THE pain of omission from Scotland’s World Cup squad is still fresh in Jamie Bhatti’s mind, but if all goes well over the next couple of months the Edinburgh prop could soon be experiencing the elation of inclusion.
The Six Nations Championship is little more than three months away, and, while we have yet to find out who is officially calling it a day, there are sure to be changes in the playing group selected by Gregor Townsend for the tournament. Take Bhatti’s own position, for example.
Of the two loosehead props who were in the 31 that saw duty in Japan, one, Gordon Reid, is off to play semi-pro Super 6 rugby for the Ayrshire Bulls, while the other, Allan Dell, is now at London Irish. Bhatti, who just missed out to those two, is thus the leading Scottish loosehead in our two pro teams – a factor that will surely play in his favour even if Reid declares himself still available for selection and Dell gets off to a flying start at his new club.
Neither Alex Allan at Glasgow nor Rory Sutherland at Edinburgh has been in a position over the past season to challenge the position of pre-eminence enjoyed by Bhatti, who won his first cap against Samoa in the autumn of 2017 and now has a total of 15. Another Edinburgh player, Murray McCallum, made his name as a loosehead and represented Scotland Under-20s in that position, but now mainly features on the other side of the front row.
So a window of opportunity is there for Bhatti to clamber through – but he should be warned that it may well be a narrow one, as the Warriors’ South African loosehead Oli Kebble will qualify for Scotland on residential grounds next summer. The immediate problem for Bhatti, though, may be his own team-mate and Kebble’s compatriot Pierre Schoeman.
As World Rugby’s residency rules changed between the arrival of Kebble and Schoeman, the latter has far longer to wait – four years – before he can play for Scotland. But he is far and away Edinburgh’s first choice at present, and Bhatti knows he may well have to do something about that if he is to ensure he is selected for Scotland in the new year. Having said that, he is more than happy to credit Schoeman with being a very useful team-mate as well as a rival.
“We gym together and we definitely push each other, so it’s good competition for both of us,” Bhatti explained after an Edinburgh training session last week. “ But I’m here to push for a starting berth. I’m here to compete with him. We get on well and we’ll push each other in the gym.
“Suz as well – Rory Sutherland. He’s another good player that’s good enough to start for his club. So the three of us are battling it out in the gym and on the training park. It’s good fun. Makes you a better player.
“I just need to get myself into the best physical shape possible and if I get that start then I need to take the opportunity. If not, if I come off the bench or don’t play, it’s just take it as it comes. If Richard [Cockerill] gives me an opportunity I’ll be sure to take it.
Getting the balance right
As he waits to find out if he will be given that chance for this Saturday’s home PRO14 match against Scarlets, the 26-year-old former Stirling County and Melrose player knows there is a delicate balance to be struck between maintaining his Scotland aspirations and ensuring his focus remains on the task in hand. “I come into my work day to day and just worry about what I’m going to be doing that day,” he explained, “I’m not going ‘Aw, I need to be squatting or running or doing whatever so when it comes January time I’m ready to play for Scotland’.
“My main focus is playing for Edinburgh. If I’m playing well for Edinburgh then the Scotland stuff will come with that, I’m sure.
“Like I say I need to get the game time here first – hopefully get a good run of games going into the Six Nations from here, whether it be starting or coming off the bench. I want to be pushing to be back in that Scotland squad and I want to have the No 1 as well, so I need to get all the small things in place first: my fitness, my body comps, and be as fit and as strong as possible so I can put my hand up and play.”
A Warrior’s woe
Bhatti admitted back in June that he had left the Warriors reluctantly at the end of last season, having been told they were not going to offer him a new contract. But a chat with Cockerill soon convinced him there was still a future for him within the Scottish game, and the Edinburgh coach also proved very useful when it came to dealing with that omission from the World Cup squad.
“I phoned Richard when I found out I was involved with going to Japan. He said take the week off and come back in on a Monday. It was a really easy transition: I came in, spoke to the coaches, spoke to the S & C staff, and they told me what they wanted from me. I just got the head down and got to work.
“It’s a good environment. I know most of the boys, from whether it be club rugby back in the day, or international stuff, or even just playing against the guys with Glasgow and Edinburgh.
“I went away on holiday to Mallorca just to get in the sun for a wee bit and relax. But it’s still on your mind even when you are back here because it’s popping up on social media and obviously watching the games and stuff. It’s tough, but it helped coming in here to a new environment and focusing on something different rather than just dwelling on it.”
Jamie Bhatti was speaking at the launch of Edinburgh Rugby’s partnership with It’s Good 2 Give. The charity, based in the capital, provides support for young cancer patients, and has been designated the team’s official charity partner for this season.