MOVING south made Fraser McKenzie a better player but worsened his chances of a Scotland call-up, he tells Iain Morrison
It’s a tiring time, for the mind, body and soul, fighting a relegation battle, and Scottish lock Fraser McKenzie is manning the barricades for the second time in as many seasons. Last time round the houses he was struggling to keep Sale Sharks’ nose above the waterline and this season he is fighting to maintain the Newcastle Falcons’ top-flight status.
This afternoon the Falcons, with a decent scattering of Scots including McKenzie, face London Irish in Reading where even a solitary bonus point will go some way to helping keep them safe. They were all but secure until Worcester Warriors re-discovered their fighting spirit to grasp their first win of the season against the Falcons a couple of weeks back.
“It was a strange match, there wasn’t much rugby played, that was the disappointing thing,” muses McKenzie. “We should have won if you look at the match stats. We had 100 per cent lineout, we had a dominant scrum but we just didn’t put away our chances. One missed tackle and they score in the corner.
“I am looking forward to the end of the season, enjoy the holidays and build for next season. I’ve gone from being in a relegation battle with Sale to being in a relegation battle with Newcastle. It’s definitely been tough.
“Any team coming up from the Championship is always going to struggle because Newcastle couldn’t start recruiting players until they knew they had promotion, by which time almost everyone has signed somewhere. I think that [Falcons director of rugby] Dean Richards’ plan was just to stay up this season and recruit for next year.
“The rugby in England is maybe not so different but there is more pressure on you because of the threat of relegation. There are no easy games – even when top teams are playing teams at the bottom of the league they will get a tough game – but I think after three years down here and a lot of rugby it has made me a better player.”
If he’s right the irony won’t be lost on McKenzie, who admits that he is further from the national squad now than he has been at any stage of his career. Just turned 26, he has time on his side and expresses an impressive determination to muscle his way back on to the selectors’ radar. A few years ago he was uppermost in their minds but slid back in the ranking after moving south to Manchester in 2011.
He was hot property off the back of a stand-out breakthrough season with Edinburgh that had pundits purring that it was a matter of “when” rather than “if” the big lock would join Richie Gray in the Scotland boiler house. In one Heineken Cup match against Northampton at Murrayfield the home side scored three first-half tries with McKenzie seemingly at the heart of every one, galloping about like a flanker and off-loading the ball like a Harlem Globetrotter. It was to prove the high water mark of his career to date.
“I had a good season with Edinburgh,” he recalls. “There was some turmoil in the SRU and I knew a couple of guys at Sale like [the then forwards coach] Stevie Scott and Steady [Graham Steadman] who was defence coach. You make these choices in life and I have no regrets, I’ve really enjoyed my three years in England and I’ve played a hell of a lot of rugby.
“If I had stayed at Edinburgh I might have been capped by now but that is still a goal of mine. At the moment I am being overlooked, I am probably as far from the Scotland squad as I have ever been, but that is just something that I will have to overcome.
“I play in a very difficult area where there is lots of competition. You have the established guys and then you have people like Jonny Gray and Grant Gilchrist coming through but it is down to me and my performances to ensure that I fight my way back. Who knows, one day I might end up back at Edinburgh. I’d like to return home at some stage.”
In terms of rivals, McKenzie may even face one today in the shape of the Exiles’ back-five utility player Kieran Low, who won one Scottish cap last autumn on the flank, although he is listed as a lock by London Irish.
McKenzie’s bid to elbow his way back into the reckoning may be helped by the change at the top at Murrayfield. The lock admits that he has only spoken to former Scotland coach Scott Johnson once in his life. He doesn’t really know the man and it is possible that Johnson doesn’t really know him. McKenzie may not recognise replacement Vern Cotter if he bumped into the Kiwi in the M&S underwear department but a new coach brings a fresh attitude, a clean slate and new hope for those that have found themselves left out.
With so many Scots either playing elsewhere or about to move – the World Cup pack could boast seven exiles, Johnnie Beattie, Kelly Brown, John Barclay, Jim Hamilton, Richie Gray, Euan Murray and Scott Lawson – it’s worth asking if the grass elsewhere really is greener.
Obviously there can be financial advantages to moving – the likes of Richie Gray (Castres) and Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester) are filling their boots and why not? But it’s not just the money that attracts players to France. As Beattie argues on this page, the whole French experience is as beguiling now as it ever was, although foreign rugby is not to everyone’s taste.
Mike Blair lasted one season at Brive, Scott MacLeod managed the same time in Japan, which is more understandable, and Chris Paterson barely got a toe hold in England’s Premiership with Gloucester before returning to Edinburgh somewhat chastened. Moving abroad can boost a player’s international career but all too often the opposite happens.
Back in 2007 Scott Murray, the most capped player in the history of Scottish rugby at the time, moved to France immediately after the Rugby World Cup that turned out to be the big fella’s swansong. Murray’s stellar international career was over at the age of 31. Fraser McKenzie’s has yet to start. The foreign grass may be greener but it’s not always tinged with blue.