GREGOR HIDDLESTON is a poster boy for the argument that a joined-up player development pathway in Scottish rugby stretching from the lower reaches of the regional and national leagues right up to the pro and international game is key to the future health of the game in this country.
The 21-year-old hooker may not have started out on the very lowest rung of the ladder, but his rise through the ranks from Dumfries Saints (who currently play in National League Three) to making his professional debut for Glasgow Warriors in Saturday’s Champions Cup pool stage loss to Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park is a timely reminder that there are diamonds out there who we simply must provide with an opportunity to be polished up so that they can sparkle to their full potential.
“Dumfries are my boyhood club and I love it, but I probably had to leave and push on to get further up the ladder,” explained Hiddleston, speaking immediately after Saturday’s match. “I was told that if I wanted to make Scotland under-20s then I needed to be playing at a higher level.
“Then I was contacted by Trevor Carmichael, the GHA coach at the time, because I had played some senior games at Dumfries [whilst still an under-18] and gone quite well and he had seen me playing in some Glasgow age-grade games.
“So, obviously it was tough for me to leave [Dumfries] because I had played there since I was a wee boy in the mini section and have grown up with all of my friends there, but I had to take the opportunity to play in the top flight [GHA finished sixth in the Premiership during his first season at Braidholm] and they were understanding of that,” adds Hiddleston, whose mother, Sharon, is club President at Park Farm.”
“It was after the Covid year, so I was 19 when I eventually got playing at GHA. From there I started playing Scotland Under-20s and I kind of got in [to the pro game] through that route. I was taken on with a partnership contract between Stirling Wolves [Super Series side] and Glasgow Warriors, and I’ve just loved being at Glasgow ever since. I am full-time with Glasgow then I get released to go to Super6 with Stirling Wolves.
Glasgow Warriors head coach Franco Smith has shown in the past that he isn’t scared to throw young and inexperienced players into big games if he feels they have earned the right, and Hiddleston demonstrated that the faith the South African had shown in him was well placed on Saturday with a solid performance in the tight and a big contribution in Glasgow’s excellent overall defensive effort as the away side were only deprived of an impressive victory by a controversial refereeing decision which chalked off a Euan Ferrie try which would have made it 22-19 with the clock in the red and the conversion still to come.
“When I was told on Monday that I was going to be playing, I was pretty shocked, obviously, because it’s a really big game,” Hiddleston said. “Then, when Tuesday came around I was named to start, so I probably was thrown in at the deep end but I relished the challenge and loved every minute of it.”
“I was named to start in a pre-season game but unfortunately I injured the AC joint in my shoulder at the start in training, so I was a couple of months out, but I managed to rally back after that.
“Franco has been great with me since he came in and, as you can see, he backs young boys. That inspires us to work harder day-in and day-out. It’s not like a slog when you are coming in and know you are not getting picked. There are opportunities there and it is up to us to take them, and I think we all really appreciate that environment.”
“Obviously the physicality is a big jump from Super Series where I was playing before this,’ added Hiddleston – who was named man-of-the-match when Stirling Wolves defeated Ayrshire Bulls at the Hive Stadium in November to lift the 2023 Super Series Championship title – when asked how he found his first taste of competitive pro rugby. “And Exeter are previous European champions, they bring physicality and they work hard for each other, so that was something we really had to battle with.
“It was a big jump, but I felt I was ready for it. The coaches backed me, my team-mates backed me, so I really enjoyed it and didn’t feel out of place at all.
In fact, Hiddleston’s pro career almost got off to a dream start when he burst off the back of a line0out maul and propelled himself over the line for what would have been a fifth minute try, only to discover that referee Pierre Brousset has blown for an obstruction.
“I’ll be honest, I can’t really remember any of it,” he replied when asked for his thoughts on that decision. “I threw the line-out then had my head down the whole time looking for the try-line. So, I am not too sure what happened there.
He was equally diplomatic when asked about that controversial decision to disallow Ferrie’s try. “I’ve not spoken to Euan but I’m sure he will have thought it was a try,” he shrugged.
“It was obviously tough to lose that game,” Hiddleston added. “I thought we came down here and barred up well, as you saw with some of those defensive sets. We fronted up for each other, and I think there was a few emotions in the changing room, but noting that we haven’t experienced before and we’ll be ready to go again next week.”
With Johnny Matthews and George Turner expected to be away competing for Scotland selection during the Six Nations window, Hiddleston and fellow tyro Angus Fraser are set to battle it out for the No 2 jersey when Warriors play Dragons at home on 17th February and Benetton away on 2nd March.
“There is [plenty to look forward to during], but nothing is dead certain and I have to work as hard as I have before to put my hand up again,” said Hiddleston, who would also rather like to be involved in next weekend’s final Champions Cup pool match against Toulon at Scotstoun.
“No, I don’t need a week off. If I get another chance I’ll take it with both hands,” he promised. “But as I’ve said before, I will have to make sure I put my hand up in training day-in and day-out, to let them see what I can do.
“Toulon is going to be another step-up physicality-wise, so a good’s week training and we’ll go into it firing.”