IF Alex Dunbar is selected to play for Scotland against France at Murrayfield this Sunday, he will make his international return a year and a day after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee whilst running alone during the build-up to last year’s Six Nations clash with England.
This time he was side-lined for just under a month, but Dunbar still looked likely to shoulder his way back into the Scotland side for the start of the Six Nations when his second comeback allowed him to feature for his club in two titanic European tussles against Northampton Saints and then Racing 92 in mid-January – only for a mild posterior thigh strain suffered in the second of those games to rule him out of contention for the English, Welsh and Italian contests.
Now, after a full 80 against the Dragons with a try thrown in for good measure just over a fortnight ago, followed by the first 40 minutes against Cardiff Blues on Sunday afternoon, Dunbar has been parachuted back into the national squad. With Matt Scott struggling with an elbow injury sustained whilst playing for Edinburgh against Connacht on Friday night, the selection conundrum facing the national coaching team is between retaining Duncan Taylor at inside centre after three solid performances in the tournament so far, or gambling on Dunbar being able to fully replicate his form of over a year ago.
Given the luck he has had during the intervening 12 months, Dunbar can surely be forgiven for feeling slightly uneasy when talking about putting his injury woes to bed. He says he feels fit enough to go toe-to-toe with the French on Sunday, but bitter experience has taught him not to look too far ahead.
“It’s a difficult one. You get back the first time and you feel good, but then it’s about getting the conditioning back. You’ve not taken the big impacts for so long, it does take you a couple of games to get used to that. It’s frustrating because it has taken six months [after the initial injury has recovered] because of a couple of other niggles,” he said.
“You do all the hard work to get back to fitness, you play a game and feel good, then you go into the next game and pick up something that pretty much means you can’t lace your boots up for another two or three weeks. So, it’s been stop-start but I feel pretty good just now, I’ve done quite a bit of conditioning work and I feel I am ready to go into these last couple of games, if selected.”
It is hard to believe that if Dunbar were to get the nod this weekend and there were no other changes in Scotland’s starting line-up, then he would be the third most experienced player in the team in terms of caps previously gained. Only imports WP Nel (nine caps) and John Hardie (eight caps) would have played less times.
It says a lot about the impact that Dunbar made during a relatively short period of time that he is still regarded as such an important player in the national team.
“I feel like I am almost back to the sort of level I was at, so it is just a case of getting in there and playing regularly and enjoying it. In the couple of games I have played for Glasgow I have done alright, there are still a couple of things I need to keep working on week-to-week, but I feel good just now and I feel fresh. It’s just a case of letting the rugby do the talking,” he said.
“It comes back to you pretty quickly. In the first training session there is sometimes a little bit of inaccuracy, but once you get the second and third sessions and then leading into the captains run before a game you feel back to normal. You feel that you have trained together all the time and it is just second nature.”
While Dunbar was clearly wary of tempting fate when talking about putting his injury problems in the past, he insists that has suffered no psychological hangover from his wretched run of luck these past twelve months.
“Once I got back to training and taking contact it was never something I was bothered about. If it happens it happens and you just have to get on and try and do stuff. There was never anything at the back of my mind which was holding me back. I just chucked myself straight into it and hoped for the best,” he explained.