THERE isn’t much that Scotland’s pro-teams have in common, but both Glasgow and Edinburgh lost experienced scrum-halves over the summer with Greig Laidlaw joining Gloucester and Chris Cusiter moving to Manchester to hook up with Danny Cipriani at Sale Sharks.
Cusiter was, without doubt, Glasgow’s first-choice No.9 last season and Laidlaw was a fixture in the Edinburgh starting XV for a few years, captaining the club and kicking goals from all points of the compass. It seems like it will take two players to fill the void left by the little Borderer, and the double-barrelled bullet that is Sam Hidalgo-Clyne might just be the man for the job.
The pretender to Laidlaw’s throne may lack the older man’s experience, his game management skills and his metronomic ability to turn penalties into points but the 21-year-old scum-half does boast one priceless asset that can’t be taught... blistering pace. How fast? Plenty fast. Fast enough to play on the wing for Edinburgh last season and fast enough to compete with the club’s twin flyers Dougie Fife and Tim Visser.
“Am I up there with the wingers?” Hidalgo-Clyne says rhetorically when put on the spot, “I guess I am.” He reveals that he has clocked 3.9 for the all-important 30-metre test before adding. “I don’t know what he’s doing at the moment, but Viss’ best ever was...” he hesitates, a little unsure of his statistics... “3.87 seconds perhaps?”
Whatever the truth, the boy has rockets on his boots, so it is no great surprise that he reveals an abiding admiration for Danny Care, the quick-thinking, live-wire No.9 who proved vital to England’s success in last season’s Six Nations.
“I actually look at Danny Care and I think that’s how I want to be,” says Hidalgo-Clyne. “I like how he plays, I like the speed he plays at and the consistency he has at that pace. It’s very hard to play at that pace and play with consistency and accuracy in passing. It’s easy when you are a slower scrum-half but when you try to pick things up and you try to go forward left, right and centre, it’s difficult to maintain that accuracy. I really admire what he does and that’s how I want to play.”
The big question is, will Alan Solomons give him free reign to do so? So far the answer is not altogether encouraging. The head coach is trying to bring some structure to a club that oscillated between helter and skelter, occasionally managing both at once. Against Leicester last weekend Hidalgo-Clyne was itching to tap a couple of penalties and run at the Tigers’ retreating defence. That he didn’t suggests he was sticking to the script.
“This year we are backing our set piece so, much as I want to go, we are not looking to tap penalties,” he admits. “We are looking to try to get our set piece working and maybe getting into their 22 and mauling it and trying to score.”
The South African coach is a fan of Hidalgo-Clyne, dubbing him “an absolutely outstanding young talent,” but Solomons has insisted that the set piece and defence are the two cornerstones of his rebuilding programme.
Hidalgo-Clyne has an interesting hinterland. Born in Granada to a Spanish dad (the pair are now estranged) and a Scottish mum, his parents divorced when Sam was three and he had been adapting to tricky situations pretty much ever since. He kicked off at Edinburgh’s Royal High only to win a rugby scholarship to the high-priced public school Merchiston Castle in Colinton. He thrived there, even if they insisted on playing him at stand-off throughout his five-year stint at the school.
“I always considered ten my main position,” he insists with a wry smile on his face, “until I got moved to nine.”
Even then, he played full-back one year young for the Scotland under-20 squad at the World Cup and played one match for Edinburgh on the wing. It would have been more but for an injured knee that kept him out of action for most of the summer.
Now he is fully committed to the No.9 shirt and, in the absence of Laidlaw, Hidalgo-Clyne can concentrate fully on making it his own. He came off the bench at half-time against Leicester last weekend and started Friday’s match against Newcastle Falcons at Hawick.He may get first dibs on the jersey and, if so, he probably has the MacPhail scholarship to thank. He spent a season in New Zealand just as he moved to scrum-half and the experience of Kiwi club rugby in his new position proved invaluable... as did lessons from his hero.
“That was huge for me, a great experience, because I had just moved to nine and it takes time to learn the trade,” says Hidalgo-Clyne.
“I am still learning now, so getting 15 games under my belt, in a different style of rugby, quick, how I like to play anyway, it was massive. Then I came back and went straight into the season, I got my first game as a nine against Northampton pre-season. I watched [Crusaders’ scrum-half] Aaron Smith every game and watching him on TV for New Zealand, everything he does is clinical. It’s very quick, his pass is brilliant, he knows which lines to run, he knows when to get on to players’ shoulders because he reads the game very well. It’s just what I was trying to do when I was out there.”
The other skill he learned was the importance of setting goals, be they for an upcoming match, the next month or further out. Initially Hidalgo-Clyne says that his “main goal” is to make Edinburgh’s No.9 jersey his own this season but he eventually concedes that his sights are set a little higher – Scotland’s World Cup squad.
“Being quite young as well, I want to push forward, I want it to happen now, I don’t want it to happen in a few years,” says the ambitious youngster. “People say, because I’m young, that I have time but that’s not really the case for me. Rugby is a short career and you want to get on with it, be as good as you can and get as far as you can. My goals are pretty challenging but if I work hard I think I’ll get there.”