ONE grew up practically a stone’s throw away from Murrayfield and his focus has always been all about pulling on the navy blue jersey of Scotland, while the other spent his formative years on the other side of the world and at one point seemed destined to make his name as a volleyball player.
The diminutive, quick-witted, cleanly-shaven scrum-half, with a deadly eye for a gap and a left boot capable of drilling goal-kicks from practically anywhere inside the opposition’s half, and the hirsute, lumbering second-row forward who prides himself on being able to gobble up the ball whenever it goes in the air to create the platform for the fly boys in the backline to work their magic.
At first glance, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Ben Toolis seem to have very little in common – but opposites do attract and this dynamic duo have forged a deep friendship in recent months as they have emerged in tandem from relative obscurity to put themselves in the position of being near certainties for full international honours at some point during the upcoming RBS Six Nations.
Their friendship began soon after Toolis, along with twin brother Alex, arrived in Edinburgh last summer on an Elite Development Player contract. The siblings set up camp in the Canonmills area of the capital and Hidalgo-Clyne, who was by then based just up the road in Goldenacre, used to give them a lift to training. The bromance has blossomed from there.
When the pair were key members of the Edinburgh team which defeated Connacht in Galway last month, they found themselves the target of some good-natured teasing from their team-mates after being spotted eating breakfast together at a small table away from the rest of the squad.
“Yeah, that did happen, but all the other tables were full so we didn’t have much choice,” laughs Toolis. “A few boys came over and sat with us eventually, so it wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t like we were holding hands or anything like that.
“We do get a bit of stick from the other guys, but then again there’s heaps of bromances around the club – Matty Scott and Dave Denton, for example – everyone has got their little thing,” he adds.
“We’re playing together and we communicate a lot on the field because I’m calling the line-outs so I need to get the information from Sammy and pass it on to the forwards. It’s just worked out quite easy because we know each other so well.”
It has perhaps been a good thing that Hidalgo-Clyne and Toolis have had each other to lean on in recent months because they have both had a lot to take on. At the start of the current season, Hidalgo-Clyne was told that he was one of three young scrum-halves vying for the Edinburgh No 9 jersey, but since October he has been virtually undroppable as the team have developed a level of consistency which has eluded them since Andy Robinson guided them to a second-placed finish in the Pro 12 table back in 2009.
He was called into the national squad as injury cover ahead of the November Test series, and with his confidence bolstered by that experience he now has his sights set firmly on dislodging skipper Greig Laidlaw from the starting XV.
“I actually wrote a plan quite recently on how to achieve my goals – it was just before I got this run of games for Edinburgh – and the target was the World Cup. I wasn’t thinking about the Six Nations at all. My short-term goal was to be number one scrum-half at Edinburgh and to build some consistency through getting game time there. The thought of playing in the World Cup was hard enough to get my head around so to have a call-up into the Six Nations squad is fantastic,” he reveals.
“Being involved in the last camp settled a few nerves, but knowing that the biggest game of my life could be just a week away is crazy. We’re only just learning the moves now – we haven’t been practising them for months like you do at the club – so it is quite strange. It’s really exciting – but strange.”
For Toolis, the rise to prominence has been even more extraordinary. It wasn’t so long ago he was back in Brisbane dreaming of becoming a fully-fledged volleyball internationalist in the green and gold colours of his birth-land.
“I always played rugby but I started taking volleyball seriously when I was about 15 and that went on until I was 18. I was playing basketball at school one day and the volleyball coach approached me and asked if I fancied giving it a go – so I gave it a shot and it just kicked on from there,” explains the 22-year-old, who qualifies for Scotland through his mother, Linda, who is from Carluke in Lanarkshire.
“I got spotted by the national volleyball set-up, started playing in Australian opens, and I just started getting really good at it. I played internationally with the youth and junior teams through the Australian Institute of Sport – but I just thought it wasn’t for me so I came back to rugby.
“But I don’t regret playing volleyball at all because it’s helped my rugby heaps. When I came back to rugby I just felt more in control of things like the line-out and kick-offs – I could read the flight of the ball – and I was lighter on my feet because that’s a big thing in volleyball.”
Athleticism and ball playing ability have been stand-out factors in Toolis’s recent emergence, but the player is quick to acknowledge that good fortune has also played a vital role. He was way down the pecking order at Edinburgh at the start of the current campaign, but was ready to grasp the opportunity when injuries ruled out Grant Gilchrist, Fraser McKenzie and Anton Bresler at various points.
“I really thought I was going to be struggling for game time this season, so when I got my opportunity I knew I had to take it with both hands. I honestly never thought I would be anywhere near the situation I’m in now,” he says.
“With every game I play I feel I’m getting a little bit better, so I just wanted to keep doing that and putting myself further up the pecking order at Edinburgh. The fact that I am here [in the Scotland squad] now is pretty bizarre. I didn’t think in my wildest dreams that I would be here two months ago.”