Switching from back row to back line has worked for Richie Vernon, he tells David Barnes
Colin Deans tells a famous story about how he was initially directed down the path to becoming arguably Scotland’s greatest ever hooker. It was the mid-1960s and he was attending one of his first formal training sessions at primary school in his native Hawick when he was spotted by Bill McLaren, the great rugby commentator, who was then operating as a PE teacher in the town.
‘When I changed position, one of my targets was to get back in the Scotland squad’
“Hey you, Tubby, what’s your name?” asked McLaren.
“Colin Deans, sir,” replied the pupil.
“Is Peter your father?” asked the teacher.
“Yes, sir,” answered Deans.
Which prompted McLaren to utter the famous line: “You’re a hooker, then.”
In that one fleeting conversation, the youngster’s rugby future was determined on the basis that his father had worn the No.2 jersey for Hawick alongside back-rower McLaren several years earlier. The wisdom of this decision was not immediately clear.
“I didn’t play for the High School because my PE teacher, Ernie Murray, told me I would never make a player and I never wanted to be a hooker as such,” Deans later recalled.
When Deans moved into senior rugby he was initially shuffled around the pack and was even selected for a handful of games in the second-row, before the Hawick selectors decided to give him a chance in the middle of the front-row. The rest, as they say, is history.
Deans had the pace, stamina and ball-playing ability to be a highly competent back-rower, and fortunately for him, and for Scottish rugby, he harnessed those qualities which set him apart from his hooking rivals to achieve great things.
It is a story which Richie Vernon will be able to empathise with – although his career path has meandered down a rather different route. There was never any doubt that the boy from Dundee had talent and pace to burn (he was reportedly the fastest member of the Glasgow Warriors squad at one stage during his early career), but he was tall and rangy which meant he was never really an effective enough grappler or ball carrier to be regarded as the real deal as a back-row forward.
He was talented enough to earn 20 caps in that position after first representing Scotland against Fiji in 2009, but 13 of those appearances were as a replacement, and by December 2013 he had spent 18 months in the international wilderness.
That’s when he sat down for a chinwag with Scottish Rugby’s director of rugby Scott Johnson and Glasgow Warriors coach Gregor Townsend, and was presented with a proposition which would turn his rugby career upside down.
Rather than persevere in his anointed position as Deans had done all those years earlier, Johnson and Townsend believed that Vernon’s natural strengths would be better utilised in a completely new role. They wanted him to switch to centre and they wanted him to target selection for the Scotland squad for the 2015 World Cup.
With Matt Scott, Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett and Peter Horne all looking like future midfield maestros at that time, plus Duncan Taylor also in the frame, and the vastly experienced Sean Lamont capable of slotting in if required, there was a sense that Vernon was jumping out of the pan and into the fire.
But he welcomed the challenge, and through a combination of hard work and good luck he has exceeded almost all expectations – perhaps even his own.
“When I changed position, one of my targets was to get back into that Scotland squad as a centre. I felt that it was something that not many people in rugby can say that they’ve done and it was a good goal for me to have. It’s inspired me to work hard on the things that I needed to do to become a better centre,” he reflects.
Vernon will be part of Scotland’s 46-man World Cup training group which will convene at Ravenscraig Regional Sports Facility tomorrow, and after being a key component in Glasgow’s barnstorming end-of-season run to Guinness Pro 12 glory, he has momentum on his side as the battle to make the final 31-man squad intensifies.
Injuries meant that Bennett (shoulder), Dunbar (knee) and Scott (shoulder) all missed the final few months of last season, and all three face races against time to be fit let alone match ready for the start of the World Cup campaign. However, Vernon believes that that trio remain the front-runners to wear the No.12 and 13 jerseys when September comes around.
“There’s a lot of rugby to go before the World Cup. The guys that were out and haven’t played much towards the end of the season – they were the guys that were in brilliant form at Six Nations time. They’re obviously brilliant players who were playing well for their club and for Scotland, so it’s going to be really tough. Centre is one of the positions where we’ve got a huge amount of competition,” he says.
“It’s just great to be involved in the squad and I’m going to give it as much of a crack as I can in this pre-season. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to put my hand up in one of the build-up games and I’ll take it from there.”
An injury crisis meant Vernon was pressed into action as a back-rower for the Warriors in their European Champions Cup clash against Bath back in January and he even managed a try in a creditable 20-15 defeat. However, he does not expect his versatility to be a factor when Vern Cotter considers his options before making his final cut for the World Cup at the end of August.
“I don’t think it’s the sort of thing that will help too much in the World Cup. They’ll pick the back rows and then cover for that position,” he reasons.
“The only time it can help is maybe coming off the bench when you can cover a few positions. But in terms of the squad as a whole, I’m a centre, and pretty much every game I played this year was at centre. It’s a position that I really enjoy, and having got a run of games it was a great feeling to be in that winning [Glasgow Warriros] team.
“For a while I maybe felt like a back-row trying to play at centre, but now it feels more natural to me and I’m really enjoying it.”