IT is little wonder that Chris Fusaro found it a “massive surprise” when told he had been chosen to make his Scotland debut in tomorrow’s Calcutta Cup match.
True, when you are named in the national squad, you are aware that selection for the actual team is by no means an impossibility, but circumstances seemed to be set against the 24-year-old openside flanker.
Just last autumn, Scotland coach Scott Johnson told Fusaro to go away and work on his game. Just last week, Kelly Brown was named as captain, with Johnson stating that, if he was in the team, he would be in the No 7 jersey.
The conventional wisdom is that you first decide which men are sure of their places in the team then select your captain from among them, so Fusaro might well have thought he would have to wait patiently before getting his chance. Especially as there are only six days between Scotland’s first two matches in the RBS Six Nations Championship, a certain continuity from the game in Ireland last Sunday to the England match at Murrayfield was to be expected.
Well, there has been continuity all right, but not as expected. Seven of the eight forwards who were less than inspiring in Dublin have been kept on, with only Brown stepping down.
Choosing a natural openside to play against England makes sense but, even so, Fusaro had little idea what was to ensue when team manager Gavin Scott approached him at breakfast on Wednesday and told him Johnson wanted a word.
“I went over and sat down, not knowing what to expect,” the Glasgow Warriors forward said. “Then he told me, ‘You’re going to be starting and we want you to play to your strengths, get over the ball. . .’ – and after a while it suddenly sank in I was starting and it was pretty overwhelming.
“It came as a massive surprise. I had to pinch myself a couple of times. Almost overwhelming emotionally.”
In fact – and Johnson should not take this the wrong way – news of his selection put Fusaro off his food. He had been up at the buffet about to serve himself a second helping when Scott came with the tap on his shoulder. He did not return after Johnson had had a word.
“I didn’t go back for more food,” he said. “That’s one of my things. I’m always sick before games, I get a bit nervous. I still go through that, unfortunately, it’s part of my routine, always throwing up before games. I guess it’ll be the same for this game.
“I saw Kelly at training. He came over and congratulated me. Kelly’s been brilliant. I’ve got a lot of respect for him as a player and as a captain and he said: ‘Anything you want to ask, come and speak to me’.
“He’s talked about dealing with the hype around the Calcutta Cup, the biggest game in the season, and just to relish the moment, take it all in, and what he always says is leave nothing out on the pitch.”
One of the things Fusaro has learned of late, however, is that “leaving nothing out on the pitch” is not the same as going for everything. Johnson wanted him to be more judicious in his decision-making, and believes he has improved significantly in that respect. “He was industrious before, but he wasn’t getting the 50/50 chances that were coming his way,” the coach explained. “He missed them. I thought some of that was technical, and some of it was that he wanted to compete in everything, and you can’t. You have to be smart.
“Richie McCaw doesn’t compete in everything. He picks his moments. Chris stood back and had a look at that and now, suddenly, he’s getting those 50/50s and I like that. I like him. He reminds me a lot of a young Phil Waugh I coached many moons ago. There is a resemblance there. Whether he is the answer I don’t know, but he deserves the right to be there.”
Had things turned out differently, Fusaro might well have been finding out by now if he was the answer to Italy’s problems. He would have been eligible to play for the Azzurri as both his paternal grandparents were born in Italy, but selection for the Scotland Sevens team put an end to that option. Even so, it was not an option he ever felt like exploring.
“I was dual qualified, but I didn’t think about Italy,” he said. “Not once.”
Tomorrow afternoon he will have to think about how to get the better of an England team who play without a traditional openside, but who nonetheless will present a formidable challenge. And the key, it seems, lies in thinking. Tempering those instincts that make you want to dive in after every ball, and learning how to emulate the All Blacks’ McCaw and Waugh of the Wallabies by ensuring that the interventions you do make are decisive.
“You’ve got to pick your moments,” Fusaro said, using the same phrase that Johnson had uttered half an hour earlier. “Try to judge. Try to treat it as a normal match.
“Breakdown – getting over the ball, slowing it up and being as disruptive as possible. That’s an openside’s job. That’s what I’m looking to do on Saturday.”