AT EVERY opportunity since becoming Scotland’s head coach, Vern Cotter has voiced his belief in his players. But perhaps no-one has been given as big a vote of confidence by the New Zealander as Adam Ashe, who went from scholar to graduate in the space of a few short weeks last summer.
Now 21, the Livingston-born forward was the latest recipient of the John Macphail Scholarship to New Zealand last year. It is a prestigious award with a conspicuously high success rate when it comes to turning promising players into full internationals – Ashe’s forerunners in 2013 were Finn Russell and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, both of whom are now his team-mates in the Scotland squad. All the same, the back-row forward can hardly have expected such rapid elevation as he received from Cotter, who selected him for the summer tour and then gave him a debut against South Africa.
“I had played two or three professional games of rugby at that point,” Ashe recalled yesterday. “It was a good confidence-builder being thrown in at the deep end against one of the best teams in the world. It gives me confidence to do it again coming back from injury.
“[Cotter] kept in contact when I was out injured, which is really nice. It keeps you positive when things are not going well with you through injury. He’s been brilliant with me since he came in.”
A neck injury kept Ashe out of action for three months until the end of February, and, at one point, it looked to be touch and go whether he would be involved in the Six Nations at all. But, after making his comeback for Glasgow Warriors, he returned to the Scotland ranks last week as a second-half replacement in the loss to England, and will start against Ireland this afternoon at No 6. “The neck has been fine,” he said. “The Munster game a few weeks ago was my first game back. I had a bit of a reaction a few days after, but it settled down quickly enough. But that was always going to happen coming back from three months out, then getting back into tackling and playing rugby. Everything has been fine since then, so I’m hoping to play a big part in the game this weekend. It’s always tough to watch when you’re not playing. I’m glad to be back involved and able to do my part. When you come back from injury you come back as hungry as you’ve ever been, as you’re not getting to do the thing you love. When you get back to being fit you can’t wait to get back out there.
“Although I‘ve not played much rugby, I am hungry for it. I want to go out there and give everything I’ve got.”
To date, Ashe has been primarily seen as a No 8, but he is just as much at ease when playing at blindside. He faces competition there from Rob Harley at both club and national level – Harley has been demoted to the bench today to accommodate Ashe – but, with Edinburgh’s David Denton and the soon-to-be-eligible Josh Strauss also competing for the No 8 jersey, the flank may be a more suitable long-term option.
“I’m comfortable playing six or eight. I was out in New Zealand in the summer and played most of my rugby at six. It’s a position I’m familiar with – I played there with Glasgow last week.
“It’s a slightly different position, more involved in the kick chase and more time in the defensive line, but it’s something I enjoy doing and I’m glad to get my opportunity there. I might swap with David tomorrow and I’m preparing for that. I’ve not spoken to Gregor [Townsend, Glasgow coach] about playing at six in the long term, but maybe it’s an option.”
If Ashe does end up at six, he may have former All Blacks blindside and captain Reuben Thorne to thank after receiving some words of wisdom from him last summer. “I was fortunate enough to get one-on-one coaching with him when I was out in New Zealand.
“He would take me for a session on a Wednesday, and work my game through from the weekend. I got a lot of invaluable advice from him.
“It was at Crusaders. He does some of the academy coaching and comes in a couple of times a week to work with the loose forwards. His speciality was at the breakdown – different clear-out techniques, over-the-ball stuff and slowing down the ball and getting it back.”
While many Scots shy away from any suggestion that they are under pressure to get a win, Ashe had no hesitation in stating that, this afternoon, his own team had more to lose than an Ireland side who are going for the Championship. “We need to win this game. They have got a lot of pressure on them to win this Championship, but we need to win this game to get ourselves back on track. We’ve been losing games, but we feel we’ve been playing well. It would be nice to get the result this weekend and put a performance in. They’re focusing on a big win for them and they’re looking forward to taking the title. But we’re focusing on ourselves.
“This is a massive game we want to win. We haven’t had a win yet in the Championship, so this is a game for us to get back on track and, with the World Cup coming up, we want to finish this campaign on a positive note.”