GLASGOW lock Tim Swinson staked his claim to the starting jersey against South Africa this weekend with a man of the match performance at lock that the other contenders in the squad – club captain Alastair Kellock, Lion Richie Gray, hugely experienced Jim Hamilton and youngsters Grant Gilchrist and Johnny Gray – could only watch, admire and learn from.
Swinson gained his first cap when South Africa beat Scotland on their home ground earlier this year in a quadrangular tournament with the hosts, Samoa and Italy, and it is a sign of the 26-year-old’s rapid progress that he now finds himself jostling for position at the head of the queue in a situation where six into two simply don’t go.
He cares little about the politics, however, having played in Australia and at Newcastle without England taking any notice of his claims for an international call-up. Having been sounded out about his Scottish roots, and enticed to Glasgow, he is now enjoying a new lease of life. But, still, he is not about to start celebrating or shouting from the rooftops, instead simply focus on putting in performances week after week that make it impossible for the coach to leave him out.
“I’ve worked hard to get here and played with a chip on my shoulder for my whole career,” he said after the game. “I’ve been told that I don’t fit the position and that is something I have worked on. But the coaches at Glasgow and Scotland have had faith in me and hopefully I’m repaying that now. But it’s not just me, it’s the team to be honest. I can play as well as I did today or be as comfortable as I am in the squad, but all the way from one to 15 it is a team effort. We have some fantastic guys in the tight five, great older players helping people like me through and, really, I just want to win for Scotland. It’s as simple as that.”
What has impressed Scotland’s coaches most has been the steel inside Swinson, a never-say-die approach that ensures he is a player that can be counted upon to face up to whatever is thrown at him and not take a backward step.
That much was obvious in the summer when he led Scotland’s fight against South Africa in Nelspruit for the first hour, before the loss of his second row partner Jim Hamilton to a yellow card, the fatigue of a first-ever Test match and a Boks resurgence began to take effect.
“Playing in an international is like going through a battle,” he said. “You barely get out the other side and you think ‘I can’t do that again’, and then two days later you desperately want to do it again. It’s a tough old job. It’s Test rugby, and if you think you are going to come for a walk in the park you are kidding yourself. This week I played well, and next week I have got to push on if I am to keep the shirt but competition is what you live off in professional sport. If there is no competition people struggle to improve. It gives the coaches great options and keeps everyone on their toes.”
That is a truth that will be consuming the minds of Scott Johnson and his assistants today as Alastair Kellock is struggling to recover from concussion. Swinson might appear nailed on to start against South Africa, not least because they will not enjoy seeing the debutant of Nelspruit again, but with Hamilton and Gray desperate for starting berths - and having done little wrong since their respective summer tours with Scotland and the Lions – and Johnson eager to hand Gilchrist and the younger Gray “more miles on the clock” off the bench at some point, it is not clear-cut.
One assumes, however, that Swinson’s performance has sent the kind of message of the reality of competition to those four that Johnson has been striving to push, and for that reason alone he will retain the no4 jersey for this week. He is certainly eager to take his learning in the world of international rugby to the next level and find a performance that again competes with a formidable Springboks side, and, crucially, proves that the summer performance by him and his teammates was not a flash in the pan.
“South Africa are going to bring their style of rugby which is big physical runners coming through,” he acknowledged, with a hint of a smile. “It’s good to test yourself against the top teams in the world; something to relish. We know what is coming and we have to step up for that.”
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