EYES across the rugby world may be focusing on Australia and the British and Irish Lions, but three weeks in South Africa could play a far more significant role in determining the state of Scottish confidence heading into the 2015 World Cup.
Supporters will hope that the Scottish trio of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Richie Gray build on their promising first appearances in the red jersey of four nations, and return later this summer to become cornerstones of the Scotland squad as it builds towards the RBS Six Nations Championship and the 2015 World Cup in England.
But who will join them? Scott Johnson has taken nine uncapped players in a party of 30 to South Africa for a unique quadrangular tournament featuring the hosts and Samoa and Italy alongside Scotland. Throughout the tour we will turn the spotlight on each of the new faces and assess how important they could be to Scotland’s future plans, and we kick off with Glasgow centre Alex Dunbar, who turned 23 on 23 April.
A year ago, he was fretting about whether he still had a professional future as Glasgow head coach Sean Lineen debated whether he had room to keep him on. Injury to Graeme Morrison handed Dunbar an opportunity, and the youngster grabbed it. Not only did he finish the season strongly for the Warriors and secure a new contract but he was called up as a late replacement on the summer tour to Australia, Fiji and Samoa. No Test cap came his way, but he was delighted nonetheless.
“It was quite an end to the season for me,” he said, “but also a huge step forward in my career.
“In my first couple of years at Glasgow I had niggling injuries and couldn’t string a run of games together but, towards the end of last season, I was training well, coming into a bit of form and then, when Graeme got injured, I was lucky enough to get six or seven games and was just thankful that my performances held up.
“It was perfect timing because it was coming to the end of my first contract and you never know what’s going to happen when you’ve not had the chance to play much. I knew I could play at pro level, I just needed a run of games.
“I got that, took my chance and then, when Max Evans was delayed playing in France, I was called up for the tour. I had gone on holiday to visit my parents, who run a farm in Tasmania now, and so I guess it was handy.”
Dunbar’s story is another example of how close some talented players can come to being cut due to the lack of pro team opportunities in Scotland. But he showed when given his chance that he combines power with pace to offer a genuine attacking threat, and defensive solidity, in the midfield.
He is still learning the game but has used that period a year ago as a springboard, going on to make 20 appearances for the Warriors this season, and just one off the bench.
So he is a different character on this tour, a genuine challenger for a Scotland jersey.
“I don’t see it as much different to last year to be honest,” said Dunbar. “It’s all about learning from the experience and the guys around you.
“It was a good Scotland tour last year. I was just involved in the training sessions but I stayed with them to the end of the tour and it was a great experience, going from two years at under-20s championship into a professional set-up and two years later into a Test environment.
“Those experiences have helped my game a lot and this season my aim has been just to kick on. With such a competitive squad at Glasgow that’s not easy, but I was fortunate enough to get involved in the first couple of games and then hung onto it.
“This has been the first year that I’ve really stayed relatively injury-free and managed to string games together, and it’s been hugely enjoyable.”
The 6ft 2in, near 16-stone centre has formed a good partnership with a very different-shaped youngster learning his craft – impressively – in Peter Horne and both offer strengths at 12 and 13.
“I don’t mind where I play but I’ve enjoyed playing alongside Pete and trying to work off him,” said Dunbar. “We bring different skills to what we’re doing, but the skill level of the whole squad has risen with Gregor [Townsend] and Matt [Taylor] coming in.
“I work hard on my passing game because it’s an area I have to improve on, but you’ll find most of the boys out for half an hour at least after training working on passing, catching, tackling, kicking.”
He may not yet be known widely across the game but Dunbar has not appeared suddenly. He has been tracked and nurtured for the past decade.
He grew up on the family farm near Lockerbie and attended Johnstonebridge Primary School and Lockerbie Academy before studying agriculture, at the Scottish Agriculture College at Auchencruive in Ayrshire.
His rugby took him into Glasgow colours at under-14 level and into the Annan 1st XV at 16. His talent was so apparent that he enjoyed two years with the national under-20s, playing in the Junior World Championships in Japan and Argentina. Coaches urged him to find a Premiership club, and former Scotland stand-off John Rutherford and coach Kevin Barrie welcomed him to newly-promoted Selkirk, where the teenager enjoyed two seasons cutting his teeth in Premier One rugby.
Then Glasgow came calling. Two years of grasping the demands of pro rugby, full-time training and injuries ensued and now there is a feeling that, with Graeme Morrison and Joe Ansbro retired, Ben Cairns injured, Alex Grove faded from the scene and Max Evans and Nick De Luca into their 30th year, a new midfield threat is emerging at an ideal time for Scotland. Dunbar just shrugs. “I’m just looking forward to getting going here,” he said, settling into the team’s base at Umhlanga Rocks outside Durban, temperatures touching 30 degrees and blues skies stretching as far as he can see.
“We enjoyed the training in the north of Scotland last week but the South Africa weather is a little different.
“There has been no word from the coaches yet on whether they plan to give everyone a chance in the games, or not, so it’s just about keeping the head down and working hard I think, and learning.
“Hopefully, we can have another successful summer tour against tough opposition like last year. It is a huge privilege to be here, to be selected for the national squad but the goal has to be to take that next step and pull on the jersey. It’s been a childhood dream, ever since I played for Annan, to play for Scotland and, if it happens here, it will be a huge achievement for me.”
Dunbar plans to head to Tasmania after the tour for another holiday with his parents and says he is looking forward to rolling up his sleeves again and helping out with the dairy herd.
Work has never been a problem for the Dumfriesshire youngster and that ethic is something Johnson and future coach Vern Cotter are desperate to cultivate in their emerging charges as they look to build new success in 2014-15.