DAVID BARNES in KOBE
THE standard public response of professional rugby players who have been left out of the team for big matches is to talk opaquely about the tightness of the squad and the importance of supporting those selected for the game, which is all very heart-warming and noble but doesn’t really ring true coming from highly ambitious, competitive and dedicated individuals.
So, it is refreshing to hear Ben Toolis talk candidly about his vexation at being excluded from the match-day squad for both of Scotland’s World Cup outings so far, with Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray starting in the Scotland engine-room, and new kid on the block Scott Cummings preferred on the bench.
“If I am being honest, it’s been really frustrating,” said the 27-year-old Edinburgh player. “For the last couple of years, the main goal has been to get to a World Cup. You put in the hard work and you play consistently well … but there is a lot of competition in the second-row.”
Toolis was involved in 20 of the 29 games Scotland have played since Gregor Townsend became head coach up to the start of this World Cup, which has added to his sense of exasperation at his recent slide down the pecking order.
“I don’t think my performance levels have dropped, to be honest with you, I feel like I have played consistently well,” he stressed. “I can be very hard on myself when I know I have not been performing, I have had stages in my career where I haven’t been playing well and you have to be honest with yourself, but this time I don’t feel as though I have had a dip in form.
“I have been playing well, but Gregor just wanted something different off the bench [in Cummings], while Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray have been playing really well.
“You do get feedback from the coaches, but it has not been with anything I have done wrong – they have just been rewarding other boys. I haven’t been disappointed with what I have been doing, I have been doing the same for the last couple of years.”
Still a team player
It is important to stress that this was not an exhibition of sour grapes from Toolis, just an honest response to a difficult situation.
“I feel as though I am on top of my game and I need to make sure I’m not too hard on myself for something I haven’t done wrong,” he explained. “You take confidence from the fact that all the second-rows are good players. It’s tough, but that’s life.”
“That’s sport at the end of the day and somebody has to miss out,” he added. “You have to be a good team-mate at that point and make sure everyone else has prepared well. You have to try and help the team get a result and that’s what I have been trying to do. But it has been frustrating.”
Toolis is almost certain to get his first taste of World Cup action on Wednesday when Scotland’s second-stringers will be charged with getting a result in the team’ penultimate pool game against Russia, while Townsend gives as many of the front-liners as possible the day off so that they are fresh and fit for the team’s do-or-die clash against against Japan in Yokohama four days later.
“I will try and have a really good game and try and help the team reach the quarter-finals. I’ll definitely play my part if I get my chance,” he vowed. “I know that things can change really quickly. You see boys not playing for other countries and when they get back in there, they are outstanding. If you are negative the whole time you would not be ready to go straight back in there.
“You just have to stay as positive as you can and keep doing what you are doing. It is a mental skill. To make sure you stay on the ball. It can be frustrating, but you have to stay positive.”