IF Robbie McCallum looked like a guy with a point to prove when scoring two fine tries during his excellent man-of-the-match performance for Boroughmuir Bears in their win over Southern Knights last Friday night at Meggetland, then that’s because he is.
The 21-year-old centre might not phrase it quite like that himself, but he does admit to a sense of frustration that after three years as a full-time stage three member of the Glasgow Warriors academy he has now accepted an offer of an office job in London and heads off to the Big Smoke next week, meaning this weekend’s rematch against the Knights [2pm on Saturday at Meggetland] is likely to be the last game he plays in these parts for the foreseeable future.
“I wasn’t sure what was happening with rugby – there was a bit of uncertainty – so I was looking for a plan B and managed to get a job down there,” explains McCallum, who currently combines his rugby with a distance learning degree in business and management at the University of London. “It will be something new – which will be exciting – but I’m quite nervous.
“It all came about quite fast, in the last couple of weeks,” he adds, before confirming that he won’t be lost to the game completely, and that he still hasn’t given up on the dream of playing at pro level at some point in the future.
“I’ve got some decent standard rugby sorted down there, so I’ll still be playing – that’s not going to be an issue,” he reveals.
“It’s just how things have panned out, to be honest. I need to look out for myself. I’ve been involved [in the academy] for three years and the last six months have been frustrating with the way things have worked out.
“I feel like I have been quite close but not just there yet. I’m not resigned to rugby not being an option for me in the future. If it happens, it happens.
Leinster – who will take on La Rochelle in this weekend’s European Champions Cup Final and who were comfortable winners in the league section of the United Rugby Championship – have used 59 players so far this season, comprising of 46 senior professionals and 13 academy players.
Meanwhile, McCallum is one of 15 players named as Glasgow Warriors’ stage three academy members at the start of this season. Of that number, prop Murphy Walker has made six appearances for the top team and was promoted to a senior contract in January, while back-row Gregor Brown came off the bench in the defeat to Lyon earlier this month. The grand total of Warriors game time for the other 13 is precisely zero minutes.
The argument might be made that players like McCallum are not yet ready for the step up, but the same logic was used for Ross Thompson last season until Warriors ran out of options and they had to give the stand-off a run. The rest, as they say, is history.
The raw data tells us that 54 players in total were used by Warriors this season, consisting of 52 senior squad members and two who started out in the academy. In fairness, the conversion rate was better when the squad was more stretched last season as seen with the emergence of the likes Thompson and Ollie Smith, but there is clearly an issue which needs addressed in terms of getting more young players ready for the step up to pro rugby and then finding opportunities for them to get fully up to speed at that level.
Some might argue that the 5ft 9ins and 13¾ stone McCallum lacks the bulk to play inside-centre in professional rugby, but that would ignore his pace, agility, ability to spot a gap, handling and tenacity over the ball, all of which was in evidence during last weekend’s match at Meggetland.
“I guess you’d have to ask other people about my size,” he says. “To be honest, I’ve never felt like that is something that really bothers me. I know I’m not the biggest guy, but the way I play my rugby I feel it has worked out for me.
“I’m not a straight, hard ball-carrier – a big bruiser – so I need to put different skills into it,” he adds. “Being involved in the academy, I feel like I’ve had to improve my playmaking skills. At school, it was just about getting the ball and running around but handling under pressure is key if you want to play at the next level.
“And when it comes to competing in the tackle area, my size is something I can use to my advantage. I’m not the biggest guy so if I can get over the ball I’m pretty hard to move.”
For his part, McCallum makes it clear that he is heading south in a positive frame of mind, and with no hard feelings about his time in the academy.
“I’ve grown up through the ranks with guys like Ross Thompson so I am delighted to see them do so well, and it is good to see these boys show that they can do it when they get their chance,” he says. “Ideally, things would have gone all smooth and happy for me, but I’m not massively bitter about it – it is just the way things work out.”
There are echoes of grandfather Struan McCallum’s own rugby story here. He was a small but powerful, tough as teak and technically excellent tight-head prop who linked up with Ronnie Boyd and Ian MacLauchlan to form the revered Jordanhill College front-row of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was desperately unlucky not to rise above Scotland B cap status due to the existence of a certain Sandy Carmichael who dominated the dark blue number three jersey during that period.
Young McCallum’s own rugby journey started out at his local club, West of Scotland, where he also played cricket under the guidance of former Scotland fast-bowler John Blain, who orchestrated a cricket scholarship for the youngster to Loretto School in East Lothian aged 15.
McCallum played cricket for Scotland at under-15 and under-17 levels, but also kept up his rugby and was part of the national under-18s side which completed a clean sweep at the 2018 age-grade Six Nations Festival in Wales, when his midfield partner was Edinburgh’s Matt Currie.
He was in the frame for an academy contract straight out of school until tendinitis in his knee side-lined him for six months.
“That left me at a bit of a loose-end and my brother was going out to Madrid as part of his university degree, so I thought I’d tag along,” McCallum takes up the story. “I could have stuck around and stayed in the academy at a lower level but thought I might as well go and get some life experience.
“I loved Madrid. It is such a nice city and the rugby – playing in the top division for a club called Complutense Cisneros – wasn’t a bad standard, although I was only 18 years old and had only played school rugby before so I maybe I wasn’t the most knowledgeable judge!
“I planned to be there for a year, but after a few months they asked me to come back for a Scotland Under-19 camp and I ended up playing alongside Ollie Smith in the centre against Wales and Australia, and we went quite well so they asked me to stick around for an under-20s camp.
“I ended up playing the Under-20s Six Nations as well that year , and then I was offered a stage three academy place, so it just shows how things can swing one way then another in rugby. It is never going to be a straight road.”
McCallum missed the start of the inaugural Super6 season with a shoulder injury but returned to play a leading role in the 2020 Under-20s Six Nations, scoring a try during Scotland’s historic 52-17 win over Wales in their final match of the campaign – which was the night before Covid pushed the world of sport in lockdown.
“That shafted me a bit,” shrugs McCallum, whilst recognising that he is not the only young sportsman to have suffered from having their career put on hold at a vital point in their development.
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When Super6 did return last August, he was a consistently impressive performer for a Bears side which struggled for wins but remained competitive throughout. He missed two matches due to Covid but played the full 80 minutes in the other nine games.
“That was brilliant for me,” he reflects. “I was at the point of my career when I needed consistent rugby at a decent standard if I wanted to improve.”
McCallum has continued to impress during this Sprint Series, although he recognises that last Friday was a particular high point.
“I think it was just one of those days when you keep finding yourself in the right place at the right time and everything seems to come off,” he says. “In the first few games there were glimpses of that, and it was nice to see everything come together.
“We’ve had this habit of working really hard to make our tries, it will take us a while to get there, and then we’ll gift the opposition some easy points, so that’s what we’re trying to get past.
“When you are winning games, it does make it easier for individuals to stand out, but I think we’ve done really well as a team, with everyone sticking together and everyone contributing,” he adds.
“And in the last couple of weeks, although we’ve won, we still feel there is things we can improve. There is going to be one game when it all clicks for us, and that is going to be brilliant because we’ve got the talent in the squad to take it to any team.”
He’ll be a big miss for the Bears, but his departure will create a gap for someone else to grab their chance – which is the way it should work.