CHANGING your rugby position takes a lot of hard work and commitment, and Cartha Queens Park teenager Luca Alessandri has shown both of those traits in spades in recent months with the former second-row impressing many – including national age-grade selectors – at tight-head prop.
In recent years, the likes of Ross Ford and Stuart McInally have successfully made moves from the back-row to hooker and gone on to have excellent careers with Edinburgh Rugby and Scotland. Meanwhile, another recent Scotland cap, Richie Vernon, made a swap from the back-row to centre, and now Scotland Under-19 hopeful Alessandri is getting regular game time in National League One with Cartha having made the bold decision to play in perhaps the most physically and technically demanding position on the park.
“Last year Graham Shiel [then a Scottish Rugby Academy coach in the West] and Mark McKenzie [a school coach at St Aloysius’ College] had a chat with me about making the switch,” explained the 18-year-old. “The thought was that I wasn’t perhaps big enough to play second-row moving forward into senior rugby and I had a think about the idea.
“I didn’t get into the Scotland Under-18 squad as a second-row, so after that I thought to myself: ‘I may as well give tight-head a try’ and last summer I really put in the hard yards to learn all about the position. I trained during the days with the [Scottish Rugby] Academy when I had the opportunity and worked hard on Cartha training nights too to really get a handle on the position and all the things you need to do in a game there.
“It is the set-piece element of things that you really have to nail down and the only way to do that is to put in the extra training and repeat scrum after scrum, as well as simply playing games against bigger and older opponents and seeing if you can get the upper hand at scrum time.”
Not only was former King’s Park Secondary School and St Aloysius’ pupil Alessandri trying to learn the ‘dark arts’ of front-row play during pre-season ahead of the 2019-20 campaign, he was also getting used to life around senior players having graduated from the under-18s.
Fortunately for him, there are a number of young players currently breaking through with Cartha so he felt at home straight away, while experienced player/assistant coach Juan Phyfer has taken Alessandri under his wing.
“All of the coaches and the senior players at Cartha led by head coach Thomas Davidson and defence coach Matthew Clark have been great with me since I joined the 1st XV squad, but Juan has been particularly helpful,” the Strathclyde University politics and history first year student said.
“He plays front-row himself and is really good at explaining things, and I feel I have learnt a lot from him. He has invested a lot of time in me and I am grateful for that.
“After training as a prop all summer I wasn’t sure where I would be in the pecking order for the first team, but I was thrown in to play a friendly against Glasgow Hawks and since then I have been in and around the first team squad.
“I am still learning with every game I play, but I feel like I am getting there and I think that is down to Juan and the older guys in the pack at Cartha who have really helped me out.”
Alessandri’s father is Italian, but the young prospect has lived all of his life in Scotland and started playing rugby at Cambuslang before moving to Cartha and making Dumbreck his ‘home’.
He played in Scotland Under-16 matches against regional Welsh teams and at Under-17 level he earned a cap against England in Newcastle before just missing out on Under-18 selection last year.
This term, he was not initially named in the extended Scotland Under-19 squad which is currently building up to a game against Wales at the Centre of Sporting Excellence in Ystrad Mynach on Sunday, December 8. However, his stellar form for Cartha and a solid showing as Glasgow and the West won the FOSROC 4s recently at Oriam saw him added to the group by coaches Sean Lineen and Shade Munro.
“I am really starting to enjoy tighthead, especially the personal battles against loose-heads,” he says. “I just want to get my head down and try and impress the Cartha coaches and the Under-19 coaches as I would love to represent Scotland again.”
Cartha head coach Thomas Davidson has not been scared to play youngsters in the first XV this season if he feels they are ready with Alessandri leading the way for a talented crop of teenagers at the club.
“Luca has been a fantastic addition to our squad, it is no coincidence that he has been involved in all of our games so far this term, he has stepped up massively to the plate in his new position,” he said. “At times you wouldn’t know that he was just 18 given the impact he has had on games and we back him and trust him totally. He carries himself brilliantly on and off the pitch.
“I am only 27 myself while my assistant coach is 24, so we are on quite a journey ourselves and we are very much of the opinion that if a player is good enough then they will get their chance whatever age they are. Juan Phyfer has really helped the young forwards coming through this year and it is great to see.”
When Cartha went to Hawick in October to play in the first round of the Scottish Cup, the visiting squad included a clutch of 18-year-olds and a 17-year-old.
Davidson thanks Cartha’s Under-18 coach John McCartney for that group’s smooth transition into the senior game and, ahead of the 1st XV trip to Highland on league duty this weekend, added: “There are another few players from the Under-18s who will step up to senior rugby next year and we have tried to create an environment here which sees young players constantly learning and enjoying their rugby at the same time. It is great to see how they are all progressing.”
- Highland v Cartha Queens Park takes place in Tennent’s National League Division One at Canal Park on Saturday at 2pm