THE BATTLE between Ross Rennie and John Barclay for Scotland’s No 7 jersey has left another of the game’s most promising young players in the shadows, but flanker Roddy Grant has the chance to show the new interim Scotland coach just what he is capable of when the 1872 Cup kicks back into gear on Saturday.
Grant’s story seems to have been retold in the past two years by another African-born Scot, David Denton, whose ability to rapidly move up the ranks and into the Scotland team, while Grant continues to push for an opening, is arguably more of a reflection on the gaps at No 8, and the need for powerful ball-carriers than the position of openside. Denton’s arrival has seemingly added to a wealth of Scottish back-row talent and yet the team finished 2012 struggling to find a winning blend.
It was similar when Grant first arrived in Galashiels, to join the club of his grandfather, the former international referee Bob Burrell, and internationalist uncle Dod. Grant’s mother was born and bred in the Borders town but, after marrying Grant’s father, a former British Universities rugby cap, moved to Botswana where the young red-headed Grant was born.
Roddy grew up in Cape Town and emerged as an exciting young rugby player, as well as a South Africa under-16 water polo cap. He moved north and from centre to back row, representing Natal Schools before leaving South Africa to pursue his dream to play for Scotland.
When he pitched up in the Borders in 2005, there was a worrying dearth of quick Scottish opensides beyond Donnie Macfadyen. Andrew Mower had come and gone, lost to injury, and Scott Gray came in but the area remained a concern at a time when Scotland were trying to re-discover a style predicated on slick ball and link-play from the back row.
Then, as Grant came through the Scotland age-grade ranks and led the Scotland sevens team, the game started to shift away from quick ground-players to giant men across the back row.
In 2007-8, John Barclay and Ross Rennie emerged to help challenge that style, sniffer-dog talents with alacrity around the breakdown, but with end of the Borders pro team and his move to Edinburgh, Grant was the one to suffer.
Yet, he has remained, statistically, one of the most consistently effective flankers in the Magners and RaboDirect PRO12 leagues, regularly the top defender, because he is quick to the ball-carrier and strong in the tackle, makes fewer mistakes than most back rows and gives away surprisingly few penalties for an openside. It is no wonder that Andy Robinson, Rob Moffat and Michael Bradley, as well as successive Scotland A coaches, have viewed him as a key figure in their teams, and regularly chosen him as captain.
Barclay and Rennie are quality players, too, so competition has been tough and, although he is just 25, Grant is still waiting for his next contract offer and so has been contemplating life beyond rugby. It is not something that worries the phlegmatic character, who speaks enthusiastically about work experience recently in The Scotsman’s marketing department, seeing newspapers from a different perspective.
“It has been good fun and I’ve really enjoyed seeing the business side,” he said. “It’s important to think about what you might do after rugby and the whole business around marketing interests me.”
But, this week, his mind has been on two things only – Christmas Day, and enjoying family fun for 24 hours, and the one pro rugby match that burns into the skull of Scots more than any other.
Grant is a rarity, the genuine model professional who looks after his body and shuns any kind of excess, but, after losing to Glasgow on Friday night, he has struggled to shake off a sore head and knows that the only cure to this particular hangover is a victory at Murrayfield on Saturday, and by more than nine points to bring the 1872 Cup back to the capital for the first time in four years.
“Losing is an awful, awful feeling,” he said, “especially in the manner that we did – to go down by so many, so soon and so cheaply. Personal and team pride takes a big dent, but we showed a lot of spirit when we rallied when our backs were against the wall. The first half deficit made it really difficult to come back. It was a really poor first 40. Missed tackles cost us three tries and, ultimately, the game. It was unacceptable.
“In the second half, we at least had some positives to take away from the game. We tightened things up in defence, improved our tackling and were more together as a unit, which allowed us to get back into the match.
“For our confidence going into the second leg, it’s good that we came together and came back into the game in that way. We stuck in there and improved over the course of the match and that, at least, is a positive to take from the defeat.
“We’re just desperate to get out there and play this game again at Murrayfield, because we know we’re much better than we showed in the majority of the game in Glasgow.
“It’s a must-win match for us in terms of the league. There’s a lot at stake for both teams, and we’re all well aware of that, so there’s plenty of motivation going into the game.”
There is little doubting his desire to put one over Scottish rivals and Grant now has another obstacle in the way of his dream of playing for Scotland in the shape of Warriors’ dynamo Chris Fusaro, but, with Rennie and Barclay, recovering again from injuries and so missing out the festive period, Grant has an opportunity to show Scott Johnson, the interim Scotland coach, that, heading towards his 26th birthday, he has the experience as well as the strength, skills and rugby brain to offer something to the forthcoming RBS Six Nations squad.
Having been passed over by successive national coaches, Grant is hopeful rather than confident of national squad interest, but his excitement about a special annual visit this week is clear. Santa is one thing, but the real opportunity that has had him waking up early is the arrival of Glasgow at Murrayfield on Saturday, in the knowledge that victory is essential to re-ignite Edinburgh’s hopes of reaching the league play-offs – they are now eighth, 11 points behind Glasgow, who are holding onto fourth spot, one point above Leinster, after the weekend’s matches.
Grant prefers to speak in the third person, than of himself, but one can be assured that, after more than seven years of the highs and lows of Scottish pro rugby, there will have been few games on which he is more eager to make his mark than this one. He said: “All the players can’t wait to get back out and play the second leg at Murrayfield.
“It’s a fantastic surface and venue and suits the way we want to play, especially when it’s in front of our fans who, like us, are desperate to win this game.
“And, if we play like we can, there’s no issue with our belief going into this game. We can win the match and the 1872 Cup. They’re always tough games and very physical and that’s where I think the key is for us, to go toe-to-toe and win the collisions and the contact area up front.
“We’ve got some smart footballers in this team and, given the opportunity and the platform, they can create and put away the try-scoring chances that we’ll need to carve out a victory against Glasgow. We’re all counting down the days and can’t wait to get back out there.”
At a time when Scottish rugby is desperately seeking true warriors to brighten the New Year, a bristling Edinburgh back row display would indeed be timely.