Scotland’s stand-out performer in a poor Six Nations recalls a harrowing campaign
THe last guy I expect to be meeting this week is a member of the Scotland rugby team. After the Six Nations just ended, featuring the 50-point thumping by Wales, the zero-rated humiliation by England and much wailing and gnashing of gumshields over the state of the game, I expected them all to have turned off their phones and dived for cover. Maybe if you’re David Denton, though, you think: what’s the point in hiding?
There’s his unmissable build. Although full-time training over here helped fill out the teenager who first pitched up five years ago, he is, in essence, 6ft 5ins of prime Zimbabwean beef. When he stands in the coffee shop doorway he blots out the afternoon sun. When he picks up his cup in his big paw it looks like it belongs in a doll’s house.
There’s his unmissable hair. A haystack sketched by a hyperactive six-year-old which got him mistaken for Simon Taylor and Richie Gray, although the heavy ripcurl fringe was his own creation. Then he got it cut and the confusion with other rugby players stopped. “Now I get called Claire Balding,” he laughs. “Have I ever met her? No. So you have to wonder: if we’ve never been seen in the same room together, are we one and the same person?”
And then there’s his habit of nodding hello to passers-by. “Is this an African thing? No, I think it might just be Zimbabwean. The first few times here, when people looked at me funny, I did think: ‘What an unfriendly place.’ But I don’t think that any more.”
In this villagey part of the capital – Stockbridge, home of Edinburgh Accies, where he began his rocketing rise to full honours – the 24-year-old back row must be well known by now. Possibly some of the locals have started to nod back. And maybe those who follow rugby will be thinking, well, it was a completely forgettable Six Nations in many ways but Dents did all right.
Over cappuccinos, I show him the end-of-championship reports, including the rugby writers’ picks for their XV-of-the-tournament. Denton is the only Scot to get anywhere near. Yesterday, he was named sixth in the official poll for player of the tournament. “That’s very kind of them,” he says, “but I can’t feel good about myself when the Six Nations has been such a massive disappointment for the team.” He’s happy to provide his own honest assessment, game-by-game.
“It was a complete rollercoaster. After the first game against Ireland we didn’t feel that bad. Maybe it looked different from the outside but we thought we’d played some pretty decent rugby. We were unlucky with a few calls and the bounce of the ball didn’t favour us. We came out of that one with a bit of positivity.
“But the England game was devastating. I can’t tell you what it feels like to play in a Scotland-England match, how excited you get before it, the incredible atmosphere. Everything’s amplified against England; so many more people watch that one. And to know you’ve disappointed all of them – it’s really tough to handle. We were never in that one, never looked like scoring, never threatened their line. But credit to England: they got right in our faces.”
If anyone in dark blue got close to English faces that gruesome night, though, it was surely Denton. There was consternation when he was hooked in the second half and some measured disappointment from the player afterwards. He says a bit more today: “I was really annoyed. I spoke to Jonno [head coach Scott Johnson] and he said it was tactical, that Alex Dunbar had been carded and they needed a back row who could drop into the backs should we have lost him. I was gutted.”
So how did he feel when he was dropped for Italy? “I was devastated. It must have been a good three or four days of meetings with the coaches before I got their reasoning clear in my head. Jonno said there were areas of my game that needed work and that, against the Italians, he wanted to move the ball more. I felt hard done by because I still thought I’d been playing well.
“That was maybe my immature side. Eventually you realise you just have to accept these decisions. The back row is an area where the coaches have the depth to change things around and they’re trying to build a base for the World Cup. I sulked but I knew that if I was going to win my place back I couldn’t be anything less than my best coming off the bench.” Denton got on in Rome and contributed to our only win. “Alan Solomons [his head coach at Edinburgh] gave me good advice: ‘Don’t try to be a world-beater. Don’t try and fit 80 minutes into your 20. You’ll only give away penalties.’ I think I did my bit in the lead-up to the penalties we got and Duncy’s [Duncan Weir’s] drop-goal.”
He then has cause to use the word “devastating” again – to describe the team’s feelings after the late, narrow defeat by France. “It was so tough. We were in complete control. Even when France got that intercept and led by a couple of points, I wasn’t worried because we had a stranglehold. Maybe we showed naivety not closing up the game but we were still unlucky. A win against France would have been incredible and we deserved it.”
Denton may be Zimbabwean by birth but when he says “we” he means us and feels it. This isn’t a story of a talented lad from an outdoorsy corner of the world where they breed ’em big being harried by crack rugby genealogists who have proof of a smidgin of tartan blood in one hand and a kilt in the other. He sought out Scotland, land of his forefathers. Dad Tim is pure Zimbabwean but his mum Joy is Scottish and, as soon as he showed prowess with the oval ball, dreamed of him running out at Murrayfield. “She was born in Glasgow, raised in Troon and educated at Heriot-Watt University. She met dad at a wedding of all things, while he was studying agriculture, and they married and moved first to Zambia, which was quite a culture shock for her. It was only the year before last when she could say she’d lived longer in Africa than Scotland. The old country is very dear to my mum and, when I was growing up thousands of miles away, she never allowed me to forget that I’m half-Scottish.
“This’ll sound really clichéd but right from when I was a little kid she sang those Scottish songs to me, about bonnie Loch Lomond and stuff. Even before I started playing rugby over here, my dad kind of adopted Scotland and I’ve always found his attitude interesting. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country and his life has always been on its farms. But his own father died when he was nine so he had to grow up pretty quickly. He joined the army to pay his way through college. With that kind of history, it says something about him that he was prepared to buy into the Scottish heritage. I’ve got a massive respect for the guy.”
