BOTH Richard Cockerill at Edinburgh and Danny Wilson at Glasgow Warriors have acknowledged in recent weeks that they could do with a bit more depth in the back five of the scrum, especially as the demands made on their respective squads by the international game appear set to increase significantly next season.
If they do end up having the scope to dip back into the recruitment market then a good place to look first would be Waikato, New Zealand, where a 24-year-old, 6ft 4ins Aberdonian, who picked up a couple of games off the bench for Glasgow whilst a stage three member of the Scottish Rugby academy set-up during the 2017-18 PRO14 season, has been impressing the locals with his toughness, work-ethic and willingness to learn.
Hamilton Burr, who is equally comfortable playing in the middle or the back row, upped sticks in February 2019 after failing to pick up a full-time deal at Scotstoun. He was nearing the end of his third season playing for Stirling County in the Premiership, and Super6 was looming over the horizon, but decided that he needed to look further afield to take his game to the next level.
“I felt like I had unfinished business – I didn’t feel like the journey was over – so I decided that I needed to go somewhere else to push me on,” he explains. “I had a chat with my old academy coach, Iain Monaghan, who said that if I want to stretch my skills then I should go to New Zealand, so I put a CV together and pinged it out to a whole load of clubs.
“A few clubs got back to me, a few in Christchurch, one up in Auckland and one in Waikato. I asked Dave Rennie [the then Glasgow head coach who had previously led the Chiefs Super Rugby franchise] what Waikato would be like and he said it would be the right kind of competition. He warned me that Canterbury have a really intelligent academy system and start selecting their NPC squad about four years in advance meaning I would be less likely to get an opportunity to move upwards there unless there was a lot of injuries.”
Burr linked up with Hautapu playing in the Waikato Draught Premiership A competition but suffered an early set-back when he popped his shoulder in round two.
“I missed the next eight weeks but came back and played nine or ten games on the bounce in the second half of the comp,” he recalls. “We were undefeated across the whole season, and I was picked up by Waikato [provincial side] when we played in our club final.
“I hadn’t been part of the original squad so I was kind of on trial. I think I must have trained quite well with them that week and seemed to do okay in a pre-season match we played because they asked me to stay on. The following week one of the first choice back-rowers broke his leg so I got a starting spot the week after that and managed to hold onto it for the rest of the season.”
Blown away by the Hurricanes
It wasn’t a great campaign for Waikato, who finished sixth out of seven teams in the Premiership table of the Mitre 10 Cup (well short of the play-offs) with three wins and a draw from 10 matches, but Burr must have been doing something right because one morning, whilst working on a local stud farm which had helped him make ends meet since arriving in New Zealand, a call came through from a recruiter telling him that he was being invited to pre-season training with the Hurricanes Super Rugby franchise.
“He wasn’t my agent, or somebody I had dealt with before, so I said ‘yeah, sure’ and didn’t think much more about it, but when I went home for lunch my phone was lit up with messages, so that’s when I realised he wasn’t winding me up.
“They’d picked up a few injuries – to Ardie Savea and a couple of other back-rows – so they needed to bring someone in and my name had been mentioned to them. 24 hours later I was on a plane down to Wellington to start pre-season. It was completely out of the blue. The good thing is that my boss on the stud farm is an avid rugby fan so he just said: ‘Not a worry’. He was pretty stoked for me.
“I was with Hurricanes for seven weeks and it was unreal. I was only expecting to be there until Christmas but they extended it into the New Year, so I was quite pleased.
“After Christmas, it was a chance to train with All Blacks players like TJ Perenara and so on. It was definitely something I will always remember, and I learnt a lot from the experience. Even before Christmas, the fitness element is completely different over here – you actually play rugby!”
He managed to pick up half an hour off the bench for the Hurricanes in a pre-season match against the Crusaders.“That was a bit of a step-up but I think I got away with it!” he shrugs, self-deprecatingly.
“It was definitely a deep-end moment, but as long as you go low in the tackle, try to pass the ball as often as possible and work hard, then you are alright. I also played an internal game with fitness alongside it, which was pretty full-on as well.”
Burr was eventually released by the Hurricanes at the end of January and returned to Waikato to play some development games, which led to his next brush with the Super Rugby environment when he was called into the Chiefs’ development squad for a match against the Blues, before lockdown arrived to put everything on ice for three months.
Now, with coronavirus appearing to be under control, rugby is back in full swing in New Zealand, with Hautapu five matches into a condensed 10-week season and still undefeated. Burr is currently sporting a peach of a black eye from one of his recent outings, and preparation for the 2020 Mitre 10 Cup is well under way.
“I was injury cover for Waikato last year but I’m contracted this year, and we’re already training pretty full-on before it starts up in early September,” he says. “We’re doing two rugby and four gym sessions per week, before we start full-time pre-season in three weeks’ time. It’s pretty exciting, especially as the All Blacks are going to be back involved this year.
“Waikato have a strong looking squad so it will be great to learn off people like Liam Messam, who they have just announced is coming back. I’ll be a more senior player in the group which will stretch my mindset as well.”
He hopes to have an idea of where his next rugby stop is going to be by October, with the small taste he’s had of Super Rugby inevitably whetting his appetite for more.
“That is definitely on my horizons at the moment,” he confirms. “If something was to crop up over here I would definitely jump at the opportunity. Both the Hurricanes and the Chiefs are very positive environments, very competitive but at the same time it is very ‘Kiwi’ and relaxed – focussed on building you as an individual and not just as a rugby player.
“I just love the way rugby is played over here,” he adds. “Even the club footie is so fast and expansive. Waikato is regarded as a direct, physical competition, but compared to playing Hawick away in January, it is a very different style of game.”
“And it is not just throwing the ball about, they are also really big on defence, on being aggressive coming off the line, so it is just a fantastic brand of footie to be part of.”
Burr’s physicality and competitiveness at the breakdown were his big strengths back in Scotland, and he believes these attributes have been fundamental to whatever success he has achieved in New Zealand – but he has now added extra depth to his game.
“I was coached by Roger Randle [former All Black wing] at Waikato last year and he developed me a lot with soft skills around handling, and spending time with Carlos Spencer down at the Hurricanes obviously helped as well. They both really pushed me on – with little tweaks that make a big difference – and I’d actually say that one of my strengths now is my handling. I’ve also been able to improve my footwork a bit.”
He doesn’t rule out a return to Scotland – but also doesn’t seem overly perturbed about the fact that he has heard very little on this front during the last 18 months apart from a brief chat with Edinburgh before last year’s World Cup.
“Where you are going next is always at the back of your mind,” he concludes. “It is only a year contract with Waikato and I don’t have anywhere to go after that. It is just a case of wait and see, but I’m very aware that making sure I play well where I am at the moment has to be the first priority.
“I’m really just focussing on my rugby and trying to make sure that I am in prime condition so that I can hopefully make a statement in NPC [Mitre 10].”