ANOTHER week, another “kilted Kiwi” facing the Scottish media and fielding questions about the controversial aspects of being “parachuted” into the national squad.
Last week it was Hugh Blake and yesterday it was John Hardie, who has been in Scotland only a month and is now in line to represent his adopted country, for whom he is eligible through his late grandmother, Christine, from Fife, against Italy in Turin on Saturday evening.
I didn’t know a lot of people but the boys have been really welcomingJohn Hardie
Like Blake last week, Hardie, who is five years older than the Dublin debutant, proves to be an engaging and up-front character, answering everything put to him in a polite and friendly manner. Even the most stringent opponents of the haste with which he has been brought into the national reckoning would not hold it personally against the player, who is merely making the most, like many before him, of an exciting career opportunity.
Of course, there are also many others who are genuinely excited by the prospect of seeing the highly-regarded Hardie, who has been tracked by the SRU for a couple of years now, in the dark blue. While Blake, who showed up well in the weekend’s 28-22 defeat by Ireland, is still a raw prospect, the former Otago Highlanders openside is a tried and tested professional who has spent five years at the rarefied level of Super Rugby, missing out on his side’s victory in the final of the competition last month by a rib injury, which has now cleared up.
“Scotland is in my blood, my grandmother was born here,” said Hardie, whose brother Grant played for Peebles in the 2009-10 season. “I’ve got to show my team-mates how much that jersey means to me and I know how much pride is in that jersey.
“I know the history, too. You know by the way the boys train and the way they talk that it’s a massive thing. It’s something I will honour. Everyone knows how much it means and I don’t want to get caught up in anything else.”
He may have never been to Scotland before his arrival in the World Cup training camp, but, like many from the southern part of New Zealand, he has found certain things to make him feel at home.
“Princes and George are the two main streets in Dunedin. Then I come here and Princes and George are the main streets here [in Edinburgh]. And many of the other road names are the same as back there.”
Whatever happens regarding selection for the World Cup, it looks like Hardie will be looking beyond Scotland to pursue his club career. He said: “I have signed for a couple of more weeks [with the SRU] and after that we will need to wait and see.
“I haven’t signed for Edinburgh or Glasgow, so I’ve taken a big risk coming over here. I want to stay in the northern hemisphere and play for Scotland if selected. I could do that by playing in England or France and I’ll need to look at my options.
“There is no fall-back in terms of going back to the Highlanders in New Zealand. There are challenges in life and this is one for me. I’m not thinking ‘what if’. I’m happy with the decision I’ve made and I’m looking forward to the weekend. I’m totally committed to Scotland now. You’ve got to back your own ability and it’s about getting out there and performing. The next few weeks are going to be important for everyone and I am no different.”
It would come as no surprise that there was a time when becoming an All Black was the ultimate goal for Hardie, but he insisted there were no regrets that this had proved not to be. “It wasn’t a disappointment,” he said. “I always knew I was a dual national and if Scotland give me the opportunity this week, I will take it with both hands.
“I don’t think I have to prove a point [to New Zealand]. I have come over here and have been given the opportunity. I am out of my comfort zone and that is good for me. Being out of your comfort zone is good for players.”
Hardie, though, said that the rest of the squad had been very welcoming and keen to make the transition as comfortable an experience as possible.
“The first time I came over it felt like the first day at school,” he recalled. “I didn’t know a lot of people but the boys have been really welcoming and I’m starting to feel more at home here.
“It’s been really good and I know I’ve made the right decision. It [the move] has been in the pipeline but we had to sort out a few things and then before the Super Rugby final I knew I was coming over and I was really excited. I got over here as soon as I could.
“Before that it took a while to sort out my contract situation and it just didn’t work out the first time. I was always looking to come over here and I’ve finally got the chance and it feels like the right time to come.”
Coming straight into the intense environment of a World Cup training camp has limited Hardie’s chance to explore the country but he likes what he has seen so far and is looking forward to deepening his bond with the country.
“I have been over here for four weeks now and I’ve probably only had four days off,” he said.
“I have managed to have a really good look around the Edinburgh Festival and the buzz around the town has been incredible.
“Blair Cowan will take me to the beach tomorrow and that will help with recovery.
“There are a few boys from the southern hemisphere here and they’ve helped me a lot but all the boys have been good if I am honest.”
Hardie has spoken with Brendan Laney and John Leslie, below, two other Scots-qualified sons of Otago who travelled north to forge Test careers.
He added: “Brendan was going on about how great it was over here and how much he loved it.
“I met John Leslie too and he seemed to love it. Brendan Laney coached me and took me to a tens tournament. He is always in Dunedin, in and around the Highlanders. A great guy.
“He didn’t say much about when he arrived but talked more about the country and how passionate the people were. He said it was an awesome place.”