By STUART BATHGATE
IF IT’S Tuesday, it must be Resistencia. Having travelled overnight from Houston on Sunday then flown from Buenos Aires to this northern city on Monday, the Scotland squad have just spent their first night in their new surroundings. The winter sun is keeping the temperature around the mid-20s, and after the urban bustle of Edmonton and Houston the team hotel’s semi-rural setting may feel in some ways like a welcome change.
But the fact that there are few distractions here could lead to a little spot of stir craziness, while last week’s defeat by the United States has cast a shadow over the squad. Staying focused and preparing professionally will be vital if they are to finish the tour on a high with a win against Argentina in the Estadio Centenario here on Saturday.
Fortunately, while there are seven new caps in this relatively inexperienced squad, there are also some players who know exactly what it takes to stay focused when the going gets tough. Take Sam Hidalgo-Clyne.
Approaching the end of April, the scrum-half looked in danger of being cast out into the wilderness. Talks on a new contract with Edinburgh had broken down months earlier, and with no other clubs appearing interested, his future was very uncertain. Perhaps hoping to benefit from the 24-year-old’s lack of offers, Edinburgh then got into touch again to offer him a short-term, less-than-lucrative deal until Christmas.
It is implausible that anyone at Edinburgh, or indeed above them within Scottish Rugby, would see that deal as a positive one for the player. Far from motivating him to want to do well, it simply seemed punitive.
Then, within a couple of days of the deadline for accepting that offer, Scarlets put a contract on the table. Hidalgo-Clyne did not take long to sign the two-year contract with the 2017 PRO12 champions, and since then he has not looked back. Eagerly anticipating the start of pre-season training with the Llanelli-based side, he is also, of course, back in the reckoning with Scotland. He started the win against Canada, came off the bench in the loss to the USA, and now appears sure to have a role to play in the last match of this tour, against Argentina in this northern city, close to the borders with Paraguay and Brazil.
The last time this reporter met Hidalgo-Clyne, he was, understandably, preoccupied with the future. He and his partner had their first child, a boy called Hugo, at the start of the year, so security for his family was at the top of his agenda. Now, with that security in place thanks to the Scarlets deal, he is in a confident and positive frame of mind: looking forward to the new challenge in Wales, and determined to hold on to his place in the Scotland squad after fighting so hard to get back in. We chat just after breakfast, as the bus waits outside the hotel to take the squad to a light training session.
The Offside Line: It looks like things have turned round for you after you were in danger of being left out in the cold for a while – is that how you see things now you’re here with Scotland and as of 1st June you’re officially a Scarlets player?
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne: “I’m really looking forward to the move. Scarlets is a great move for me – the way they want to play rugby and the set-up they’ve got there. It’s all positive.
“We went down there just before the tour and had a little look round and got a tour of the club, which was good. I enjoyed that, and now I’m just looking forward to moving down there and meeting the guys.”
TOL: How did the move come about?
SHC: “It happened all very quickly. Edinburgh offered me the deal till Christmas and I was trying to look elsewhere. I think it happened within about four or five days. I spoke to Scarlets just to see if they were keen, and it turned out they were pretty keen, and it happened just before I had to let Edinburgh know.
“I think them having Gareth [Davies, the Welsh scrum-half] there is a good thing for me as well – being able to test myself and try and push him, and vice versa. That will probably bring out the best in me and in him as well, so it creates the depth in the squad, which is obviously important for them.”
TOL: Ideally, would you have stayed in Edinburgh?
SHC: “I had told Edinburgh I wanted to stay. Having had the house, and the little man, it would have been quite settling to stay – we had family around us, we knew what was going on there and we were pretty comfortable there.
“But on the flip side, once I found out that they didn’t want to keep me it was a case of ‘That’s it, I’ve got to move on now. I’ve got to be a big boy and get on with things’.
I think that attitude matured me a bit, once I realised that moving on was the best thing for me. It will be good for my career just to step out of my comfort zone and try something new. Obviously we still have to see if that will be the case, but I’m sure it will be and I’m looking forward to it. I think it will nature me even more, which is good.”
TOL: What will your best memory of your years with Edinburgh be?
SHC: “I met a lot of very good mates, close mates that I’ve been very close to for a long time now. Benny [Toolis] and Allan Dell, George Taylor – there are lots of good boys there.
“But also I think the rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow is a great thing. When you come into camp with Scotland you can be good mates, then on the pitch it’s totally different for 80 minutes because of that rivalry. We’ve always been underdogs and we’ve . . . . not lived for that game, but always seemed to step up for that game. It becomes a real dog fight, and having been able to come out on top in a few of those has been absolutely fantastic.”
TOL: You’ve spent the last year working under Richard Cockerill – what did you make of the Edinburgh head coach?
