Grant Stewart hopes for first Scotland cap as World Cup looms
At this point of the summer the party line is that all Rugby World Cup squad places are up for grabs but everyone knows that, in the famous words of George Orwell, some are more equal than others.
There are names that any casual follower of Scottish rugby could easily have inked in for that 31-man plane trip to Japan but in sport, as in life, things can change in an instant.
The 44-man extended training squad which national head coach Gregor Townsend has assembled this summer, and is currently continuing its preparations for Japan in St Andrews this week, contains a few who could be classed in the “floater” category.
One is 24-year-old Glasgow hooker Grant Stewart who, on the face of things, would be classed as Scotland’s fourth-choice hooker and unlikely to make the final 31-man cut but is sticking in with a belief that he might yet.
With clubmate Fraser Brown battling back from a foot injury and uncertain to feature in any of the warm-up Tests, Stewart knows that a place in the World Cup squad is tantalisingly close as he continues to work away with fellow No 2 jersey aspirants, Calcutta Cup skipper Stuart McInally and fellow Warrior George Turner.
“It’s not far to the warm-up games so the boys are pushing hard to make sure they’ve put their hat in for selection,” said Stewart on the Fife coast this week. “If you’d told me two years ago that I’d be in the World Cup mix then I’d have said ‘no chance’.”
The boy from Strathaven, who is a product of Dalziel RFC, was plucked from relative obscurity from Glasgow Hawks a year and a half ago when the Warriors were struck by an acute injury crisis at hooker and made his pro debut against Leinster in January 2018. Not unsurprisingly, the young man had a few initial teething problems after being thrown into the fire of top-level rugby but he showed enough to impress coach Dave Rennie that he was capable of forging a pro career.
“When I was playing for Hawks there was a wee bit of an injury crisis at Glasgow and I was called in to be 24th man. I was noticed then and got the academy deal, then I got a chance at Glasgow and just tried to push on,” explained Stewart. “I just need to make sure I know my role as much as I can. This [World Cup training] has been a huge jump in standards, it’s just so much faster. It’s about being fit enough, about communicating in defence and attack, and about asking questions to make sure everything’s all good. Stuart McInally has been really good to me, he’s kept me calm on the throwing, while Fraz (Fraser Brown) and George (Turner) have been good as well.”
What Stewart may lack in terms of experience when compared with McInally, Brown and, to a lesser extent, Turner, he makes up for with youthful dynamism and his turn of electric speed is one thing that has stuck out while watching his emergence.
That was shown in the last game of the season when he scorched in for a try any winger would have been proud of at Celtic Park, although it wasn’t quite enough to get Glasgow over the line in that tense Guinness Pro14 final against Leinster. Stewart agrees that the faith Glasgow coach Dave Rennie has shown in him has provided a massive boost.
“It’s been great,” he said. “There was a time when I was wondering if he was going to bring someone else in or trust me to play, so I was grateful that he decided to trust me. I believed in myself.”
That atmosphere at Celtic Park in May has certainly given Stewart a taste for more big-day rugby occasions. This may be one World Cup too soon for him as things stand, but he is ready to step up if called upon and must be hoping to at least earn his first cap at some point in the four warm-up Tests home and away against France and Georgia.
“Being able to deal with that big crowd [in the Pro14 final] helped, but I don’t think there’s much that can prepare you for an international game, especially if it’s your first one,” he added.