Glasgow’s Zander Fagerson on fearing for rugby’s future and why training has been like ‘prison’

Warriors forward excited about Murrayfield clash with Edinburgh and admits that lockdown hit players hard
Zander Fagerson says he feels ‘privileged, excited and grateful’ to be playing rugby again this weekend. Picture: Ross MacDonald/SNSZander Fagerson says he feels ‘privileged, excited and grateful’ to be playing rugby again this weekend. Picture: Ross MacDonald/SNS
Zander Fagerson says he feels ‘privileged, excited and grateful’ to be playing rugby again this weekend. Picture: Ross MacDonald/SNS

Zander Fagerson could see only darkness. As Scotland’s tight-head prop, the fulcrum
of the scrum, his place of work naturally lacks light – but this was different. Covid caused him to fear for 
rugby’s future.

“I’ll be brutally honest: there were times during lockdown when I really didn’t know where my next game was going to be coming from and I got pretty down,” says the 29-cap forward. “I thought: ‘That’s it, I’m not going to play again, I’m not going to be able to pay the mortgage, provide for my family, all that adult stuff… ’”

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Because rugby is the most socially-undistanced of sports, Fagerson struggled to 
visualise a place for it beyond the pandemic. He looked at football’s nervous, uncertain return with its rules about no hugging 
during the goal celebrations and the day when he could once again anchor the dark blue pack – rubbing stubble with his opposite number and able to discern whether the fellow had brushed his teeth beforehand – seemed a long way off and maybe unreachable.

Zander Fagerson with his tartan mascot and daughter Iona at the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Picture: Adam Davy/PAZander Fagerson with his tartan mascot and daughter Iona at the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Picture: Adam Davy/PA
Zander Fagerson with his tartan mascot and daughter Iona at the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Picture: Adam Davy/PA

Even the early sessions back training with Glasgow Warriors offered little consolation, just running and yet more running and hardly knowing his team-mates were there. “We were allocated ten-metre channels, tin walls either side 7ft high so we couldn’t see each other. Up and up, up and down for a month. That was surreal, like we were in prison – solitary confinement.”

But here he sits in his front room looking forward to today’s resumption of top-class rugby in Scotland with an intercity Pro14 clash with Edinburgh at Murrayfield. For long enough he has been counting the days since his last game. “It’ll be 161 all told,” he confirms. Now at last he can count the hours until his next one.

Scotland’s Six Nations came to a juddering halt after the 28-17 victory over France in March. “The last good thing I did was win a scrum-pen, which I was pretty chuffed about,” says Fagerson. “Then it was Wales, the uncertainty right up until the captain’s run, being told the game wasn’t happening and a 12-hour bus journey back up the road – tremendous fun.”

We’re talking on Zoom, Fagerson apologising for being late for our appointment – he was playing in the garden in Bearsden with his daughter Iona and lost track of time. It’s good for any rugby enthusiast to be renewing acquaintance with his apple cheeks, crinkly-eyed smile and no-nonsense buzzcut, all the more so because they are in such marked contrast with the features of actress Sofia Vergara who pops up when you Google Fagerson, a consequence of him once having nominated the Modern Family sex-bomb as the person with whom he’d most want to be stuck in a lift (because she’s “hilarious” of course).

Zander Fagerson celebrating after Glasgow’s Champions Cup victory against Sale Sharks at Scotstoun last November. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty ImagesZander Fagerson celebrating after Glasgow’s Champions Cup victory against Sale Sharks at Scotstoun last November. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Zander Fagerson celebrating after Glasgow’s Champions Cup victory against Sale Sharks at Scotstoun last November. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Fagerson speaks well for one only 24 and says he knows other players found 
lockdown far tougher. “I’ve got a family, a garden, a couple of dogs. If you’re a single guy in a flat you don’t have such distractions and comforts. I’ve spoken to a few of these boys and they were in some pretty dark places. They’re very, very relieved to have rugby back.”

Fagerson will never forget the spring and early summer of 2020 for obvious reasons, but it wasn’t all despondency. His family increased in size during lockdown with the arrival of son Hamish on 28 April, joining Fagerson, his wife Yasmine, 14-month-old Iona and not forgetting French bulldogs Bruno and Brutus.

