WHEN interim head coach Scott Johnson and the rest of the Scotland management group sit down to select the team to play Ireland in Dublin on the opening weekend of the Six Nations, one name that will not be bandied about is that of Tommy Allan, despite the player having turned out for the Scotland under-17, U18 and U20 teams.
Had the 20-year-old Perpignan stand-off won Euromillions, his life could hardly have undergone more upheaval than occurred when he decided to switch allegiance from the land of his father’s birth and play instead for his mother’s Italian homeland despite his uncle John having turned out for Scotland alongside David Sole et al in the early 1990s. The whole thing happened in one day and, as Allan recalls, it was not much fun.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to get called up [by Italy] this year. There was a bit of talk but nothing major. A couple of weeks later, before the [European] Edinburgh game, ‘Ciccio’, the scrum coach for Perpignan, asked me to talk to him quickly and he just said: ‘Do you want to play for Italy?’ And, there and then, something just clicked and I said, ‘Yeah, I want to’.
“When I played for Scotland [at age grade level] I always wanted to play for Scotland, I was sticking with Scotland but then, after signing for Perpignan, I got chatting with Tommaso Benvenuti, another Italian international, and I thought going with Italy could be best for my future.”
“Ciccio” is Giampiero De Carli, an old friend and ally of Italy coach Jacques Brunel, who used to coach Perpignan. De Carli will join the Italy coaching team at the end of the season and Brunel used him to sound out Allan because he didn’t want to pick the youngster without knowing where his loyalties lay. That was when things really kicked off.
“I got a call from the manager of the Italy team [Gino Troiani] saying I had been picked for the Italian squad for the autumn internationals. Scott Johnson called me literally the same day that I had said yes to ‘Ciccio’. Firstly, I didn’t think they would go public [with the squad] straightaway. I thought they would take a week but it went public the same day and, obviously, the Scottish guys would have seen it and Johnson called me asking me what I was doing?
“I said I’d chosen Italy and then I told him to speak to my agent because it was quite overwhelming to get a call from the Scotland coach saying he wanted to pick you for the following Tests.”
That was quite a development, so was Allan sure that Johnson offered to put him in the Scotland squad?
“I think so, I was a bit shell-shocked to be honest so I didn’t hear everything he said.”
Wanted by both Italy and Scotland was seemingly a nice situation but Allan added: “Yes, but it was a stressful day. It was a bit overwhelming so I asked him to speak to my agent. I might have made the wrong decision at that moment.”
Allan’s concern was that Johnson might have been able to talk him out of his decision to opt for Italy.
“I told him I wanted to play for Italy and he told me he wanted me to play for Scotland but I didn’t think that was true because they’d never offered me anything at Glasgow or Edinburgh and I hadn’t been talking to them much lately so I don’t think that was the truth. I think they just wanted me to say ‘no’ to Italy but I’m not sure. I saw that there were three tens (stand-offs) already in the extended Scotland squad.”
Allan insists that he has made the correct decision and, with the benefit of a few months’ hindsight, he can even afford a wry smile. He admits that his Perpignan flat-mate, former Scotland U20 lock Adam Sinclair, blasts out Flower
of Scotland whenever the mood takes him and Allan is looking forward to the Italy/Scotland game in the Six Nations with some trepidation, worried that the odd haggis might get lobbed his way, perhaps even as early as next Saturday when Perpignan play Edinburgh at Murrayfield.
Allan was still technically available for Scotland right up until the moment he placed his foot on the turf in Turin’s Stadio Olympico when he was called from the Azzurri bench 60 minutes into their match against Australia last November.
Several friends jokingly suggested he sell one of his trademark dummies and stop just short of the touchline but it was never going to happen. He took his place on the field to seal the deal and even scored a consolation try on his debut as the Wallabies chalked up 50 points.
Allan was officially Italian but, then again, he probably always had been. He spent the first eight, formative years of his life in Italy and reveals that, when the family upped sticks and settled in Henley-on-Thames, he didn’t even speak English and only slowly became aware of his Scottish heritage through dad William. When Italy won the football World Cup in 2006, a 13-year-old Tommaso raced up to Trafalgar Square where he proudly paraded the Tricolore from the sunroof of his mother’s car along with the rest of London’s Italian community.
“I didn’t even like rugby when I first tried it,” he says.
Johnson gave one interview insisting that Scotland would “beg” no one to play for them but, of course, no one asked them to, although Allan’s agent may have dropped some heavy hints about a contract.
It is not a fair question, given that Allan has already made his bed but, had either of the Scottish professional teams offered him a deal, might he now be contemplating life in navy rather than sky blue?
“Obviously you can’t think about it but I didn’t really get offered anything by them. I was offered an EDP [Elite Development Player] contract to try out for the sevens route the first year, but I didn’t want to play sevens. After that I never got offered anything from Glasgow or Edinburgh and, even after I asked my agent to go and ask around, there was nothing offered. That helped make my decision easier.”
Coming after the Steven Shingler fiasco – when the Welshman with a Scots mum was called up, only for Wales to object and the IRB to rule he was tied to them – allowing Allan to slip through the net does not paint the SRU or their director of rugby in the best light. Whether or not Johnson offered him a place in the Scotland squad, Allan was obviously worth an Edinburgh contract, especially since the club have signed all sorts of flotsam and jetsam since rejecting him.
As a result Scotland have lost a canny operator, an all-round playmaker, happy to leather the ball 60 or 70 yards downfield or attack with ball in hand on a firm track. He is brave in defence and surprisingly strong. But where Allan is today is small beer compared to the player he might yet become since his best years are well ahead if him. The Azzurri may finally have found their replacement for Diego Dominguez.
The player puts his success down to several years in South African rugby, firstly at Glenwood School which he attended during the English summer holidays, and then for Western Province, where he played two seasons for the under-19s and helped them lift the junior Currie Cup. He also pointedly pays tribute to his Scottish age-grade experience, insisting that he would not be where he is today without it.
But, with an ageing squad, two hopelessly under-performing professional teams and a question mark over the future of their participation in the RaboDirect Pro12 league, never mind the Heineken Cup, there are plenty who fear for the immediate future of the game in Italy.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an ageing squad,” Allan counters. “I think in the last game against Argentina the average age of the back line was 22. The forwards are a bit older. I was the youngest in our back line but other guys were 22/23 and only one guy was over 30 and he upped the average a bit.
“Of course there are problems with the club sides at the moment but I don’t think there are going to be tough times in Italian rugby. I hope not at least.”
Since Allan nailed his colours to the Italian mast their immediate future looks that little bit rosier.