THE latest recipients of the John Macphail scholarship have been announced, with centre Patrick Kelly (Glasgow Hawks and former Scotland under-20s) and winger Ross McCann (Stewart’s Melville and Scotland under-19s)being given the opportunity to spend 15 weeks training with the Canterbury RFU International High Performance Unit in Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. They set off on this ‘life-changing experience’ on Saturday.

Now in its twelfth year, the scholarship was set up in memory of former Scotland hooker John Macphail, and is funded by the Robertson Scholarship Trust. Previous recipients include John Barclay [2005], Kevin Bryce [2007], Roddy Grant [2008], Grant Gilchrist [2011], Jonny Gray [2012], Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Finn Russell [both 2013] and Adam Ashe [2014] – providing an impressive track record in terms of helping some the country’s best young players to move swiftly and relatively seamlessly into the professional and international game.

Of the seven full internationalists to have gone through the programme, six were capped within two years of arriving home from their New Zealand adventure.

Adam Ashe was actually called up to the full national team midway through the scholarship, making his debut against South Africa in June 2014.

Stevie Gemmell, Scottish Rugby’s Academies manager, has been involved with this initiative from the start and he believes that the most beneficial aspect of the time these youngsters spend in New Zealand is cultural, with players being given a crash course in the importance of having the right mentality in order to compete and succeed against the best in the world.

“It dispels the myth a little bit about what New Zealand is. When you speak to guys like Adam Ashe and Jonny Gray, they’ve come back realising that they [New Zealanders] are human and we can compete with them,” said Gemmell.

“They see that their facilities are not any better than ours, but what they also see is that culture where there is an accountability and responsibility for players to drive themselves and improve themselves, because if they don’t do it there is another player who will come and take their place.”

“So it is about that understanding that their ability is not any different from a similar player in New Zealand; and while the opportunities are different in New Zealand, that doesn’t mean the Scottish player is any lesser – it’s just that they’ve got to maximise their opportunities.

“We are really trying to drive that change in culture and understanding. That’s what we mean when we talk about it being a life changing experience.”

With all of this in mind, a lot of thought has gone into picking the right characters – not just the right players – to make the most of the experience.

“They have to have the mindset, desire and self-motivation to get better. When you put players into an environment, whether it be at home or abroad, if they don’t embrace it and they don’t see the opportunities rather than the challenges, then they won’t take full advantage,” said Gemmell.

“The players we put there need to have the rugby and physical potential, but they also need to have the high-performance behaviours to match the opportunity.”

Both of this year’s recipients certainly seem to fit the bill. They speak with refreshing candour about their determination to break into the professional game sooner rather than later, and were clearly looking forward to stepping out of their comfort zone over the next three montyhs.

Kelly first played rugby with Highland RFC in his native Inverness before earning a scholarship to Merchiston Castle School when he was 15, going on to captain the team to the Brewin Dolphin Scottish Schools Cup final in 2012. After a gap year playing for Le Parc in the Pro D2 (the second tier of French professional rugby), he returned to Scotland to join the national Academy programme at the start of this season.

He started at inside centre during all five games for the national under-20s team in the 2015 Six Nations and was a key man at that summer’s World Rugby Under-20s Championship in Italy. He is currently combining his rugby with studying politics and history at Glasgow University.

“I had an operation on my shoulder last August so I’ve only been back playing since Christmas so it is going to be great to get a season under my belt and come back match fit,” he said.

“Culturally, I am looking forward to making a lot of new friends and seeing a different part of the world. Rugby-wise, I hope to come back from this and be able to push into the professional ranks at Glasgow Warriors during pre-season, and hopefully get a few games while the senior guys are away on international duty,” he added.

“I know Gregor Hunter [who was a Macphail scholar in 2012] really well because he played the majority of this season at Glasgow Hawks and he said it was a great experience. Also, Finn Russell has told me it is a great opportunity – everyone could see that he came back a completely different player.”

McCann is a product of the Royal High School in Edinburgh and has represented Scotland at under-16, under-18 and under-19 level. He is also a talented footballer, playing for Hutcheson’s Vale and reaching the final of the Scottish Youth Cup in 2011.

“What I understand is that we go out there to live with a family and train at the Canterbury High Performance Unit. You get a mentor out there from the Crusaders, who could be a World Cup winner or someone like that – they are one of the best teams on the planet so they are hugely experienced and people I can really learn from. And you also get fifteen games playing with a local club, so it’s a really exciting opportunity,” he said.

“I’ve not really been away from home before. I’ve had my parents driving me to training, then picking me up afterwards and feeding me. So I’m really looking forward to getting out there and doing things for myself. It’s all about me learning to look after myself and growing so that when I come back and maybe go into a university environment next year I’m ready for that.”

“It’s a bit daunting because you read the names like Finn Russell, John Barclay and Jonny Gray – guys who have gone on to get international caps and are really big names in Scottish rugby now, and are actually big names in the global game. So, I’m hoping to follow in those footsteps and one day be one of those big names.”

Two Scottish coaches will also travel to New Zealand as part of the scholarship.  The application process for that opportunity closed on Friday and an announcement will be made in the next two to three weeks.

Image courtesy: Scottish Rugby/SNS Group

About David Barnes 4002 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.