DAVID Denton might have flown into Scotland from South Africa but, after being handed his first opportunity to face the Springboks at Test level, he is clear that there will be no mixed loyalties this weekend.
The 22-year-old lost his place in the Scotland team for the summer tour due to injury and started on the bench last week due to the impact of Alasdair Strokosch and Kelly Brown in his favoured No 6 and No 8 berths. However, the big Edinburgh back rower came off the bench after 20 minutes against New Zealand when his clubmate Ross Rennie suffered a dislocated shoulder and was one of Scotland’s top performers, slipping in at No 8 with Brown moving to the openside flank role.
With South Africa presenting arguably the most physical challenge in the back row, Scotland coach Andy Robinson has opted to stick with those three and bring specialist openside John Barclay on to the bench.
Denton is delighted and, although he grew up in Zimbabwe and was schooled at Kingswood College in the Eastern Cape of South Africa’s “frontier country”, he told The Scotsman that there was only national team he dreamt of playing for, and they did not wear green and gold.
“I’ve never wanted to be a Springbok,” he stated unequivocally. “I’m Scottish through and through. My parents drilled that into me from when I was very young and because I grew up in Zimbabwe there is probably more of a chip on the shoulder there.
“I guess having grown up there and watched these players, and seen their names across the press when I was pushing on as a young player, I would like to show now that I’m as good if not better than them.”
Denton is a confident, driven character and although he only made his Test debut in August last year, is in the most competitive part of the Scotland squad and had a slow start to the season with Edinburgh, he said he found it tough starting on the bench last week.
“I was very disappointed to be on the bench and I did feel that I had a point to prove. The guys helped me a lot when I got on the field, reminding me what my job was, but my job is pretty basic, get the ball and get us going forward. If I do that then I’ve have a good game, and if I don’t I’ve had a bad game.
“I like that. It’s very cut-throat in the sense that people know when I haven’t played well, but it’s more obvious when I have. I like that pressure and particularly against a team like this, who are probably the best at the style of rugby that I play, it’s great to measure myself against them.
“I don’t see the game as being any different to any other just because it’s South Africa, and I spent a lot of my life there. Every time you pull on the Scotland jersey is a massive opportunity. The opportunity to play against guys I’ve grown up watching is good and a great challenge, but I won’t be doing anything I don’t normally do.”
Even in defeat, Denton will have impressed the British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland, who was at Murrayfield on Sunday watching alongside Scots Andy Irvine, Lions team manager, and Guy Richardson, Lions logistics manager. Richie Gray probably put his hand up too, and another, more experienced player returning to the starting line-up, who would also like to be seeing red at the end of the season, is Euan Murray, restored immediately to the Scotland front row after missing Sunday’s game due to his religious beliefs.
The 32-year-old tighthead admitted that it was a tough call on his team-mate Geoff Cross, who stood up well to the All Blacks pack but knows that selection is not something he controls.
“It’s up to the selectors,” he said. “Geoff did play well at the weekend and scored a really good try, and that was exciting stuff, with a great performance by the team at that point.
“Geoff and I have shared the jersey over the last 12 months or so, and we just go out and do our best when the selectors give us the go-ahead. I’ve got no doubt that he’ll be coming on at some stage on Saturday and will put in another good performance.”
As for his match fitness, having moved from Newcastle to French side Agen on a three-month loan – he will join Worcester after the autumn Tests – Murray is confident he will be able to take on the Springbok pack and help give the Scots a solid platform.
“France has been great fun. I was there three months and picked up a little injury midway through, but I was involved in the last three games and started against Stade Francais at the weekend.
“I have been working hard to keep fit, trying to look after the body, and I played 50 minutes at the weekend and felt good.
“I played briefly against [Gurthro] Steenkamp in the Toulouse match a few weeks ago, and we didn’t expect him to be starting, but they have loads of experienced, powerful props. But a prop doesn’t make a scrum; it’s eight men working hard, and it makes a big difference having big men like Jim [Hamilton] and Richie [Gray] behind you.”
As for whether potential Lions selection adds to motivation, Murray, having been injured and ruled out before the Tests on the 2009 tour, added: “It’s always in the back of our minds, what we might be doing next summer, and all the guys in all the British Isles teams will be going for it. But I’ll just work as hard as I can and then see where we are.”
All players will have different little aspects to their motivation, but that is the challenge in a nutshell for Denton, Murray and the rest of the Scottish team this weekend – to work as hard as they can, and then lift their heads to see what mark they might have left on a powerful South Africa team.