ALASDAIR Dickinson grew up watching the tournament now known as the RBS Six Nations Championship, but there were still a few shocks awaiting him when he made the jump from Scotland supporter to player. There is the attitude of the Parisian constabulary to visiting teams on the drive to the Stade de France, for example – so deferential that they even try to kick cars out of the way as they speed through the streets to the stadium. And, more generally, there is simply the sheer excitement of being out in the middle of the pitch, with the chance to influence events, rather than sitting in the stands.
“It never gets old,” the Edinburgh prop said yesterday of the tournament, which begins for Scotland this year with a game in France on Saturday. “I’ve always grown up with the Five Nations, as it was back in the day. It’s something that’s been ingrained in you since you were a kid. So it never gets old – it just gets tougher. It’s a great tournament.”
“It’s a little bit surreal,” he continued when asked how it felt like to play in the championship after watching it for so long. “At the end of the day I’m just a Scottish supporter – that’s how I started out, coming to Murrayfield to watch Scotland. To be privileged enough and lucky enough to play for Scotland is a huge thing for me. When you first play it’s quite strange to be in the arena rather than in the stands.”
When Dickinson first played rugby at any level, he was, by his own admission, a chubby chap. It was inevitable, then, that he would be brought up to play in the front row.
“I was a pretty fat kid so I kind of got launched in there. You see a fat kid, you go ‘Right, you’re a prop’. Unfortunately I had too many cakes when I was wee.
“My dad was a prop. He’s called Ian, he’s from Manchester, but he came up to Dundee when he was a student. He played for the university then Dundee HSFP. I’ve played for them as well. He got me into rugby. I used to play for Dundee juniors and Dundee High at the weekends. He used to take me along when I was maybe five, six years old. Rugby’s been a big part of my life.
“He’s been here since he was 18. He’s a true Scot – probably one of Scotland’s biggest fans. It’s great to come from that background and have that sort of support.
“My mum and dad love it. In my career they’ve probably missed three or four games. My dad was a prop. He loves it, and he’s just retired so he’s loving it even more – weekends away. If I’m picked they might try and get a late flight to Paris, but we’ll have to see what the selection is first.” Now 31, Dickinson made his international debut in 2007, and represented Scotland in Paris two years later for the first and so far only time in a 46-19 defeat. “There was a severe tighthead drought,” he claimed. “It was a tough day at the office. It’s one I’ll never forget.
“When you drive in [to the stadium] there is a real buzz. It adds to the excitement. It’s one of the great rugby stadiums, especially with the French crowd which is extremely noisy and gets behind the French team and makes it a real occasion. It is really exciting.
“They’re crazy in France,” he continued when asked about the police outriders who accompany the team buses from their hotels. “They ride in front kicking cars out of the way. There’s no way that would happen in Britain, but typical French, they’re driving along with one leg kicking cars. It’s an impressive sight.
“You get treated with a lot of respect in every country, but things like that are an eye- opener when you see it happening. They’re crazy, crazy men. It’s hard to describe them: crazy in a good way.”
As a prop, Dickinson could easily have five or six years left in him at Test level, but he has seen the physicality of international rugby change drastically since he started, and is very aware of how tough it is to keep up. And in any case, he never presumes he will ever be selected for another Scotland squad, so believes he must make the most of every opportunity.
“Every year it gets harder, so you do have to step up every time. Every time you play you just treat it as if it’s going to be your last – that’s the view I take. Hopefully it’s not my last, but that’s the view I take and I treat it with a lot of respect.
“Every year in any league, players just get bigger and stronger. When I started 11 years ago the size and strength of the guys was nowhere near what it is now. Guys come in and they’re just machines these days.
“Some of the hits are pretty brutal these days, so every year it gets harder and harder. And your body needs to get more robust – or broken.”