ALEC HEPBURN was born in Australia and was capped six times by England back in 2018, but the loose-head prop who made his Scotland debut in Saturday’s Six Nations opening weekend win over Wales points out that his heritage is part of the fabric at Murrayfield Stadium.
The 30-year-old Exeter Chiefs player, who has taken advantage of World Rugby’s three-year stand-down rule, explained: “My great-great uncle, Charles Hepburn, and another fella [Herbert Ross] were First World War veterans. They started a whisky company and they employed a lot of ex-servicemen. It must have tasted good for a few people [because] they managed to amass a little bit of money from it, and he sold it in 1959 and passed on the proceeds. Some went to Glasgow Zoo, some went to Glasgow University and then some went to the SRU for undersoil heating at Murrayfield. Hopefully, I’ll get to meet this guy in another lifetime.
“The whisky was called Red Hackle – it was the flower they wore in their hat in their regiment, so they named it after that. I’ve found a bottle or two, one was in Italy, but I’ve never tasted it. I’ve needed a special occasion so maybe some day soon I’ll open it.”
Regardless of his uncle’s important donation to the national rugby cause – with Murrayfield the first international venue to have undersoil heating – Hepburn’s recruitment by Scotland does not sit well with a lot of rugby supporters who fear that the current eligibility rules are being exploited by Tier One nations in particular to create a club style transfer system which devalues the international game.
For his part, Hepburn anticipated that his commitment to Scotland would be questioned, but promises that having the opportunity to wear the dark blue jersey is a privilege he doesn’t take lightly.
“It’s a little complicated,” he replied, when asked about the back story which led him from Hopetoun – a small town in Western Australia with a population of around 500 people and a seven hours drive to the nearest city – to becoming a dual international on the other side of the planet.
“My father [George Melvin] was born in Glasgow – a Rangers fan. Chris Paterson was his favourite player from a rugby perspective, and I got to meet him the other day. His family moved around a bit – his parents took him to Australia, but he moved back to England [later in life] and I went to live with him there [aged 14]. We always had strong Scottish heritage but we moved around a lot as a family.
“He passed away in 2018. I had a moment before the game where I was reflecting a lot upon that. I know he’s always proud of us but I think this would be a little bit more special wearing a Scotland shirt.
“Thankfully my mum [Dolores] was able to be there – a lot of my other family weren’t – but I guess you always think about those who aren’t there on days like that.”
Hepburn had joked for years with Scottish team-mates such as his old room-mate Moray Low, Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray about the possibility of switching allegiance, but it was off the table between his England caps in 2018 and the introduction of the three-year stand-down clause in the eligibility laws in January 2022.
The first approach from north of the Border came via a conversation with Gregor Townsend that September and he was cautiously positive about the idea, before a 10-month battle with glandular fever helped solidify his position.
“The first thing was [checking] that it was a real thing because I’d been winding up Jonny for so long that when it came up, it took me a moment to gather my thoughts,” Hepburn recalled. “It happened pretty quick but my next question was how it might impact my club career because I’d been at Exeter for nearly a decade. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing there so I wanted to speak to Rob Baxter [the Devon club’s Director of Rugby] and other people to see if that would affect me going forward.
“Then, within a couple of weeks of meeting Gregor, I was on the sidelines. I’d be lying if I wasn’t a bit apprehensive of what other people might think but after being out for so long, I just thought if I ever get the opportunity, I’d love to seize it. Gregor’s given me that opportunity and hopefully I can seize it.
“Objectively, it probably does seem a bit funny [that he played for England first], but I didn’t know what rugby was until I moved there when I was 14 – I wanted to play basketball when I was at home – so they taught me how to play this game and for that I’m grateful.
“But I think a lot of people wouldn’t have known my father was proud Scottish, he got married in his tartan. It’s not just a loose connection, so for me, after being out for a while, I thought I’d love to prove to myself that I could do it and any flak that came my way, I’d just have to take it.”
Hepburn came off the bench with 20 minutes to go in Saturday’s match when Scotland were on the ropes after conceding three quick-fire tries to see their 27-point lead reduced to just eight. It was a high-pressure situation, but he proved himself equal to the task, with his contribution to the scrum key to the visitors holding on for a nail-biting victory.
“Speaking personally, I just got stuck into them,” he smiled. “There’s a lot of opportunities to have an impact in some way so as a prop you can make a few tackles. Whenever there is a knock-on you can hopefully have an impact at a scrum and really try to take away their momentum. They had massive momentum in that second half which takes a bit of wrestling to get back in our hands.
“Everyone contributed. Teams like Wales are always going to have their moments, and they did, clearly. They’ve got a lot of good players. It took a good effort but I think we knew the areas we could sway it back, and the set-piece was one of them, especially for me and Elliot [Millar-Mills] as props. We figured that was the easiest way to try and take the momentum back.”
It should be enough to earn another shot in the dark blue jersey against France at Murrayfield this coming Saturday.