“He’s brilliant – and at 9lbs 3oz at birth definitely my son,” laughs Dad. “We were a bit nervous about having a baby during a global pandemic, obviously, but hats off to the NHS and the midwives and nurses – they were unbelievable.

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“The day he arrived we didn’t reckon anything was happening. Yaz had tasked me with scrubbing the house from top to bottom. I thought I could fit in a workout and a good night’s sleep, then he’d be born in the morning. But I got a call from Yaz: ‘I’m being induced. Get over here now’. I smashed down some food and turned up at the hospital absolutely dripping with sweat.

“It was early in lockdown and I didn’t have to wear a mask or gloves though the staff all did. I remember thinking: would babies eventually have to be born with no dads present? That would be brutal for the mums. But I was able to be the support-team for my wife who was a trouper, amazing the whole way through, and now we have Hamish who’s a massive blessing.

“He’s doing well, a good wee sleeper and very smiley. I missed this stage with my daughter when Scotland went into camp before the World Cup in Japan so it’s been great to see, and to watch him interact with Iona who’s just started running around. Yes, lockdown’s been tough but I’ve been more fortunate than many. Yaz has been really supportive and the kids have helped me too. You can’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself not being able to play rugby when one of them starts crying and you have to revert straight into Dad mode.”

It probably seems that Fagerson – first international appearance a few days after the 20th birthday, youngest Scotland prop for 68 years, immediate comparisons with a young version of Iain “The Bear” Milne – has packed a lot into his rugby career already but, really, the same was true of his young life before it.

A son of Kirriemuir, Angus, the eldest of five children born to Jonathan and Gwendolyn including six-times-capped brother Matt and educated at Dundee High and Strathallan, he came to the oval ball as a well-rounded teen having played almost as many musical instruments as he did sports. Indeed there cannot be many prop forwards anywhere who used to be mountain-biking choirboys.

“Hats off to Mum and Dad who encouraged us in everything and drove us everywhere,” he says. “Believe it or not I used to be a pretty good high jumper until I got too heavy.” Didn’t his natural beefiness slow him down on the bike? “I could tell you I used to be slim but my old Dundee High mates – these boys I hooked up with on Zoom during lockdown for quizzes – would just laugh. The main problem was when I carried a rugby injury into a bike competition, such as happened when I separated my ac [acromioclavicular] joint in a tournament and a week later was tearing down a hill near Dumfries because I needed the bike points only for a branch to knock my helmet off and rip the joint even more.” (Ouch).

Nevertheless, in 2010 he was a national under-15s title-winner on two muddy wheels. “Mountain biking was a terrific adrenalin rush, the same as I get now from rugby,” he adds. “I was back home in Kirriemuir last weekend and found myself walking some of my old tracks. I’d go off with a spade on my bike, meet a couple of pals in the woods and we’d build jumps – fantastic fun. Not surprisingly, as a rugby player I can’t get insured for clattering down rocky paths. But I’ll be back on to them when I’ve retired and the kids are old enough to come out with me and I’ve saved up for my next boy toy – an electric mountain bike.”

From his father he got sports, from his mother music. He played violin, trombone and drums, making the biggest mark with his voice, climbing the singing scales to National Boys’ Choir level. “Mum said ‘You’d be good at that’ so I gave it a go. There were competitions, camps and trips to France – again, amazing fun. In my first choir in Dundee there were a fair few pretty girls. I tried hard to get a phone number from one of them but no luck.

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“It seems to be a matter of dispute whether I can still sing. Iona says yes but Yaz reckons no. A lot of rugby boys have good voices but, stereotypically, are not very open about it. Ryan Wilson can sing, though, and so can George Horne and Jamie Ritchie.”

Here’s another area of potential conflict: how does Fagerson the guy operating amid the white heat of a scrum, who at the very least must make life as uncomfortable as possible for his opposite number, square with Fagerson the committed Christian? “Well, I believe God has given me a gift to play rugby and when I play, I play for Him and thank Him for it. For me rugby is a form of worship.

“Sometimes in the intensity of a game it’s difficult to be perfect on the pitch. I’ll hold my hand up and say that in times gone by I haven’t always been. It’s about how you handle yourself and hopefully I do that better now.”

