You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, as Joni Mitchell famously sang, and Matt Scott received a sharp reminder of that indubitable truth last autumn when he was dropped by Scotland for the first time since his 2012 breakthrough.
Up until Vern Cotter’s decision to omit the centre from his squad for the November Tests, the only setbacks the 26-year-old had suffered in his career were injury related. When fit, he expected to play, for club and country, and he has been brutally honest about the bodyblow he felt at being left out for that series against Australia, Argentina and Georgia.
Scott left the comfort of Edinburgh to test himself in the Aviva Premiership with Gloucester last summer and it’s not as if there was any noticeable dip in performance or any suggestion of complacency. Scott has been in fine form for the Cherry and Whites, with 12 tries in 18 appearances and is third-top scorer in the league.
However, as is often the case, the appearance of effortless success can mask underlying issues and the Scotland coaching staff felt that there were areas of Scott’s defensive game that needed attention.
“I was prone to making bad decisions at certain moments in the game, whether I was tired or trying to solve certain issues in defence on my own,” he explained at Scotland’s Oriam training base. “That could be jumping out of the line occasionally or things like that – it wasn’t happening all the time but at international level those key decisions at key moments usually cost you seven points. So I’ve worked really hard on my skills in defence, and on the mental side of it, so making sure that I’m concentrating 100 per cent of the time.”
Scott admits the call from backs coach Jason O’Halloran was a painful one after a career which, long-term lay-offs due to problems with both shoulders aside, had appeared on an upward trajectory.
The centre burst on to the scene in that seminal 35-0 trouncing of England Saxons by Scotland A at Netherdale in front of a 4,000 crowd in February 2012. Stuart Hogg, Rory Lawson and Duncan Weir joined Scott on the scoresheet that night, with the likes of Stuart McInally, Ryan Wilson, Chris Fusaro and Richie Vernon also involved against a chastened English side which included Jonathan Joseph, Billy Twelvetrees and Jonny May – with the latter two now Scott’s team-mates at Kingsholm.
Scott made his Scotland debut off the bench in the Six Nations defeat to Ireland in Dublin the following month and his first start in dark blue came in the historic 9-6 win over Australia in a rainswept Newcastle, New South Wales, that summer.
“It was really, really tough to take,” said Scott of that autumn snub. “It was probably the first time I’ve been properly dropped when I’ve been fit. So watching the autumn internationals was really difficult because I’m sitting there fit, feeling like I’m playing some decent rugby.
“But you can take these things in one of two ways, and the coaches were obviously looking for me to do something else so I obviously had to work hard on that. They highlighted that they wanted me to make better decisions in defence, so I spoke to my defence coach at Gloucester and said ‘look, if I want to get back into the squad, I need to work hard on this’.
“I used it as a big motivator. I didn’t sulk about it. I went off and tried to work on it.”
The pain was at its most acute when he tuned in to watch that first autumn Test against Australia, which unfolded as a bit of a classic.
“It was so difficult watching the game,” admitted the former Currie player. “I was obviously rooting for the boys, and they were unlucky not to win against Australia. I was gutted for them. It was extremely difficult knowing that I was fit and could have been out there as well.”
There would naturally have been the added agony of seeing yet another star centre performer emerge in what is now a stacked and brutally competitive midfield as Huw Jones shone with a two-try man-of-the-match display. With Glasgow duo Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett and Saracens’ Duncan Taylor also in the mix, Scott knows that a recall to the squad is the just the start of his battle to pull on that dark blue jersey for a 37th time.
“It’s great to have the competition but it’s hard to know that I’m not going to be able to guarantee my place in the team any more,” reflected Scott.
“It does sharpen your mind a bit, and while you never take your spot for granted, in the past there wasn’t the same depth where they can just bring in anyone. Now, when you make just one mistake in a game it could mean a chance for someone else. Everyone’s aware of that now and it’s added an extra edge to training.
“Everyone will agree that it’s probably the most competitive centre has been in a number of years.
“You could make a case for any number of guys playing in the first match, so it’s extremely exciting that there’s that level of talent here at the moment because it’ll definitely bring us all on as players. It’s competitive and we all want to pull on the jersey, but we all want to get out there and train well to put our hands up for selection.”
The minor trauma of that autumn shock aside, Scott is a man with much to smile about and is relishing this new phase of his career in England’s west country.
“I don’t know why I’m scoring so many tries at the moment but I’m really enjoying my rugby and I’m enjoying a different style of play,” he said.
“The Premiership is a really good, fun league; it’s intense, teams are putting out their best team every week, and really battling for every point. I’ve really enjoyed that and a new environment has really done me a bit of good.
“It’s hard to put your finger specifically on why I’m scoring more and getting more opportunities, but I think I’m just in the habit of doing so now – I’m always looking for opportunities to score, and always trying to get on the shoulder of boys after they make a break. It’s been good fun.
“Even if I hadn’t scored any tries this year I’d feel I’d learned a hell of a lot just from being around people with different rugby philosophies, from players who just look at the game slightly differently or give you little pointers. At this stage of our careers, it’s the small details that make the difference. I’ve been at one club my whole life so coming to a new club means I’m exposed to different philosophies and ways of doing things.”
Having the Scotland skipper as a club-mate was a positive and Scott admits his former Edinburgh colleague Greig Laidlaw has been an encouraging influence. Speaking to him made Scott feel in the Scotland loop and aware that he was not that far away from getting back in the fold.
“Greig’s always great like that, and he’s a great captain man-to-man – you can go and speak to him about anything,” said the centre. “I’ve had a close relationship with him because we’ve played a lot of club rugby together as well. He was gutted for me, but just told me to take on board what they said and get my head down and keep playing good rugby. I knew myself that I wasn’t far off and that I’d be back in the mix if I got certain aspects right.”
Scott has primarily been seen as an inside centre but has played a lot at 13 this season, which has given him that space to boost his scoring stats. “It was just the way the injuries fell at Gloucester. They didn’t have any fit 13s and I was probably just the most suitable guy to slot in there and I’ve just stayed there for the rest of the season.
“It’s been working well for me and the team so they’ve kept me there, but I’m not too fussed where I’m playing. It is good to be able to play in both positions, and to be able to get a feel for both positions, and it helps with selection as well if you’re a bit more versatile.”
Playing in England has given Scott a feel for how this improving Scotland team is viewed from outside and he senses a growing respect for Cotter’s men heading into this season’s Six Nations, though he is under no illusions how tough that opener against Ireland at BT Murrayfield on Saturday will be.
“Yes I do detect more respect, definitely, especially after results like the one Glasgow had in Leicester.
“I think down in England they do look down at the Pro12 and they always ask me what it’s like. I always tell them that the top teams in the Pro12 are quality teams, and the European results this season prove that. I feel the squad is really strong and it definitely gets better and better the longer this group of guys stick together and keep improving. There are a lot of faces I’ve come through with, but there are also a lot of new guys making a big impact as well.
“Ireland have got quality all over the park and good centres. There are different challenges depending on who they pick, but they’ll be tricky as always.”