GRANT STEWART’S remarkable journey from 2nd XV club player to international athlete is set to reach its destination on Saturday afternoon when the 24-year-old hooker comes off the bench to make his Scotland bow in the team’s World Cup warm-up match against France.
Just over three years ago, he was trying to force his way into the reckoning at Glasgow Hawks whilst working for his family’s haulage business. He had represented Scotland at Under-17, Under-18 and Under-19 level but failed to make the Under-20s squad for the 2015 Junior World Championship in Italy, and had been dropped out of the SRU academy programme.
His rugby career seemed to have stalled, but Stewart kept digging away, and he got his big chance with Hawks at the start of the 2016-17 season after Jack Macfarlane left the club to take on a pro contract in Jersey. He grabbed it with both hands – scoring a series of scintillating long-distance tries to demonstrate that his sturdy frame was no barrier to impressive pace.
Stewart started training part-time with the Glasgow academy, then became a full-time stage three player at the start of the 2017-18 season. He made his Glasgow Warriors debut off the bench against Leinster in the Champions Cup in January 2018 after the club had been hit by a hooker crisis, and he was called up briefly as injury cover to Scotland’s tour squad last summer. He was still an academy player at this point, and was not handed a senior deal with Warriors until December 2018.
With internationalists Fraser Brown and George Turner at the club, game time has not come easily, although he has now played 24 games for the club including 10 starts. Stewart was a surprise pick for this World Cup training squad ahead of Leicester Tigers hooker Jake Kerr – but Townsend says the player has risen to the occasion brilliantly and has no qualms about throwing him in at the deep end on Saturday.
“He’s developed really well – he’s a really interesting character,” said the coach. “He came into this camp as probably our most inexperienced player in terms of not playing any age-group international rugby. He’s only been a professional for a season, really, going from academy to pro level; and he’s not been involved with a Scotland 23 at all, although he came on tour last year. And he’s a quiet lad.
“What he’s done in this spell … we had a day at Ratho with Euan Burton [Scottish judoka coach and Olympian] with a wrestle competition at the end of that session, and Grant stood up as the strongest forward and won the wrestle competition.
“He’s had to make improvements in parts of his game. First of all the physical side in having to improve his conditioning, so we’ve seen him improve that at Glasgow and now he’s had two months to improve here. He’s up against some really good athletes in his position and elsewhere in that pack, so he’s had to work really hard.
“What we see from him when he plays is that he goes for it. He gets on the ball, he runs hard, he puts tackles in. He transforms from a quiet lad that might not have the history of others in the group to someone who can’t wait to get on the ball, can’t wait to make a big tackle.
“The other area where he’s improved is his throwing-in. He’s much more accurate than a couple of seasons ago, so credit to him for the work he’s put in there,” Townsend added.
“He has Fraser and George working with him at Glasgow and we have a throwing-in coach who comes in once a week with our players. He’s in good company but he has to do the work. He sees Fraser, Stuart McInally and George going out for extra reps and he understand he’s got to be doing that as well. He obviously has because he’s improved a lot.”
Turner, who will start at hooker on Saturday, only has six caps to his name, so there is not a huge amount of experience in this highly technical and pressurised position for this game – but Townsend is backing the Glasgow Warriors pair will be ready to take the game to France.
“You’ll see George play a lot this year and you’ll see he’s going for it as well – he’s an outstanding player,” said Townsend. “For Glasgow this [past] year, he had some man-of-the-match performances and it’s unfortunate that he picked up an injury at the start of the Six Nations and had to miss the rest of the season. He’s a big tackler, someone who has real skill and explosivity. We are lucky with the hookers we have and if they’re all fit we’re in a much stronger position than when they’re all injured.”