Matt Scott’s joy at Scotland second chance

Matt Scott is back in the Scotland starting line-up and is determined to make an impact on tour. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
Matt Scott is back in the Scotland starting line-up and is determined to make an impact on tour. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
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New coach, new opportunities, new style; same ambition to play and win for Scotland. For Matt Scott, though, if anything that drive has only been sharpened by a year in the wilderness. Handed the first chance at his centre spot, he has all the extra motivation in the world to take it.

Dropping him had been a decision Scott struggled to understand. He had just moved clubs from Edinburgh to Gloucester and was thriving in his new environment, scoring tries and improving his defence. He felt he was in the form of his life.

So when the axe came straight after the Japan tour a year ago – he was not even in Vern Cotter’s training squad – it was a huge shock. Now, with a new head coach in Gregor Townsend he knows this may be his only shot at winning his place back.

“It is brilliant to be starting again,” he said. “It was one of the goals I set when I was omitted from the autumn squad. With Gregor, I’m lucky enough to be fit and have the chance to impress him first.

“It is like any team on tour – the guys who get out there first have the chance to impress. I am in a fortunate position; there are guys who would be biting your hand off to get a start, to get their foot in the door at the start.

“It is up to us to represent Scotland. It does not matter where we are playing. It is bit surreal being in Singapore but sometimes you have to focus the mind.”

Scott has good memories of these summer tours. Though he won his first cap against Ireland in the 2012 Six Nations, it was only thanks to a bizarre late-call up after a rival went down in the warm-up. He sees the debut start – and win – against Australia a couple months later as the real beginning for his career, with wins against Fiji and Samoa following.

“In rugby, 90 per cent of the battle is having a coach who rates you or believes in you,” Scott said. “Vern [Cotter] thought I was a good player, but he maybe thought other guys had different skills that he wanted to use more than the skills I have.

“That’s fair enough, but I’m now lucky enough to be fit and I’ve had the chance to train with Gregor for the last three weeks. I’m trying to put my best foot forward.”

Scott is both an example of and a victim of the sudden flowering in Scotland’s back play. When he came into the team, the pool of talent in the centre was tiny and once he established himself, he could be sure about his place at both club and country.

Things are different now. The change of clubs shook him out of his comfort zone at that level, and the talent surge that saw the likes of Duncan Taylor, Alex Dunbar, Peter Horne, Huw Jones and Mark Bennett pitching up to compete for the same Scotland spot means every selection is nip-and-tuck.

Any drop in performance could mean another long spell away from the top. That’s what happened before. “It’s funny, I’ve played a lot worse but still been picked – and started – for Scotland. That’s sport,” reasoned Scott.

“I think at that point everyone else was fit and they wanted to go with Huw [Jones], Duncan [Taylor] and Alex [Dunbar]. That was fair enough. They gave me some points to work on and I decided to take a positive attitude. They gave me targets to hit so I just went away and worked at them. That’s part of the reason I got back in.”

The other side of his lost year, in international terms, is that it must seem like a seamless transition from his last start, in the heat and humidity of Japan, to this one, where both are likely to be stepped up a level.

In common with the whole team, however, Scott is making a determined attempt to ignore the environment. “It’s just one of these things – it is a bit of a shock when you first arrive, but we said after the first session, ‘right guys, let’s stop going on about the heat, we need to stop talking about it and just try to train as normal’,” he said.

“You need to have a positive attitude. If you take the attitude that you’re going to struggle, then mentally you’re not in the right place. We’re trying to be positive, encourage each other.”

Whatever the conditions, though, there is one thing that Scott will find familiar – the opposition.

“I have played Italy more than any other side,” he pointed out. “We know their players well. But they have changed their defence coach and Conor O’Shea, the head coach, has not been in the job that long. We are prepared for anything.

“For us, Gregor has added his own stamp to things and tweaked a few things.

“He wants us to play fast rugby and we have the players with the skills set to do that. We are trying to play a style of rugby that suits our group. That is why our training sessions are quick and intense.”