Interview: Al Kellock

THERE are many epithets slung over the heads of sportsmen who show themselves as successful leaders, especially in Scotland, but Alastair Kellock is not a fan of them.

The captain ones were trotted out in season 2009-10 with monotonous regularity, from 'Captain Marvel' to 'Courageous', and while the 6ft 8in forward shrugs them aside as unwanted, they did at least provide a commentary, however hyperbolic, of the success he was enjoying with Glasgow and Scotland. And to be fair to headline-writers, such descriptions do almost leap with enthusiasm onto the pages.

Kellock is happier to agree that the rugby matches and results that provoked the praise did create a memorable climax through the first half of 2010, a period that remains the most exciting of his and many rugby careers to date; a time when his dark days in the second half of the year were blissfully unknown.

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"The whole of last season I just loved," he said, looking skywards, a big smile reflecting the mind's memories. "We achieved something with Glasgow, an element of success certainly in getting into the top four and the first-ever play-offs in the Magners League, and then being able to play for Scotland and play well enough to keep my place was huge.

"It was the first year that I'd been in consistently for the whole season and I enjoyed the Six Nations a lot more because of that. I felt more comfortable, more in charge of my own performance, able to take more responsibility and change and influence things more. Getting to that point in your playing career, where you feel you belong and can compete in the international game, is massive.

"The more you play the more you build a momentum, and understand what you have to do to play well, and being in that groove was a good place to be. You still have to work very hard to keep your place, but that experience is a major thing."

Kellock is no new face, however. The Bishopbriggs beanpole is now 29. He first played for Edinburgh in the professional game nearly nine years ago, having moved there from the youth ranks to learn his craft alongside Scott Murray, and he made his Scotland debut in 2004. His first five appearances were off the bench, but when he enjoyed a run of starts Kellock emerged with victories over France and England and a narrow defeat to Wales.

He was not considered by many outside his immediate circle at that stage as a real Test contender, largely because of the quality of the competition.The second row has been one of the most competitive areas within Scotland over the past six years, with Scott MacLeod also vying with Kellock, Stuart Grimes, Nathan Hines and Murray for Test time in mid-decade, Craig Hamilton emerging and Jim Hamilton then bringing the kind of bulk that the rest lacked and coaches cried out for.

Now he has the new kid Richie Gray all over his case at Glasgow and Scotland, and Steven Turnbull beginning to make up for lost time, through injury, at Edinburgh. But what seems to have propelled Kellock into the limelight over the past year has been his ability to lead.

In a country where there can sometimes appear to be more willing indians than good quality chiefs, sport opens a window on the nation's psyche, and a major complaint about national teams has been the lack of imposing, lead-from-the-front characters. Through experience of interviewing many talents, my own belief is that they are born, not developed.

Kellock has been Glasgow's captain since he returned west from the capital four years ago, but in the past two he has really become a strong captain, working well with the coaches at Glasgow to develop the squad and tactics, and blending a "big stick" approach with a cool voice in a way that has earned widespread respect among peers and coaches alike.

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He has always had that ability, but it has grown with his exposure to the top level and the confidence that has brought. He has applied himself to the questions raised by national coaches over his lack of bulk, his ability to carry ball and breach the gain-line and to be consistently good through entire games. He speaks well of the coaches at Glasgow, but the influence of Andy Robinson, the Scotland coach, is unmistakable.

"There are loads of different aspects to rugby and loads of things you can be doing to try and make yourself play better," he opined, "but I have learned that if you can narrow your focus you can make bigger gains. That's something that Andy is very good at. He says: 'Look, concentrate on three things - this, this and this. Do them well and you're playing well.' And that's where I am again at the moment, getting back to the form that I had last year."

He has also been developing his mind, applying time and thought to off-the-field work, studying the world of commerce and sport, and spending time with the Institute of Directors. He even attended the recent Euro 2012 qualifier with Spain as a guest of the SFA to see things from a round-ball perspective - no great hardship for a boy brought up as a Rangers supporter until a late uncle stepped in and helped the towering centre-half to see the light.

Knowing Kellock and his grounded nature, it comes as no surprise to learn of his interest in other areas, but it also helps to explain his maturity and increasing stature as a leader with Glasgow and Scotland.He and wife Ashley, a police officer, also had their first child in 2009, Kate heading for her second birthday next month, and that has also played a part.

