THE ankle injury which will keep Viliame Mata – Edinburgh’s hugely talented Fijian No8 – out of action for the next six to eight weeks would be more of a problem for head coach Richard Cockerill if he didn’t have a couple of pretty handy fall-back options.
The door is now open for Scotland caps Magnus Bradbury and Nick Haining to set out their stall in the opening two rounds of the 2020-21 PRO14 season – not only for more regular game time at club level during the remainder of the campaign, but also for further international recognition when the Autumn Test schedule gets under way towards the end of October.
“For the next couple of weeks, it’s just about playing as well as I can. I know they the Scotland management team will be down watching training when they can so I need to be on the ball, train as well as I can and hopefully impress them enough ahead of other guys,” says Bradbury, who was one of the few Scotland players to return from Japan after last year’s World Cup with reputation enhanced.
Bradbury, who is a former Scotland Under-20s captain, made his senior debut against Argentina in November 2016 – just a few months after his 21st birthday – but a combination of factors have contributed towards him not kicking on with quite the same gusto as many initially anticipated.
He has now accumulated 14 Scotland caps, and there is no doubt about his physical presence and ability to make hard yards in heavy traffic, but he has missed a few significant chunks of recent seasons through injury, and a lack of time in the saddle has perhaps contributed to the occasions when he has struggled to impose himself on games over the course of the full 80 minutes.
Now, after a fairly injury-free 2019-20 season, you get the impression that at 25 he realises the time is right to reach his full potential. After a fairly rocky start to his relationship with Cockerill which involved being stripped of the club captaincy almost as soon as he had been given the role back in Autumn 2017 due to a late-night city-centre incident which left Bradbury nursing a concussion and severely bruised ego, he has taken on board the lessons dished out by the uncompromising head coach and is a better professional as a result.
“I’ve personally grown and have that maturity which obviously wasn’t there when Cockers first arrived,” he reflects. “It was a harsh learning curve for me and I’ve developed a lot since then.
“When it comes to the rugby pitch, we [the Edinburgh squad] are all more consistent in the way we train. A couple of years ago we’d have good days and bad days. Now, no matter what they chuck at us – whether it is fitness, conditioning or contact sessions – the boys just chew it up. We just know how it needs to be done to prepare for the next game, and it is not just me, the whole team has grown, which is really good to see.”
Bradbury is also in no doubt that training alongside players of the calibre of Mata and Haining on a daily basis, and competing against that quality of opposition for game-time, has boosted his standards.
“It’s the best way to look at guys in your position,” he stresses. “Rather than saying ‘they are competition, I can’t learn from them’, you look at them and see what gets them in the team and how you can add that to your game.
“Also, with older guys like John Barclay who have been and gone, I feel like I’ve developed a lot just from watching them train and seeing how they go day-to-day.
“With Bill, I wouldn’t say I’ll be able to do half the stuff he can do, but there are things that you can look at to grow your own game. Nick is a completely different player, but he’s class and again there’s things I can take.”
“There’s always things you can work on. For me, I tend to take it on a game-to-game basis. I want to be as physical as I can be and keep doing what I do well, and maybe develop my ‘soft skills’ such as catch-pass so that I can be more of a link player.
“But I tend to not look too far ahead. If you think about the end goal to play for Scotland it’s not going to get you far. You need to focus on the short term before the bigger picture.
“I’m 25 now so I’m getting on a bit, but I would never say I was a senior player when you look at guys like Stuart McInally and Grant Gilchrist,” he adds. “It is also easy to forget that there are young guys coming through like I was a couple of years ago, and I remember looking up at the likes of Dave Denton and trying to learn from them and follow in their footsteps. Cockers and other coaches have said to me that I have to set that marker because there are younger guys who will follow what I do.”
With that in mind, Bradbury suggests that it would not be catastrophic for Edinburgh if both he and Haining are called up by Scotland during this period while Mata is out of action – because it could give some of the younger members of the squad [including academy prospects Rory Darge, Conor Boyle, Ben Muncaster and Jack Mann] some valuable game-time.
“If it’s not guys that are older than you then there’s young guys coming through as well – like Luke Crosbie and some of the academy boys, so there’s real talent in the back-row,” he says.
“In a couple of years’ time, if we’re all still here and still playing, there’s going to be a huge amount of quality, even more than there is at the moment. You look at these guys and see what they can do, and it is encouraging – it’s always good for the team – but personally you’re like: ‘Oh hell, I need to be good this week to keep that spot!’.”