JON WELSH’S international career began with him frantically changing into a pair of match shorts in the tunnel under the stands at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome just a few minutes before Scotland ran out to face Italy in the final game of the 2012 Six Nations Championship.
He had travelled with the squad as second back-up replacement, and was good value after the match when recounting the events leading up to his shock appearance on the pitch.
“We had just finished the warm-up and I was helping pick up the tackle bags when Matt Scott came over and nodded to the corner where Allan Jacobsen was down on the ground. I had seen this sort of thing before, and initially I was pretty relaxed. I thought he would be okay. But when he stood up, and I saw the agony in his face, the butterflies exploded in my stomach,” recalled a wide-eyed Welsh at the time.
“So, they got him back to the changing room and were piling the strapping onto his ankle, and I was just standing there waiting. The team huddle was done and dusted and the boys were all lined-up ready to go out when I heard a voice say: ‘Jon, you’re in’.”
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“I was still wearing my t-shirt. Luckily Chunk hadn’t put his strip on yet, so I grabbed that. Then I realised I had the wrong shorts on and I had to change them in the tunnel before going out. I was in my boxer shorts as the Italians lined up next to us.”
“There was no build-up – it was from zero to 100-mile per hour in a matter of seconds.”
Welsh’s repartee added some welcome merriment to proceedings at the end of a dire afternoon for his team [they had lost 13-6, leaving them clutching a wooden-spoon washed in white].
Three-and-a-half years later, it looked to all the world like his time as Scotland player had come to an end when he was the man penalised – wrongly it later transpired – for catching the ball in and in an offside position in the final seconds of an epic World Cup quarter-final tussle against Australia, which handed opposition stand-off Bernard Foley the opportunity to kick the game’s three decisive points and in the process book a semi-final spot against Argentina.
It is rarely dull when the big prop from Newton Mearns is about.
So, it was surprising – and slightly disconcerting – that the gregarious 31-year-old was initially in rather subdued form when he met the press earlier this week to discuss his return to the international fold. He answered all the questions politely, fully and honestly, but his usual spark was missing … at least initially.
Then again, it is far too easy to forget why he is sitting at a table in an aerobics studio modified into a press conference room at the Scotland team’s camp inside the Oriam high performance centre in west Edinburgh, with a barrage of cameras clicking in his face and a legion of badly dressed hacks asking inane questions.
Welsh was not there to entertain, and he certainly has more important things to think about this week than trying to persuade keyboard warriors and overly anxious rugby fans that they shouldn’t be worried about the fact that the top three Scottish tight-heads at the start of this season are all unavailable for this weekend’s trip to Cardiff to take on Wales.
“Obviously it’s a massive honour to be picked to start and it’s good being back in. I’d always been in training squads or at least called back into them. I don’t think the desire ever goes away to play for Scotland. I just kept training away and I’ve been lucky enough to be given another shot,” he replied, when asked for a reaction to his selection for Saturday’s match, more than two-and-a-half years after his last cap.
He is asked if it riles him that there is so much talk about the opposition scrum going after a Scottish front-row missing so many front-line contenders.
“Not at all, I’ve got my own job to do and focus on that. I’ve played with Gordon Reid for years and played with and against Rambo [Stuart McInally], who I can see has come on leaps and bounds, his set-piece has improved massively. We’re only going in with one intention,” he retorts.
It is safe to say that the ‘intention’ he talks of does not involve rolling over and having their tummies tickled by Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Samson Lee and chums.
Then the inevitable questions about that fateful day at Twickenham when he last wore the thistle on his chest arrive, and still he plays it cool by refusing to lay the blame at referee Craig Joubert’s door.
“Has anybody here tried to referee a game before?” he asks. “There are a thousand of things going on. Maybe other refs would have gone to the TMO. There was almost the exact same incident on the Lions tour and they got the call right. He made the call and he stuck with it. Obviously if he had gone to the TMO he would have seen it came off Nick Phipps [the Australia scrum-half].”
“I remember when it happened and everything was going on. We knew after it straight away when Greig [Laidlaw] and Gordon [Reid] were up screaming: ‘Go back to the TMO it came off the nine!’ But he made the call. In the game of rugby, you respect the refs call. It is tough for a referee. He did not get the call right there.”
Okay, so maybe he does blame Joubert a bit, but he does deserve credit for at least trying to be diplomatic. The important point in Welsh’s story is how he reacted to that set-back.
The next day he received a phone call from John Wells, his new head coach at Newcastle Falcons. Welsh had joined the north-east club that summer but had not yet met up with his new team-mates. He was given the chance to take a week off, but opted instead to grasp the bull by the horns.
“I said I was happy, my family was there. So, I got a flight straight to Newcastle and I was back into training on the Tuesday [the quarter-final had been on the Sunday]. It was light stuff. Then we got to the Thursday and the tighthead was injured and couldn’t play, so they phoned me to say they were happy for me to start against Northampton if I was happy. I said definitely.
“Was it a way of dealing with it? It was at the least a different focus, and that Sunday I played Northampton. I remember I didn’t know anybody’s names as I was just in the side. I was running about saying: ‘Pass the ball’.”
As a loose-head prop who had not been part of any performance programme or played professionally until he was 22, and who did not switch to the tight-head until he was 26, Welsh’s set-piece has been on a steep learning curve. He readily admits that his introduction to English Premiership rugby was an “eye-opener”.
In an interview with The Sunday Times last month, Welsh talked about that first match for the Falcons.
“The first scrum collapsed. The second one, the ball just sits there. Their front row was Alex Waller, Dylan Hartley and Kieran Brookes and I’ve got [Rob] Vickers and Scott Lawson beside me. I’m going: ‘Why’s nobody using the ball? It was just squeeze, squeeze, squeeze: nobody’s moving’,”he recalled.
“I’m like: ‘Somebody use this ball!’ It wasn’t until somebody collapsed, somebody got a wee edge that it’s moved to the back of the scrum and gets used. That was it for the full game.”
“Most teams in England will chap the door first on your set-piece, and Micky Ward [the Falcons forwards coach] has been fantastic for me. He’s opened my eyes to loads of things I can bring.”
“We’ll sit down and look at everything, whether my left shoulder’s popping up, I’m turning in, my back’s rounded… there’s a hundred things he’ll go through, and it might just be a case of moving a couple of inches, but it can make a big difference. I’ve only worked for two or three weeks with [Scotland forwards coach] Dan McFarland, but he seems very similar: very detailed.”
That Welsh has not only survived but flourished in the Premiership environment says a lot about the man and the player he has become. By the time he finishes talking about his time with Newcastle – the lessons he has learned and the friends he has made – he is back to something resembling his convivial best.
“As I have gotten older I realise it takes time for a team to gel together. That is what you are starting to see at Newcastle, a group that has been together for three or four years now with wee tweaks here and there,” he reflects.
“We have a good attack coach with Dave Walder and a good forwards coach in Mickey Ward. That said, the state of mind is a big part of it. When you have a group of happy players that translates out onto the pitch.”
“I’ve always said that if you perform well for your club your country comes after that. I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a winning team down south in England. It seems to be paying off. It’s a great group down there: players and coaching staff. Since I joined we’ve been growing and learning.”
At 31, Welsh is no spring chicken, but as a tight-head prop he is not over the hill yet.
“One of my rugby mates sent me an old team photo at Whitecraigs. It was a good reminder. It has been a different journey compared to some guys who come through the academy and age grade. It has been a great journey,” he reflects.
There could well be a few more twists in the road yet.