Possibly remembering the old man’s steep learning curve, Denton, on arrival here, quickly banished any thoughts of homesickness as he wrestled with the rotten weather, the lack of nodding on the street, “the fact that every Scotsman sounded like Shrek and many were unintelligible”, the slanting pitches, the frozen mud and the men vs boys concept of 2nd XVs rugby, with him at that stage very much the skinny 18-year-old.
Then there was the almost complete absence of lions and elephants. “You guys don’t go around reciting Burns all the time, I know that now, but almost every weekend it’s true that a Zimbabwean goes on safari. From the age of two that was what I did every holiday and, in Zimbabwe, the parks are really wild with no fences. You sleep in tents and there are lions and crocodiles running around all the time. But here’s a funny thing: I didn’t think I’d like Edinburgh Zoo but I do. I go all the time. It’s got animals I never saw in Zimbabwe, like penguins. I’m kind of obsessed by it.”
Denton turned up at Accies after an old uni friend of his mum’s, Jeremy Richardson, who got one Scotland cap, put in a word. Firing off a showreel of his schoolboy exploits to scores of clubs had failed to do the trick, although, unsurprisingly, some of those who didn’t even bother to view it are showing keen interest in him now. “The tape went everywhere but the hope was always that I might eventually play for Scotland,” he stresses.
But, be honest, how does he feel now, having committed to the cause? Has he had his credentials and intentions questioned? And, with Scotland patently struggling, does he wish he hadn’t bothered? He smiles and shakes his head. “I don’t qualify to play for South Africa but in any case never wanted to be a Springbok. Coming from Zimbabwe there’s no resentment towards South Africa but no particular loyalty either. Zimbabwe itself? Well, they could actually muster a pretty good team at the moment. A friend from home just emailed me a XV which includes ‘Beast’ [Tendai Mtawarira], Brian Mujati, David Pocock, Dave Ewers who plays for Exeter, the United States winger Takudzwa Ngwenya and myself. But, no, it was always going to be Scotland for me.”
Obviously, rugby nations fielding players with perfectly valid and sometimes stronger allegiances to other countries continues to be controversial. Denton points to New Zealand doing it, England too. “There has to be the full buy-in. We can’t have guys who are only here because they’re unable to get international rugby elsewhere. I’d like to think that everyone I’ve played with knows how passionate I am about Scotland.”
Which is why the criticism of the Six Nations performances hurt him as much as anyone, not that it wasn’t deserved. “We got absolutely shafted after the England game. We got it tight, as we should have done.” Some observers, English ones, suggested Scotland were risking relegation to a – currently nonexistent – division below the Six Nations but Denton isn’t having that. “Would these guys have said the same to France who finished bottom of the Six Nations the year after they’d played in the World Cup final? Look how close the competition was this year. People forget how tough it is.
“And my time here has been tough, for sure. My first Six Nations was a whitewash. There was the loss to Tonga. I’ve not won a lot with Scotland and I can feel the pressure because we’re a proud nation. But I’m committed to the team and I’ve no regrets about coming, none at all.”
It was heartening for the current crop, he says, to have the 1984 Grand Slam heroes visit training during the tournament. “The old boys told us how Scotland struggled for years before the success. They had great times and we’re desperate to repeat them.”
An intelligent man, Denton is aware this is fine talk, not much more. He maintains there were some positives from the Six Nations, if you wanted to look, and he’s clinging on to them. “We scored tries against France, something we’ve been criticised for not doing, and they were great ones. The squad has certainly been expanded. When I made my debut, I was the 1023rd new cap and Dougie Fife against Wales was the 1052nd. But that expansion is now over and I think the public will be glad. Jonno has said he’s got the players he wants and now he’s becoming director of rugby which, as someone always looking at the bigger picture, is a job he’ll do very well.
“Vern Cotter is coming in [as head coach] and I’m looking forward to working with him. He seems to believe in simplicity and I like that. Rugby is a simple game which is often over-complicated.”
But equally, Denton knows that, when it comes to big pictures, forward planning and a procession of new hopefuls in freshly-pressed strips, Scotland must eventually start delivering. “We have the potential and it’s time we took that next step. Everyone – supporters and players – is getting very tired of waiting. It’s got to come in the next season or two.”
We step outside into the sunshine and, as we walk to the Accies ground for the photographs, he talks about his girlfriend, Shelley Kent, who he’s known since school and how glad he’s been to have her around after those thumping defeats. He talks about his younger brother Jack, currently at uni, but a player too, more skilful than himself having turned out for the Accies already and “the most passionate rugby man I know”. Coming from Denton, that’s saying something.
He points up towards his first Edinburgh flat where he lived on “pasta and red sauce” because he didn’t know how to cook. Close by is the church where his parents were married and farther on Ravelston Dykes, high above Murrayfield, where his great-grandparents lived. He’s recently bought his own flat, still close by, and even though he fantasises about a big Zimbabwean yard with a pro-barbecue set-up, this is his home for now and playing for Scotland is his project and his dream.
“You haven’t asked me about the World Cup,” he says. Go on then. “Well, if we get through the pools anything can happen. We’re more than capable of still being in the game after 60 minutes against any team. You know, it would be very easy for me to say we’re going to win the thing…”
• David Denton is supporting the RBS rugby values campaign. See how Scotland’s team spirit saw them record two famous wins over England and France in the 2006 RBS Six Nations at rbs6nations.com/definingmoments