GLASGOW WARRIORS head coach Franco Smith is not a man prone to wild flights of hyperbole, so when the level-headed South African declared himself “heartbroken” for Rory Darge after the flanker had injured his knee during his team’s 1872 Cup defeat to Edinburgh on 30th December, we all feared that another lengthy lay-off was on the cards.
Having sat out the 2023 Six Nations with an ankle injury, missing this year’s edition of the championship would have been an especially bitter pill to swallow for the individual – and a major blow to Scotland’s chances of a positive tournament to help heal the wounds of last Autumn’s World Cup disappointment.
But the man himself explained during Monday’s 2024 Guinness Six Nations Launch in Dublin that he was rather more sanguine than his club coach initially was about his prospects of making the tournament.
“It was a weird one. I kind of thought I knew what it was. I’ve done my MCL before, but that was a complete tear this time and it’s not a complete tear this time,” Darge explained. “But you never know. There’s a bit of time before the scan, and you’re sat there thinking ‘what could this be?’.
“If I’d had to put money on it, I would have said it was probably an MCL and probably not as bad as when I’d done it before … but you always have the what-ifs in the back of your head.
“To get the scan back as what it was – obviously I’m not glad to be injured, but I’m glad it’s not as bad as what some people feared.”
Darge’s selection last week as co-captain (alongside Finn Russell) of the Scotland squad for this Six Nations certainly suggests that he and head coach Gregor Townsend are confident that he will play a meaningful role for the side over the next two months, and it is apparently entirely possible that he could be involved in the campaign opener against Wales a week on Saturday – although he did sit out at least some of yesterday’s training session at Oriam.
If he does make it, Darge will be performing at the venue where he made his international debut just two years ago, so knows exactly what to expect and insists that he will relish the febrile atmosphere of the Principality Stadium.
“I remember the nerves in the build-up, but the main memory I have is getting on the pitch and not being able to hear anything,” he raced at Monday’s Six Nations tournament launch at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. “It was the loudest stadium I had experienced up to that point, by far.
“At that stage of the game [as a 63rd minute replacement in an agonising 20-17 defeat], it was quite close and cagey, so you were trying to hear line-out calls and they were totally drowned out by the noise of the crowd.
“It’s a pretty cool atmosphere down there, and my family being there was massive for me. They got to come to the hotel afterwards – it was some moment.
Asked if he thinks he thrives in that cauldron-like atmosphere, he responds without hesitation: “Absolutely. It’s what you look forward to. I will never take it for granted. Singing the anthem is always a goosebump moment, and it gives you so much motivation.
“That’s why I think the intensity is so high in Test matches, because you’re just off the back of singing your national anthem with however many thousand people singing back at you. It’s something I can’t wait to get back into.
“At the time, I hadn’t experienced anything like it. Coming off the bench into that, it was really striking, whereas if you’re starting you’re used to it from the get go.”
Asked if any other atmospheres he has experienced in his still fledgling international career have come close to matching that debut experience in Cardiff, he replies: “Saint Etienne before the World Cup, during the warm-up, that was pretty loud as well.
With just 15 caps to his name in those two years since his debut, Darge has a lot less miles on the clock than a lot of the players in the Scotland squad, but he carries himself with an understated authority, speaks well and his most important attribute is his uncompromising approach towards preparing for then playing the game.
“I’m hoping it’s not going to change too much,” replies the 23-year-old, when asked if he is daunted by the challenge of leading some players who are considerably older and more experienced than he is. “I’ve been involved with the leadership group for a couple of years and it’s always been pretty good in terms of there being a lot of shared responsibility.
“Doing it with a guy like Finn, that in itself means there is shared responsibility. I’ve got lots of guys I can lean on.
“It’s different in terms of it not being one man [anymore], and that’s not just with it now being co-captains – the whole time I’ve been involved with Scotland, it’s never been one man.
“That’s something Jamie Ritchie was really good at – delegation and bringing other people up to be leaders. He’s someone I’m going to lean on a lot. I got a nice message from him when the announcement was made, but I was never worried it was going to be awkward. I’ve known Jamie for a long time and he’s a great guy, a real professional who cares about Scotland and performing well for Scotland. That’s his whole thing.
“There are so many other guys too. When I first came to Edinburgh, Gilco [Grant Gilchrist] and Rambo [Stuart McInally] were guys I looked up to, and obviously Gilco is involved in this squad.
“Then Kyle Steyn and Sione Tuipulotu are both leaders at Glasgow, having both skippered the side, so I’m not short of leaders in the squad who can help out.”
“I definitely think what I can do best is lead by example,” added the former Scotland Under-20s skipper. “What I’ve learned from my limited captaincy experience is that the biggest challenge, the most important thing, is that you perform well and that your training standards are as good as you say you want them to be.
“That’s what I will be focusing on first and foremost, and the rest will hopefully come naturally. It’s not something I am going to spend too much time thinking about. If the moment comes, I’ll try to deliver.”
There’s a steady head on young shoulders there, but also a ferocious inner-drive which is mostly innate but also reinforced by having not had everything come easily, with injuries and a spell as a professional trainer at Edinburgh at the start of his career feeding into his psychological make-up.
“Everyone has to go through it, and it makes you all the more grateful for the opportunities you do get,” he shrugs.
“When you spend a couple of seasons training hard and getting physically better that helps, but when you’re not then getting picked at the weekend, not playing rugby, it’s hard.
“So, when I did get my opportunity at Glasgow, I didn’t take it for granted in any way, and things have been pretty sharp since then.”