HAVE boots, will travel. Steven Longwell’s determination to make the absolute most of his rugby career will see the 30-year-old tight-head prop head off to Washington at the end of the year to join Old Glory DC ahead of their second season as an MLR [Major League Rugby] franchise.
Before that, he is going to get a belated taste of Super6 rugby turning out for Watsonians in the ‘sprint’ competition which kicks off at the end of October, as the Scottish domestic game slowly starts to build back towards some sort of normality.
“That should be ideal preparation for heading across to Old Glory,” he says. “I’ve been warned that they play a very fast paced brand of rugby over there with a lot of Kiwi and Australian coaches bringing their southern hemisphere influence – and some might say that’s not really my natural game – so all the running that we are doing in pre-season with Watsonians should pay-off.
“I’ve tried to work on my fitness during lockdown. I’ve lost five kilos, so I’m feeling in pretty good shape and just looking forward to getting back into it after so long off.”
Longwell, who had spells playing club rugby with Hillhead Jordanhill, West of Scotland and Dundee High – as well as a summer playing Shute Shield in Australia with Eastern Suburbs – really began to think about trying to make it in the professional game after he joined Ayr in 2015.
He was a key man in the teams which won the Premiership in 2017 and the Premiership and Cup double in 2019, leading to five caps for the Scotland Club XV, training opportunities with Glasgow Warriors, and trials with Doncaster Knights and Sale Sharks. However, no contracts were forthcoming, so instead of joining Ayrshire Bulls when Super6 was launched last Autumn, he and his agent decided to look further afield and ended up securing a deal with Verona in Italy.
His new club being relegated from the top flight of the Italian game after he had signed the contract but before he had arrived was a set-back, but the opportunity to focus more or less full-time on training and playing rugby was still there (with a little bit of coaching at the academy thrown in to keep things fresh), and Verona were well on the way to being promoted straight back into the Top12 when coronavirus brought the season to a shuddering halt in mid-March.
“The standard at the top of the league I was playing in was about equivalent to the old Premiership [pre Super6], but there was some real mismatches when you played teams in the bottom half of the table,” he explains. “I probably would have stuck around if we had been promoted, which we were on course to do, but when the league season was declared null and void I knew that it wouldn’t be beneficial to me as a player to stay for another year, so it was a case of asking around to find out where there might be another opportunity.
“We were aware that there was a couple of new franchises launching in Major League Rugby who were looking for players, so that’s what turned us towards America. I got in touch with Jake Turnbull [an old pal from his Shute Shield days], who played last season at Old Glory, and he mentioned that they were looking for a tight-head, and it went from there, really.
“The initial contact was through Andy Douglas, the head coach, and a couple of weeks later I was offered the contract which I signed almost straight away. It is a two-year deal as a full-time professional, which is fantastic because it will give me a chance to really work on developing my rugby.”
While Scottish Rugby bought a share in Old Glory last year, Longwell doesn’t think that was a factor in his recruitment. “It was a case of us hearing that they were looking for a tight-head and us initiating conversation, so the Scottish link is just coincidence,” he says.
After a nervous wait and a trip to the US consult in London before his visa application was approved, Longwell is just relieved to finally have the move confirmed and is not looking beyond the next two years at this stage – although he ultimately sees himself back in Scotland and hopefully using his experiences around the globe plus his level three coaching certificate to stay involved in the game.
“I don’t want to be that guy who just floats around and doesn’t really push himself onwards to be the best he can be during the short time we all have as players,” he says. “I want to play as often as I can and have as many different rugby experiences as I can.
“I’m 30 now so probably reaching my peak as a front-row forward and if I can get the best out of myself, which will mean helping Old Glory succeed in MLR, then the longer-term plan is to bring that back to Scotland and get into coaching.
“Ten years ago, I would have laughed at you if you’d told me I was going to get the chance to play in Australia, Italy and now America – it’s been an amazing journey,” he concludes. “I’ve been really lucky to get the chance to go and live in these places, playing the game I love. I just want to make the most of every minute of it.”