WHEN Jim Hamilton first came off the pitch in Peebles, after a training session with the Barbarians, his West Midlands brogue was as meaty as his hands.
“Yeah, ah’m Scottish mate, and if ah ever play for this country ah’ll be ab sol oootely ovah the moooon.” I may be paraphrasing, and apologies if that is more Castleford than Coventry, but his response to my first query about whether it was true that Scotland had found a rare 6ft 8in, 20-stone forward able to provide grunt to a lightweight pack is eminently memorable.
He was preparing then, in 2006, to play at Murrayfield against Scotland, but his links to the country had been established by Frank Hadden and an excited, proud Sergeant Major father, also Jim, who provided his son with a route to international rugby.
Hadden told the then Leicester lock that he would have to lose some weight and learn how to run touchline to touchline if he was to fit into Scotland’s game-plan, and Hamilton duly moved between the Premiership and Scotland trying to be all things to all coaches. Sometimes he got it right and sometimes not, but, now based in Montpellier with his own young family, he has found his value as a player and yet admits the thought of winning his 50th cap on Saturday still feels like a dream.
“It feels a bit surreal to be honest,” said Scotland’s 10,00th internationalist, “especially considering where I have come from and how my rugby career came about. It is a huge honour.
“It will probably sink in more after my rugby career is over, but it will raise the emotions more with my family here. My son is three now and it could be an early memory for him.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d get to this. You don’t think ‘I want to make 50 caps’ or be a 100-cap player. You just want to do the best you can in every game. At 45/46 [caps] you see it in the distance but it is still about doing really well and if you are good enough, fit enough and play well enough you get what you deserve.”
Going back to those roots, Hamilton recalled how he came through a tough childhood in a Coventry housing estate rife with drugs and gangs, and where playgrounds were known more commonly as ‘scenes of crime’. In a back-story he recalled in these columns during the 2011 World Cup, Hamilton was taken in by Barker Butts RFC and Leicester’s rugby academy as a rough 17-year-old who had never tried rugby, but whose frame and aggression suggested that he should. For Hamilton the ‘school of hard knocks’ was a reality, not a television programme. He has attracted criticism for on-field scraps, penalties and cards, and while often deserved there is a sense that that fails to comprehend that upbringing, as well as the steel and respect brought to the Scottish pack. Ironically, he missed Scotland’s recent wins against Australia, through injury in 2009 and the ban imposed after a red card for scrapping with London Irish hooker David Paice in his final match for Gloucester of last season.
He also now has a lineout to fix, after a disastrous start to the game with South Africa last week, which he felt was partly down to the squad bringing in a new lineout system.
“We will get that right,” he said with typical Hamilton, unwavering conviction. “This is a big game for all of us.
“For me, the 50th cap is huge but my focus is winning this game. I was banned for the Newcastle [Australia] win and watched at home the way they played out there in tough conditions. That pushes me on even more.
“The difference between winning my 50th cap and losing to Australia and winning my 50th and beating Australia would be huge. When people ask me to sum up my Scottish career there hasn’t been loads of success.
“Beating Ireland at Croke Park and Argentina over there were special, but I have 50 caps now and still have ambition to win the Six Nations. But, right now, we have the guys, provided we get a foot-hold in the game, to put ourselves in a position to win on Saturday.”
“A lot of people say I don’t have a Scottish accent and I can understand that being up here now but if have a Scottish heart you are as Scottish as anyone.
“If you talk about blood I am a quarter English, half Scottish and a quarter Chinese, brought up Scottish by my dad and impartial by my mother.
“This is a great country. I love the history and I tell my wife that I will be pushing for our son to play for Scotland. Being Scottish is something I have always been proud of and it is what it is. I just don’t have the Scottish accent because I grew up in England.”