IT’S a lonely life out in the rugby wilderness but for Nick De Luca, the Scotland centre, that has only made his shock recall to the squad and sudden chance to at least fight for his Test place all the sweeter.
After being axed from the national side during the Six Nations and then unceremoniously dumped by Edinburgh, his club, who have refused to pick him since March, his future looked grim.
It went from bad to worse when Biarritz, the club he is joining after being rebuffed by the Edinburgh coaches, were promptly relegated before he had even arrived, and De Luca admits that after receiving the dreaded phone call from Scott Johnson, the director of rugby, to say he had missed out on the summer tour even though there were 43 players selected, he had resigned himself to a summer of moving his family to France and pretty much given up on Scotland.
Then Alex Dunbar was hurt in the RaboDirect Pro12 final, though at first not even that was enough to earn De Luca a reprieve. Mark Bennett was the first player called in to replace his fellow Glasgow Warriors centre, but he has gone home to train for the Commonwealth Games sevens, and at last De Luca has been handed his opening.
“I am getting this opportunity through injuries and injuries alone,” he admitted. “I now need to make sure that the next time they come to pick a squad I have a genuinely deserved position regardless of injuries.
“I don’t know if relief is the right word, I am just grateful for the opportunity to work under the new coach and put my hand up. I didn’t have that opportunity and things were looking a bit bleak for me in terms of who was going and who was being left out. I still see myself as still being way down in the pecking order but I have been give this opportunity and would like to think I am good at taking these things. Fingers crossed.
“Being left out is never a nice experience – it has happened to me a few times in my career. Bouncebackability has been used in my life so hopefully I can show that resilience. I got told a week ago that I was coming, so I had a week to plan my exit from Edinburgh, and all that stuff, before it all kicked off for me.”
At last, De Luca noted wryly, his painful episode with Edinburgh, who did not even allow him one final game where he could say goodbye to the fans, meant he was ready for last week’s slightly surreal training sessions at Murrayfield, where half a squad was practising under the watchful eyes of Hodge and Jonathan Humphreys, the forwards coach, while the other half were playing in North America.
“We were short of numbers, but it was just a case of getting patterns and shapes, which we are all used to,” De Luca said. “It was not too bad, not really that bizarre. It was good to get the ball back in our hands and see each other again. It was new to us but we are all used to training short of numbers throughout the year depending on what is happening. It felt relatively normal to me, anyway, having been training on my own for the last few months. I have been used to training with the non-23 so it felt to me like there were a lot there. It was like a sevens squad, it was perfect.”
De Luca’s arrival does give Vern Cotter, the head coach, the chance to go with a specialist outside centre after trying to shoehorn Sean Lamont into the role against Canada and the USA. As the only specialist in that role, he should have a good chance of making an impression, possibly helped by the team’s underwhelming performance against Canada, which not only left the team with injuries but has also meant Cotter may make more changes than he had planned.
One aspect where they had no choice other than to change things is in the back row, where the original idea was that Kelly Brown and Alasdair Strokosch would travel for the Argentina game before heading home, but they were among the catalogue of injuries picked up against Canada and should be home by now. Keiran Low and Blair Cowan take their places, but will also only be available for the first of the two remaining games as London Irish, their club, insist they cannot play outside the international window.
That is going to provide serious problems for the final match against South Africa. Scotland were already travelling without the players to fill the 13-man quota needed for a full pack and replacements, and any further injuries would be catastrophic.
For De Luca, though, the only important thing is that after one of the bleakest periods of a career that has had more than its fair share of ups and downs, he is getting another chance.