IN the sports science age, when the video analyst is king, and we all bow at the altar of the team nutritionist, there is something quite heartening about hearing one of the brightest young tight-head props in the game talk about the day he was given a rough ride by a gnarly old loose-head in a 2nd XV match at amateur club level.
Zander Fagerson, who has just signed a three-year contract extension which will keep him at Glasgow Warriors until may 2019, became a full internationalist two months ago when he came off the bench for Scotland against England at the start of the Six Nations. He had celebrated his 20th birthday just two weeks earlier, and was the youngest prop to play for Scotland in half a century.
Given that the average age of the starting tight-head props during this year’s Six Nations was 29.2 years, Fagerson clearly has plenty of time to grow into the role he has his sights set on as anchor of the Scottish pack – but perhaps the biggest lesson he will ever learn has already been taken on board.
Just two years ago, the former Scottish Downhill Mountain Bike Champion and National Boys Choir singer, was taking his first steps into the senior game and playing for Glasgow Hawks 2nd XV when he came up against a seasoned campaigner who was only too happy to put the young upstart through the mincer.
Fagerson was already a star on the rise. A former pupil of the High School of Dundee and Strathallan, he had represented Scotland at every age-grade he had passed through and was a member of the BT Sport Scottish Rugby Academy – but on this afternoon he was given the sort of schooling it is impossible to replicate in the classroom or on the training paddock.
“There was this 42-year-old loose-head whose mission was just to make my life hell. My neck was a bit sore the next day and I had rosy cheeks but it made me a better player. I really appreciate those games, that was one one of those I learned the most,” he recalls.
Fagerson cannot remember who it was he went up against that day, but the lesson learned has stayed with him.
“Every game helps but that was one of the ones for me that stuck out a mile and helped me learn a lot. Your teammates will look after you, but they know you are going to get it somewhere, they can’t be everywhere,” he reflects.
If nothing else, this little insight serves to demonstrate just how steep the learning curve is that Fagerson is travelling. Within two years of that rudimentary lesson in the dark arts of front-row play, he was packing down against Mako Vunipola in front of 67,000 fans and a TV audience of millions in a Calcutta Cup clash at Murrayfield.
He really has come a long way in a very short period of time, but Fagerson knows he is nowhere near the finished article yet.
“In every scrum you learn something new, that’s why I think it is such a great position to play: because you are always learning and developing,” he explains.
“I don’t think you ever really break it at tight-head, it is always there that you are striving go get better. If you don’t have that mentality, you probably should not be playing because it means you’ve lost it. Every year you try to get better. I am nowhere near the finished article, just trying to work as hard as I can to get there.”
And he is in no doubt that the Warriors is the right place for him to keep pushing forward, which is why he has opted to sign a new deal with the club more than a year before his previous contract was due to run out.
“It is a sink or swim environment, you get put in pretty young, so all all the boys get an opportunity and you either do well or you drop the ball and get a bollocking from the boys, so it can be a very hostile environment especially for a young boy – you muck up and you definitely know about it. But it has definitely helped me progress massively,” he says.
“Being around Scotland internationals, Fijian internationalists and those sorts of players, it really makes you really strive to pick up your standards.”
Fagerson is clearly a man on a mission, and while Edinburgh’s WP Nel is monopolizing the Scotland number three jersey at the moment, the doughty South African must know that there is a challenger rising in the west, and that some serious competition for that starting spot may well be coming his way sooner rather than later.