This year’s recipients of the John Macphail Scholarship, Patrick Kelly and Ross McCann, need only glance at the list of past beneficiaries to grasp the magnitude of the opportunity they have been presented with.
From the inaugural award back in 2005 given to John Barclay, who won his 50th cap in the recent Six Nations, the subsequent decade has seen the likes of Kevin Bryce, Roddy Grant, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Finn Russell and Adam Ashe enjoy an extended stint playing and training in New Zealand before going on to forge successful professional and international careers.
Now in its 12th year, the scholarship established and funded by the Robertson Trust in memory of the former Scotland hooker John Macphail, who died in 2004, will see two promising members of the BT Sport Scottish Rugby Academy system fly out to Canterbury on Saturday and spend 15 weeks immersed in the Crusaders high performance unit and playing for local clubs.
Glasgow academy and former Scotland Under-20 centre Kelly and Edinburgh academy wing McCann were officially announced as the 2016 scholars at BT Murrayfield yesterday in the presence of the Macphail family.
Kelly, 20, is from Inverness and a product of Highland RFC before moving to Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh on a scholarship. He spent his gap year playing for French second division side Le Parc before returning to Scotland to attend Glasgow University and become a key player in last year’s under-20 team before going into the academy system.
He has aspirations of breaking into the Warriors first team next season and is thrilled by the opportunity to go to New Zealand.
“Hopefully, rugby-wise, it will help me to come back and push on into the professional ranks and maybe get a few games for Glasgow during the international period,” said Kelly, who has been playing for Glasgow Hawks. “Mark Bennett has been my mentor this season through the Glasgow academy and he’s been a massive help. Hopefully I’ll make some good friends there and see a different part of the world.”
McCann, 18, is a former pupil of Edinburgh’s Royal High School and has moved on from RHC Cougars to Stewart’s Melville. He said the list of former recipients brings a bit of pressure as well as inspiration.
He said: “It’s a bit daunting actually because you read that list – John Barclay, Finn Russell, Adam Ashe – guys who are big names now in Scottish rugby and actually in the rugby world generally. I’m hoping to follow in their footsteps and become one of those big names if I can.”
Academy chief Stephen Gemmell and director of rugby Scott Johnson made the final decisions after input from the academy managers, pro-team and age-grade coaches.
Gemmell explained that outside backs was an area where they were particularly keen on bringing players through and said that the burgeoning academy and age-grade programmes meant more and more young players are candidates for such an experience.
“It’s getting more difficult each year to make the decisions and that’s great,” said Gemmell. “If you look back to the very beginning, John Barclay was the obvious choice because he was the stand-out young player at that time.
“Now we’ve got numerous players who are up for discussion and debate on how we get their programmes right.”
Gemmell agreed that one of the striking things about the list of previous scholars was the speed at which they have developed their careers after returning from New Zealand.
He said: “If you were to speak to any of those guys they’ll talk about the impact it has had on their career. They have been able to maximise the opportunity. They have had a mindset and a desire to get better.”