In his youth, church came before rugby, a source of frustration to the lad, though with maturity he has come to appreciate why his parents insisted on this – “It’s a big family thing for us.” Now, his beliefs do not extend to him stepping back from internationals played on Sundays. “Everyone’s form of worship is different. I always pray before a game and scribble a Bible verse on the wrist-tape on my left hand. And out on the park I give God the glory.”

On maturity – and we have to remind ourselves he is still only 24 – Fagerson admits that at first he hated tight-head, wanted to go straight back to No 8, but came to like “the confrontation and the responsibility of the rest of the pack depending on you”. He used to be mouthy but eventually learned that “if you’re snarky you’re giving your opposite number a reason to absolutely drill you”. He tries not to draw attention to himself, to show “humility”. If he does his job in the scrum that is not cause for roaring in opponents’ faces. “Though if I was to chip-kick through an impossible gap and run in a spectacular try there would have to be a phenomenal celebration!”

He reflects again on childhood, his tight-knit family and the fun the Famous Fagerson Five enjoyed in and around Kirriemuir. “In order there’s me, Matt, Agris, Nathaniel and Rachel, 14, who’s a fantastic hockey player and very aggressive with it – I don’t know where she gets that from.

“Well, I do. We all had a fabulous time playing three-vs-two football, which would turn into rugby, which would turn from touch to full contact. Now and again the games got a bit rowdy when Matt would pick on one of the younger boys and I’d have to pick on him. We laugh about those times now and also when all five of us would jump on the trampoline together and the brothers would bounce Rachel as high as the house. Thinking about rugby, and how I’m quite good at manoeuvring about the floor in the breakdown, I reckon my feistiness comes from that trampoline.”

Those rumbustious sessions may have helped but Fagerson acknowledges that the properly hard knocks were learned as he made his way up the rugby ladder, with a game for Glasgow Hawks 2nds standing out for one of those classic confrontations involving a wizened veteran feeling himself threatened by a sprightly tyro.

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It’s a lesson learned that Fagerson often mentions and would be a key sequence of any movie that is ever made of his rugby
story: “I was 18 and up against this grizzled character with long hair for Stewart’s-Melville 2nds who I later found out was 45 and he made my life hell all afternoon. Afterwards we had a drink at the bar. ‘What did you do out there?’ I asked him. He 
told me, blow by blow, broke it all down. That was valuable and the game is still my hardest by a country mile. My neck hurts even now.”

Who was he? Has he followed Fagerson’s career since? “Yes to the latter, I think, because someone he knows showed me an article where I’d mentioned that game and I signed it for him: ‘Thanks for the hiding. It was very educational!’ But I’m not sure I’ve ever known his name so hopefully he’s enjoying the mystique!

“A similar thing happened a couple of years later playing for Hawks against Edinburgh Accies when I tried to counter-ruck Lewis Niven and he seemed to think I didn’t know my place and definitely dealt it out to me. But I loved those games. For me, as a front-row man it was vital to have the chance to play my way through the leagues. You couldn’t switch off even for a second because some of the guys you met on the way up were 
better than the internationalists.

“That’s true, by the way. In an international scrum everyone’s the same level and it’s only little kinks in the armour which might reveal themselves. In a 2nds scrum your hooker might have eased off – maybe he was on a cigarette break – and that would be when you’d get absolutely murdered. But while you can tell an international player not doing his job to buck up his ideas because he was being well-paid for it, you can’t really scream and shout at the 45-year-old with long hair because he’s just playing for fun.” Except in Fagerson’s case the 45-year-old with long hair wasn’t mucking about – nothing like.

He returns to the subject of his own family: Yasmine, Iona and now little Hamish, too. “Rugby is no longer the be-all-and-end-all for me,” he says. But it’s still important. He’s been mentioned as a possible pick for next year’s Lions tour of South Africa, if it happens, but while that would be amazing, there’s no point looking any further ahead than Murrayfield this afternoon. The altogether impressive Fagerson has been working hard throughout lockdown for this moment: pounding the pavements to AC/DC while bodyswerving the fridge and in his front garden, to the amusement of the street, squat-thrusting with barbells and medicine balls borrowed from a friend’s gym just as lockdown struck. He says: “I feel privileged, excited and grateful that rugby’s coming back and I can’t wait.”

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