SHC: “I thought he was very good for the club in the way that he deals with people. You might have a hard game on the Friday night or the Saturday and think that surely at the start of the week it’s going to be pretty light and on Tuesday we’re not going to do our fitness – then come Tuesday straight away we’re doing fitness again. I think it’s just repetition which builds that mentality of ‘we’re not taking a step off the gas’.
“Every week is a big game for us. If you compare that to the last few years, we’d have a really good win against the likes of Ulster, and then – no disrespect to them – but then lose to Zebre the week after. I think it was important this year that we backed it up after a win.
“And also the previous season we lost a lot of games by one or two points. This year we’ve won a lot of games by one or two points. So the difference is scraping wins rather than losing them, and that’s probably down to the mental edge to be able to come out on top. You’ve seen the likes of Glasgow do that over previous years to get to where they are now, or Leinster, who manage to keep winning when the Six Nations are on and they’ve got their second string out.
“I think Edinburgh are certainly better in that sense, that they’re staying in games, making it difficult for the opposition, and finding a way to win.”
TOL: Before this tour your last caps were in 2016. Did you ever think your international career was over?
SHC: “Yeah, when Edinburgh told me they don’t want to keep me. To be honest, when I learned that, I was looking at going over to France, and just enjoying the lifestyle, enjoying the sunshine, and I wanted the wee man to learn French.
“I spoke to Gregor and said ‘What’s the scenario? Am I in your plans? If not, I might only be able to find a Pro D2 side’. I had to ask the question, because it came to the point where I had to make a decision.
“Gregor said I was in his plans, but if I signed for a Pro D2 side it wouldn’t be at a high enough level. So I said I’d sort something out and stay this side of the Channel]. Being involved in Scotland means a lot to me, so I tried to sort things out with Edinburgh, that didn’t pan out, and then I went looking elsewhere.”
TOL: So what has the tour been like so far?
SHC: “It’s been really good, I’ve enjoyed it – it’s been nice to be back in the set-up. Because I got injured right before the last summer tour, I didn’t get the chance to work under Gregor and Mike Blair and all the other coaching staff. So actually to be on tour and see how they work has been brilliant. I’ve really enjoyed learning as much as I can from Mike.”
TOL: What were your thoughts on the USA game?
SHC: “Obviously we were really disappointed to lose the game last week. You should never be losing a game like that. We need to learn from that.
“We played really well in patches, just that middle half of the game, either side of half-time, we let them back in the game. We had a lot of young players out there, so they’re not all experienced in being able to close out games and knowing how to play smart rugby and not give them opportunities. I thought the USA tries came very easily and were really soft, and we had to work a bit harder for ours. But at the end I always felt we were going to score – there was a lot of pressure going their way – it was just where we scored. That came into play: we tried to go through the middle, but the space was on the outside.
“I was going to take the kick, but only Blair’s tee came on. I had no problem with Blair taking the kick – I had full confidence in him. He’d been nailing them in training throughout the camp, he’d been hitting them in the warm-up, he’d had one good one from the touchline earlier in the game. I hadn’t taken a kick yet. I might have missed the kick anyway – it was a tough one. But the good thing is Blair will learn from that experience of having a tough kick in a big game.
“The crowd while he was kicking were appalling, really. They were screaming at him, and shouting, so we’ll learn from that as well.
“I’m really looking forward to the Argentina game. I met some Welsh fans in the airport, and they said the home crowd was very loud until the second half, when they quietened down a little bit. So hopefully we can get on top of them and quieten them down. Apparently there’s not been a game here for four years, so there should be a good crowd.”
TOL: You’re back in the squad just now – do you allow yourself to think about the World Cup just yet?
SHC: “The World Cup is obviously a long-term goal, or maybe a short-term long-term goal. I’d love to be involved in another World Cup – I felt at the last one it was a difficult one for me, because I didn’t really play much. I think it was 11 minutes against South Africa, so not a huge amount of game time, and that was tough, specially with being away from home for so long.
“I’d like to get down to Scarlets and get as much game time as possible, and be involved in the Autumn Tests and the Six Nations. If I am, I can maybe look forward to the World Cup. If I’m not, I’ll just have to keep working hard.”
TOL: We’re here in a Spanish-speaking country and you were born in Spain – can you still remember a bit of the language?
SHC: “I wish I did speak Spanish. My dad’s Spanish and my mum speaks fluent Spanish, although her accent’s maybe gone.
“When we came over from Spain to Scotland, I was three and my brother, Jose, was five. He was going to school and learning English. I started picking that up from him, because I didn’t fully speak Spanish. He’s got a cool name – Jose Antonio. I’m Samuel Peter, and I look more Spanish than him.
“It is a big regret of mine, and I’d love to go back at some time for six months or a year and pick it up again. It’s a brilliant skill to be able to have, to go to another country and be able to speak their language. When I hear people speaking it here I try to pick up a few words and see if I can make sense of it: sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. When I go on holiday I certainly pick it up pretty quickly – you’ve just got to be around it for a while.”