NEVER can a nightmare have turned good as quickly as Adam Ashe’s. He spent almost the entire season fighting a recurring hamstring injury and though he did recover in time to win the chance to go training at the Canterbury International High Performance unit in Christchurch, New Zealand, everything was in reality geared to trying to make an impression next season.
He has not had to wait that long for his chance. Even though he had hardly played any rugby during the Scottish season and had managed only 36 minutes of pro play as a replacement for Glasgow, he has been propelled from the fringes of the game to centre stage as the starting No 8 against South Africa.
The magnitude of the step up is huge. For example, among the Springbok back row is Schalk Burger. Ashe was just ten when Burger started playing for South Africa in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, scarcely any older when Burger won the World Player of the Year award. No wonder that, with his strong ball carrying and kamikaze tackling style, Burger was one of teenage Ashe’s heroes.
Now they come face to face on the field. “It’s pretty cool,” was Ashe’s response. “It is exciting. A lot of these guys are childhood heroes and I have looked up to them so, yes, it’s pretty cool to be playing against them now. Burger was a big influence back in the day. His tackling, you know what it is like. He is a player I watched a lot so I am really looking forward to playing against him,”
This was always meant to be Ashe’s breakthrough season – only it was never meant to happen like this. He had hoped that after emerging with flying colours from last season’s Under 20s he was ready to make his mark with Glasgow before pushing for honours with Scotland. It never occurred to him or anybody that despite being deprived of the chance to do the former because of injury, he would bypass the usual channels and head straight for the latter.
“I was a bit shocked but it was a fantastic feeling to get the call-up,” he said. “It sprang up out of nowhere. I had struggled a lot with injuries, so it was really good to go over to New Zealand in he off season in Scotland and meant I got a lot of game time, which really helped me. The Scotland call was surprising but I’m relishing the opportunity.”
He has been training for ten weeks at the unit in Christchurch. While he has been playing regular rugby for Canterbury University, he has also had the chance to soak in the atmosphere at the Crusaders, where All Blacks such as Kieran Read have been on hand to offer tips. Dan Carter arrived for a few training sessions as he made his way back to match fitness after his sabbatical and Reuben Thorne has been offering some extra coaching.
So the recent months have all been positive for Ashe and he was anticipating getting back to Scotland with a jump-start on his colleagues in pre-season training.
Then last week, came the call, initially through familiar faces he knew at Glasgow and then from the Scotland team management when the rest of the squad arrived in Port Elizabeth for the game he had already arrived from New Zealand.
“It was a frustrating season but I am glad to be through that phase and I’m playing now, so I am happy,” he said.
In fairness, while Vern Cotter, the head coach, has given him his full vote of confidence, he was running out of options. He had expected to have David Denton available for this game but the Edinburgh No 8 is still recovering from concussion. Johnnie Beattie and Kieran Low, who did service in the opening three games of the tour, have not been released by their clubs, Ryan Wilson is injured and Cornell Du Preez and Josh Strauss, the other two who occupy the position regularly for the Scottish pro teams, are not qualified. That said, he professes to be excited by the chance he is offering. “He has great qualities as a loose forward and a rugby player. It is an opportunity for him. I don’t think 20 to 21 is young any more on the big stage.
“I am really confident that he will play well. If you look at the context of this game, it is important that it is about giving guys like him chances.
“I have not seen him play but he has impressed me with the training I have seen. He has adapted well, he listens and you can see he is a natural athlete.
“He is hard-working so he has all the qualities of a top loose forward.”
The rest of the changes are more nuanced. He had held Chris Fusaro back last week to keep him fresh for this game and is swapping his scrum half and one of the locks for much the same reason — to get the fresh players on the pitch at the start and hold the back the players who started last week for a short burst at the end.
“We have some young promising players and this has been a great opportunity to offer them the chance to play for their country and show what they can do.
“I think this has been positive. I think every player who has put on the jersey respects it enormously and understands the heritage and history of Scottish rugby,” he added.
Scotland side to play South Africa in Port Elizabeth on Saturday June 28: S Hogg (Glasgow Warriors); S Maitland (Glasgow Warriors), N De Luca (Edinburgh), P Horne (Glasgow Warriors), T Seymour (Glasgow Warriors); D Weir (Glasgow Warriors), H Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors); A Dickinson (Edinburgh), R Ford (Edinburgh), G Cross (Glasgow Warriors), T Swinson (Glasgow Warriors), G Gilchrist (Edinburgh), R Harley (Glasgow Warriors), C Fusaro (Glasgow Warriors) A Ashe (Glasgow Warriors).
Replacements: K Bryce (Glasgow Warriors), M Low (Glasgow Warriors), E Murray (Glasgow Warriors), J Gray (Glasgow Warriors), T Holmes (Glasgow Warriors), G Hart (Edinburgh), D Fife (Edinburgh), P Murchie (Glasgow Warriors).