AS youths, my buddy and I used to mix garden fertiliser with sugar and use the resulting gunge to blow up Airfix planes – which had taken several days of work to lovingly glue together.
Place two combustible elements side by side and you are assured of a decent fireworks display, which is exactly what will happen on Saturday when Jim Hamilton squares up to French skipper Pascal Pape. The Six Nations is going old school.
In the light blue corner Pape has the single worst disciplinary record in the entire Top 14, which is saying something. The France captain has earned four yellow cards and one red this season, and he has only played 14 matches for Stade de France. Only nine days ago in Cardiff he spent more time arguing with ref Alain Rolland than stemming the red tide.
In the dark blue corner Jim Hamilton is something of a pantomime villain, whose reputation arguably outstrips his devilment, not that he is slow in coming forward. Interestingly, the big Scot does not feature on the list of the worst 15 offenders in the Top 14 as he has bagged just one yellow all season with Montpellier, and even that one was a mistake, or so he would have it.
“I think the thing is that there is a perception and sometimes the perception has little to do with the reality,” claims Hamilton in his best “what, me guv?” voice. “The discipline of the guys playing [Top 14 rugby] is pretty poor. I have been sin-binned once this year for a ridiculous thing, it was off a team penalty against Toulon. We actually couldn’t work out what it was for. They said it was offside but I think it was a case of mistaken identity. That’s what I always say!”
Mistaken identity is quite a feat when you stand 6ft 8in tall and sport a Grizzly Adams beard but, that aside, Hamilton has a reputation and, whether the big lock deserves it or not, the South African referee Craig Joubert was apparently forewarned ahead of the opening Test in Dublin.
“Every time something happens you’re involved,” he chided Hamilton at one point in the Ireland Test, adopting the tone of a well-meaning headmaster whose well of patience was finally running dry.
“He did say that,” concedes Hamilton. “I couldn’t really laugh about it because of the scoreline in the game but there was a bit of chat about it [in the dressing room] after the match. That’s part of my game, it’s a natural thing, it’s not a put-on thing, it’s inbred inside me and I like to get stuck in. I’m not the most gifted of athletes and there is a little bit of old-school steel to my game and I enjoy that part of it.”
It is suggested to him that, since he is “old school” and so is French rugby, then he must be as happy as a pig in mud since his move to Montpellier last summer. But it is, just possibly, too much of a good thing. Hamilton may be old school but to hear the big man speak about it, French rugby is positively antediluvian. The French have their plus points but, according to XL exile Hamilton, they are several decades behind in two key areas – strength and conditioning and the medical/rehab side of the sport.
“I am more ‘new school’ than they are in France,” says Hamilton with some justification. “I take pride in my conditioning and I take pride in eating well and all the little bits because I still want to develop as a player. I feel that I have got better over the last couple of years, I feel I am the fittest I have ever been and, in that sense, I do like to look after myself.
“There is a massive difference in medical and strength and conditioning [S&C] focus and that is where you are starting to see the differences. It sounds really bad but [it’s OK] if you have a foreign influence at teams like Clermont and Toulon, who have just hired the England S&C coach for next season, but [elsewhere] there is a huge lapse in the S&C and the medical side of things [in France]. They are quite far behind.
“There are a few foreigners at Montpellier and we just try to manage ourselves. We go in on our day off for extra rehab and stuff and just take it upon ourselves. [The French attitude] is more put up and shut up really. They’ve had success with that in the past and that’s just the way it is.”
Hamilton does look slimmer and fitter than ever before and he will be getting into the faces of the French on Saturday, even though he insists that he will not go out of his way to rile Pape. We will see.
Scotland’s win in Rome eight days ago was Hamilton’s first in nine Tests after he missed the victory over Japan last November, so he can be forgiven for hugging drop-kick hero Duncan Weir like a long-lost son. “For Duncan to get that drop goal at the end was huge, not only for him but for Scottish rugby,” says the big fella – and who would argue?
Looking ahead to Saturday’s international, the Scots should be in good heart coming off a win, while France equalled their heaviest defeat to Wales since the war. The visitors are missing key players – Thierry Dusautoir, Yannick Nyanga and Wesley Fofana to injury and Morgan Parra to a two-week ban for head-butting – but Hamilton plays alongside the French every week and he is painfully aware of what they can do when they turn their minds to it.
“I don’t want this article to be about me trashing the French,” he says at one point. “I have a lot of respect for the players. This is the thing, French rugby can be... different at times. Montpellier go away to Leicester and are 20 points down after 13 minutes and we nearly win the game, which is a dead rubber for us but a must-win game for Leicester!
“That is all down to the French flair, the fact that they can just turn it on. Look at France against England. They [France] didn’t deserve to win that game but they did because of individual brilliance, and I think we have to be conscious of that fact. Yeah, they might be going through a tough time, but they still have the players who can score from anywhere on the pitch.
“But we have a bit of confidence from the Italy game, we will take that into this game and confidence is a huge factor in sport.”