Will the World Cup come too soon for Stafford McDowall?

20-year-old centre knows that he has his work cut out to establish himself in Glasgow Warriors squad first

Stafford McDowall
Stafford McDowall is one of a number of bright young prospects poised to break into the Glasgow Warriors team during the next year Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

TEN months is a long time in rugby. More than enough time for a young uncapped player to force his way into the Scotland squad.

Adam Hastings, for example, was still making appearances for Currie last autumn, but by June the Glasgow Warriors fly-half was on the summer tour. George Horne, too, first forced his way into the Glasgow team, and then went with Scotland to Canada, the US and Argentina. And Blair Kinghorn needed only half that ten-month period, from being correctly deemed too error-prone for Test rugby by Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill to making his debut in the Six Nations.

The key to such rapid progress is adaptability: how quickly a young player can come to terms with the demands both mental and physical being put on him at PRO14 level. And judged on that criterion, Stafford McDowall has to be seen as a contender for Gregor Townsend’s Rugby World Cup squad.

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An outside contender, perhaps, given the strength in depth at centre, where at Glasgow alone Alex Dunbar, Huw Jones, Pete Horne, Nick Grigg and the currently injured Sam Johnson are all ahead of him in the pecking order. But the former Scotland Under-20s captain can also play at  full-back, so has versatility on his side. And he fitted in so well to the Warriors team in their last two league outings – “seamlessly”, according to head coach Dave Rennie – that he seems sure to be used more often in the coming months.

Window of Opportunity

Having said that, the next international window during the Six Nations is McDowall’s best hope of a consistent run in the side,  and it remains to be seen if that will be too late for Townsend’s liking. Asked if he saw a place at the World Cup as a dream or a realistic target, the 20-year-old opted for the former.

“It’s definitely a dream at the moment,” he said on Monday after training with the Warriors as they prepare for Friday’s home league match against Cardiff Blues. “It’s small steps: I’d like to get some consistency in here first, and these international periods are the best time to do that, so I’ll try to take my chance while I can.

“To see how well Adam [Hastings] and George [Horne] have done and how seamlessly they’ve managed to fit in to the international set-up – it gives you a lot of inspiration. Those are two guys I definitely look up to. But as I say, I just want to take it one step at a time and get some consistency.”

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The reticence is understandable, but it should be said that McDowall’s last couple of steps – Warriors’ most recent two games, against Munster and Ospreys – have been surefooted indeed. So surefooted, in fact, that it would be no surprise were the current Fosroc Scottish Rugby Academy player to be given a full-time contract for the rest of the season.

“I went to Munster as 24th man originally, wasn’t really thinking I was going to be involved and then got called up last minute and I played 60 minutes,” he recalled.

“So that was a bit of a shock, but it was good. It’s a lot easier because I enjoy playing with Nick Grigg, he’s a really good player to be inside of. He chats to you a lot and having guys like that around you makes it a lot easier to fit in to the system.”

One to watch

Rennie has certainly been impressed by how well McDowall has fitted in, and although he began his assessment of the centre with a few cautionary words, there was no disguising the coach’s pleasure about the progress of the player who came to prominence with Ayr in the Tennent’s Premiership.

“I try to squash all the talk about good young kids coming through, so people don’t get too carried away,” he said. “He’s been in outstanding form in club footy. He’s a year and a half into training with us full-time. I thought he had a really strong performance against Munster where he played about 65 minutes, and then again against Ospreys.

“He’s certainly a better player now than he was 12 months ago. You’ve got to give credit to him: he works really hard at his game, he’s a smart kid, really diligent – it’s just great that he’s taken his opportunity.

“He’s got a really good skill set. He’s a very good distributor, got a good left foot. He’s a smart footy player, very, very fit, and his work rate is outstanding. He’s slotted in seamlessly and we’re very, very happy with him.”

Given the way he oversaw the progress of Hastings and Horne last season, Rennie is surely best placed to predict when McDowall will follow them into the Scotland squad. So will the World Cup come too early? Would it be ridiculous to think he could be in contention?

“It’s not ridiculous, but look, there’s a lot of good midfielders in there, and we’ve got a number of midfielders ahead of him technically here. But as you’ve seen with us, we’ll pick on form, so he’s certainly made a statement over the last couple of weeks and he probably deserves another opportunity.”

The Cardiff match should be the next opportunity, and after that, with the next tranche of Heineken Cup games looming, McDowall may have to bide his time before being recalled to the Warriors’ starting line-up. But his rise has been rapid thus far, and if he gets the game time needed to keep up that rate of improvement, he will at least force the Scotland selectors into a careful consideration of his claim when it comes time to finalise the squad for Japan.

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About Stuart Bathgate 1414 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.