SINCE the day Richie Gray strode onto the Test stage and left Jeremy Guscott eating his hat, the giant, blond colossus has been inked in to virtually everyone’s starting Scotland XV.
But, no sooner had he claimed the No 4 jersey than three talented locks have emerged to prise it off him. Grant Gilchrist was handed his Test debut in last year’s Six Nations and Tim Swinson got his chance on the summer tour to South Africa when Gilchrist was injured and Gray was away on the British and Irish Lions tour. Then Gray’s younger brother Jonny came off the bench to replace him in the autumn.
Swinson has been handed the front lineout position for the start of the 2014 RBS Six Nations and, at 26, and something of a late starter, he has no intention of making things easy for the golden boy.
When it was suggested he must feel good about keeping out Scotland’s Test Lion, Swinson shrugged and looked blank. “I haven’t really thought about that,” he said. “Only about my performance and the areas on which I can improve. I’ve given myself the best shot I can and, if I’m picked, fantastic and hopefully I’ll do Scotland proud.
“If I’m not picked it’s because I still have some things to work on and it’s on the full understanding the guys who play ahead of me are top quality and you can’t take that away from them. It’s not just about Richie, it’s Grant and Jonny. Edinburgh and Glasgow second rows have been playing really well this season so we have good competition and there are Glasgow players who are not even in the Scotland squad.
“But we’ve got friendly competition between all of us and we’re all Test-level players and we’re all really good players so the decision as to who they start, who goes on the bench, who doesn’t play, is a tough job. Hopefully I can prove myself as a worthy player this weekend and put more pressure on the coaches to pick me for the England game.”
That kind of response sums up Swinson’s character. He may speak well, having been privately educated, but he is not one for airs and graces and, as Swinson prepares to mix it with Irishmen in Dublin for the first time, Hamilton’s monopoly on the “bad boy” reputation may be at an end.
Swinson is even working on the look, sporting a new scar at yesterday’s team announcement. “Ah,” he said, almost apologetically. “Geoff Cross headbutted me in training last week. I wouldn’t let him near me to put in the stitches [Cross is a qualified doctor] and he came off slightly worse, unfortunately. He looks like Harry Potter, with a nice scar on his forehead.
“The first thing I thought was that my cheekbone might have been broken but, thankfully, it is harder than Geoff’s forehead and, once I felt the blood, I was a bit annoyed as I don’t like getting needles, injections or being stitched, and I knew that was coming. Thankfully, it wasn’t too bad – five stitches. I’ve got enough stitches on my face – I’m up to about 80 now throughout my career. If I had to hold on to my good looks I would be screwed by now.”
His mother might disagree, but it is Swinson’s approach to rugby rather than his looks that Johnson likes, and which has earned him the No 4 jersey.
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE