WHILE not quite a case of forwards are from Mars, backs are from Venus, there has always been a complex relationship between rugby’s two positional blocs, which combines grudging admiration with good-natured contempt.
The workhorses versus show ponies stereotype is a well-mined source for the rugby after-dinner speech and the story of Richie Vernon, who went to the 2011 World Cup as a back-row forward and this week was named in Scotland’s 2015 party as a centre, would no doubt have some cauliflower-eared old schoolers spluttering into their port.
In the history of international rugby there are dozens of examples of back/forward switchers, particularly among some of the lesser nations but, at the very top level it remains fairly unusual. Indeed, when Vernon played in Dublin a few weeks ago he was only the fifth Scot to be capped as a forward and back and the first for 137 years. If selected during the upcoming tournament in England, which starts later this month, the 28-year-old Dundonian will become only the third man to start a World Cup game in both the pack and backline, joining Schalk van der Merwe of Namibia and Radike Samo of Australia.
As the game continues to evolve into a more brutal physical contest, you would imagine more examples will follow. The increasing desire for explosive power in the midfield means that these days the bodyshapes of centres and loose forwards have grown ever closer and, in England, there is the example of rugby league convert Sam Burgess, who has played union club rugby for Bath in the back row but is now considered a centre by the national team.
Vernon, who made the switch in late 2013, was unaware of just how historic his achievement was and the Glasgow Warrior said: “I didn’t actually know I was the first to do it since 1878. It’s a great feeling. When I changed position this is something I definitely had on my radar and set my sights on being at least in contention for this World Cup. To have made it is a brilliant feeling and I’m very proud.”
Vernon started at No 8 in two of Scotland’s pool games during the ill-fated campaign in New Zealand four years ago and came off the bench in another. The lack of a regular start at Glasgow Warriors had already convinced him to move to Sale but he returned to Scotstoun in 2013 and it was just before Christmas of that year that he decided on a radical change of career course.
Vernon said: “People said it was a courageous choice but, at the time, it seemed like quite an easy one actually. I got the option to do it and it was something that always interested me.
“I remember me and Johnnie Beattie were always joking saying ‘oh we could play in the centres, that wouldn’t be too hard’. More as a joke than anything else. Then when I did get offered I thought I would give it a go for six months to see how it goes.
“I probably adapted to it better than I thought I might do initially. From there I’ve had lots of little improvements to make, and I’ve made them but I still feel I’ve lots to improve on which I’m working on. But yes it’s a huge vindication just to be back involved in that Ireland game, to get the start at 13 was a great feeling. To be involved in the World Cup squad is an even greater one.”
Vernon admitted that the discussions over the switch with the national coaching powers did focus on the next World Cup, with the feeling that while Scotland were well served in the back row they were a bit light in midfield.
“The next World Cup was mentioned,” said Vernon. “They said looking forward they didn’t have as much strength in depth in centres than they had in the back row. Then I think the year after three or four guys started to come through and play better and better at centre so I started to question it a little bit at that stage.
“I’m happy to be here. Even a year ago I was playing for Stirling and trying to transition and see where it would take me. From where I was then to now does seem a world away.”
It has been a steep learning curve but one Vernon has clearly applied himself to impressively, culminating in this week’s World Cup selection
“Physically, back-rows and centres are quite similar, so that probably was the easier side of things,” he explained. “There were things I had to sharpen up on defensively. A lot of people told me 13 was the hardest place to defend and I was really lucky to have had [defence coach] Matt Taylor at Glasgow and lots of good wingers and 12s to work with.
“It did take a bit of adapting to and in the first two or three months there was lots of getting things wrong but then I knew I was getting them wrong and how to fix them.”
Vernon admitted the past week had brought back memories of the nerves of 2011 as the players waited to learn the squad. The picture for the centres was muddied by uncertainty over whether Alex Dunbar would be fit or not. In the end he just ran out of time and Vernon was in alongside fellow Glasgow centres Peter Horne and Mark Bennett, and Edinburgh’s Matt Scott.
Vernon said: “Last time was obviously my first experience of it. I remember the nerves from last time and it’s been pretty similar. It’s a kind of lonely feeling waiting for that phone call and not knowing what’s going to happen. When it comes, you have a little panic. It was hugely nerve-racking actually. I’m obviously so pleased to be involved.”
Versatility has been one of coach Vern Cotter’s buzzwords in the selection process and Vernon returned to his back-row roots last season in the European Cup against Bath after Glasgow were hit by injuries.
He doesn’t, however, expect to be thrown a single digit Scotland jersey any time soon. “It would probably feel a little alien to me but I do feel like it would be something I could do.,” he said. “I have played international rugby in the back row before, although it was a long time ago now. But having played that game against Bath I feel it is something I could slip back into for my country if required. But I’m sure there would be lots of others ahead of me.
“I know the depth Scotland has at back row, as you’ve seen we’ve had such great competition this time so it would have been a very difficult position to get into.
“I think the versatility side is more helpful off the bench more than anything, if you’ve got sin-binnings or a few injuries. But, as a squad, there are other guys they can pull in for that position.”