot.”
Stewart started the 2016-17 season with Hawks like a runaway truck – which was apposite because at that time he was earning a crust working for his family’s haulage business – and before long he was back training with the SRU academy.
“He’s a complete anomaly,” said mentor Gillies, back in September 2016. “He’s an absolute freak in the gym. He can throw you a 20 metre pass off his left or right hand, kicks probably better than anyone else in the squad, but the only skill he struggled with was above his head at the line-out.
“It wasn’t that he couldn’t do it, he just needed to be more confident with it. So, I think that’s what we’ve managed to do, and we’ve tailored our line-out to suit him.”
Stewart was offered, and accepted, a full-time stage three academy deal at the start of the 2017-18 season, and when the Warriors hit a bit of a hooker injury-crisis midway through last season he got his chance, making his debut off the bench for the club away to Leinster in the Champions Cup last January.
The following week he was called into action after only seven minutes of the team’s final European pool match when George Turner succumbed to a knee injury and played a full part in an impressive 28-21 win over Exeter Chiefs. He picked up five more replacement appearances in the PRO14 during the remainder of last season, returned to Hawks as they successfully fought off the threat of relegation, and was then a surprise call-up to Gregor Townsend’s Scotland squad which toured the Americas during the summer.
He has come a long way in a short period of time.
“It’s kind of flown in,” acknowledges Stewart. “Around three seasons ago I was playing for Hawks 2nd XV, then the next year I was playing for the 1st XV and now …
“It [becoming a pro] was always at the back of my mind, but I thought it maybe wouldn’t happen – so the plan was to just take it as it comes, keep playing at Hawks, try to get into their 1st XV, then the Scotland Club XV, and keep making the next step.”
Stewart made his first start for the clubs narrow loss away to Munster at the end of October, and has made four more appearances so far this season off the bench, including in last weekend’s Champions Cup victory over Lyon.
Turner was stretchered off the park with an ankle injury in that match and a prognosis has not yet been supplied but he wearing a moon boot at training on Tuesday so his chances of playing this weekend are not great, while Fraser Brown is in a race against time to be back from knee surgery in time for the Six Nations, meaning that Stewart along with Kevin Bryce (who is back at the club on a partnership contract with Stirling County, and focussing again on being a hooker after not really adapting to tight-head prop during two frustrating seasons with Edinburgh) are set to get plenty of game time during the next wee while.
Another academy prospect in Robbie Smith of Ayr may also get a chance to test himself at a higher level, if head coach Dave Rennie continues to resist the temptation to bring in a readymade gap filler.
Next up for Warriors is, of course, Edinburgh in the first leg of this season’s 1872 Cup series at Murrayfield on Saturday, which could present Stewart with a chance to test himself against Scotland’s current first choice number two in Stuart McInally.
“It’s exciting because he’s kind of The Man at the moment, so I just want to show I can compete with him,” says Stewart. “It’s a good chance to show what I can do, and hopefully keep sticking in for chances later on in the season as well.
“I’m not sure how long George is out for, but hopefully I can just play every game I can. I’ve definitely got to just take my chance and show the coaches what I can do.”