THE meteoric rise David Denton enjoyed in 2011-12 has come back to haunt him, with the Edinburgh and Scotland No 8 admitting in a revealing interview that his performances have suffered this season because of his own frustrations.
However, he is hopeful that guidance from former Scotland flanker John Jeffrey will play a part in helping him recover his best form for club and country in the second half of the season.
Denton had only just emerged in professional rugby when he was selected for an international debut in a World Cup warm-up Test. It was wholly deserved after the impact he had for Edinburgh and, though he was not taken to New Zealand, he went on to enjoy an excellent season at the heart of Edinburgh’s Heineken Cup campaign.
He was also one of Scotland’s best players in last season’s RBS Six Nations Championship, winning the Man of the Match award in his first Six Nations match despite Scotland losing to England, and impressed sufficiently for shrewd judges across the UK to start pencilling him in for a potential British and Irish Lions tour this summer.
But this season his development has hit a plateau and only in recent games has he started to pick up form again. He was delighted and relieved to see his name in Scott Johnson’s Six Nations training squad, and revealed that he has been seeking advice from his Winning Scotland Foundation mentor Jeffrey as well as Edinburgh coaches to get him back on track.
“Trying too hard I think this season has been the big problem for me,” he said. “After such a good season last year I set my bar here [he holds his hand at eye level] and I have got very frustrated when I don’t reach there.
“But Greig Laidlaw and Nick de Luca have been brilliant with me, helping me with the mental approach to the game, and you can see their experience. They know how to keep calm when they don’t perform the way they want to, and still manage to put in a solid game.
“It’s having to accept that I’m not going to make four or five line-breaks every game and win it for my team at this level, which is what I’ve been going out there thinking my team-mates need from me, and that maybe you’re the guy some days who falls back and just gives your team a solid base to work off.
“I’ve been building pressure on myself, especially with the Six Nations coming up. I want to be the best player out there but sometimes you’ve got to realise, I guess, that the key is to allow the players around you to play well. In the last few weeks I’ve tried to start developing that.
“It’s been great having Backy [Neil Back] and Michael [Bradley], who are helping me to develop my game, and Simon Cross, who is coaching at Accies, has been a great help as well. But having John Jeffrey as a mentor is a huge boost. Just being able to talk to someone who has played for Scotland in big games, played for the Lions, and who plays in my position is immense.
“I have spoken to him quite a bit recently, and he’s been great. He’s helped me to understand how I need to manage my expectations in each game, and that when I do that those games I’m wanting to have will come. And I think it is (coming). I’ve been much happier in the last couple of games. I do feel I’m getting back into it, breaking tackles again, and that’s what I need to bring to the team.”
It is interesting to hear a young player elucidate so clearly and personally the trials of coping with life as a pro and young Test talent. There is an inevitable naivety, but it is typical of Scottish players, where the relative lack of competition means young talents are thrust into the limelight swifter than elsewhere, while still with their physical and mental make-up at a raw stage.
And Denton will not be alone in a new Six Nations squad, with 19 others who are either uncapped or only stepped into the faster-paced and more physical whirlwind of the Test arena for the first time last year.
He winced at the memory of his forward pass against Munster in Sunday’s Heineken Cup match that led eventually to the Irishmen scoring and Laidlaw being sin-binned, citing that as a reason alone for post-match depression, but he acknowledges that there was much he did in the game that pointed to a corner being turned.
On one hand, the big No 8 brought up in South Africa and with Springbok ways has to learn how to move on quickly from defeat and not let it dent his confidence. On the other, there is a reassurance that he is so determined to succeed that he does not take losses well, and is not the type to brush them off easily. Jeffrey is helping him to strike a balance.
“I guess it’s not easy when you’re 22 because you just want to be the best you can be now, for your team and the supporters,” Denton added. “But the fast-forwarding comes from listening to these guys around you, taking in all the knowledge and working as hard as you can to gain the experience.
“I’ve had 50-odd games for Edinburgh and nine caps for Scotland, and I do feel it coming. The recent games at No 8 have been massively helpful. I’m learning a lot, but it will always be difficult to leave the massive frustration that comes from not winning, and we’ve had a bit of that with Edinburgh and Scotland lately. We need to start winning again.”