It certainly helped him cope with the great fall from the pinnacle of leading Scotland to success in South America back in June to the desolation of five months spent recovering from a knee injury, which required two operations and still refused to heal as and when it was supposed to.

"When I was younger I used to really get up and down about things, and even the year before last when I didn't make the Scotland squad for the autumn, the first time in a long time I hadn't been involved at all, I took that really badly. I found it really difficult and had a lot of help to get through that. It's been strange this year, with the success of last season maybe helping soften the blow but also making it harder at times because you feel there is more to miss.

"I still remember Argentina clearly, from Andy telling me I was going to be captain - he actually asked me and I didn't have to think about it - to the feeling of leading the team out for the first time, and sitting in the middle of the team photo, the feeling of winning the first Test and then the second ... incredible. The stuff of dreams.

"So I've got a lot to look back on and I won't complain about the way it's gone since then. Coping with serious injuries is something most boys in rugby have to get their heads round now unfortunately. I have no problems with the knee now at all, but I still have to have rehab and might always need it. I would guess about 60, 70 per cent of the squad have things they're always spending more time on, shoulders, knees, whatever, which we call pre-hab rather than re-hab, because it's about preventing it happening again. I've had the usual bumps and bruises, but never had something needing constant work like that.

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"It's life, but it's not easy, and Ashley and Kate have been huge supports - Kate will probably never know how much she has helped me. As a young lad you think you're invincible, but, ultimately, you've got to be able to deal with these things and come back stronger if you want to survive in modern rugby, and that's the challenge now."

KELLOCK spoke of the strength and weight gains he made during his five months in rehab, working closely with Stuart Yule, a former Scotland Commonwealth Games weightlifter who he raves about, and he is a stronger player now than he has ever been. That is allied to the one ability, his control of the lineouts, where he is world-class.But ask him if the time out could prove to be a blessing in disguise, especially with a tough year of club, Six Nations and World Cup rugby to come, and Kellock is quick to respond in his deep tones that nothing is more beneficial than playing.

Watching his team Glasgow struggle to emulate the feats of last season with the core of that side stripped out by injury and departure to clubs elsewhere, and replaced by youngsters, has been tough, but so has watching Scotland build on the platform of Argentina with demoralisation at the hands of the All Blacks and exhilaration in victory over the Springboks.

"Again, that's part of the torment of being out, but the promise that's there helps keep you up. I said in the summer and I maintain it now that we've got the players at Glasgow to be where we were last season, but we need to find the consistency again," he said.

"That belief comes from the players that have come in and taken over from those that left, from the work of young players like Rob Harley, Ruaridh Jackson, Duncan Weir and Henry Pyrgos. It has been hard for them learning without guys like Chris Cusiter and Johnnie Beattie out there, but there are no excuses. All teams have injuries and when you look at the games we've lost there have been no occasions I can think of where we've been outclassed; the games were tight and we performed for spells but didn't have the necessary consistency.

"We have been learning these lessons over recent years at Glasgow and last year showed we had learned what it took to win games week in week out, but now a core of younger players are starting out on that path and Glasgow and Scottish rugby will be better for it.

"Scotland are also in a good place. We were really tight as a squad at the end of last season. It was the best feeling I've ever experienced in a Scotland squad going back six or seven years, and though I wasn't involved in November the boys say it's still there.

"I don't think the players are all that different, but what Andy has done is get the best out of all of them, whether it's all four or five second rows, or the three scrum-halves. I'm not saying anything against coaches in the past, but there only ever seemed to be two or three guys on form.

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"It's helped by Glasgow and Edinburgh getting more competitive, and the exiles playing well, and so when we all come together in the Scotland camp everyone is at a better level than we've been at in the past."

Just as he wanted little to do with suggestions that he has become some great captain, Kellock was quick to brush aside talk of the 2011 RBS Six Nations Championship and whether he can push his way back into the team.He knows that it starts and ends with performances in a Glasgow jersey, and it does not come much harder than facing Toulouse and Edinburgh in successive weeks while still trying to return to match fitness and with many young eyes looking to him for guidance.

"At this moment in time, it just feels good to be playing. I've had some dark days in the last few months, and my family have had to put up with a lot, so I'm glad for their health too that I'm doing what I want to do again," said Kellock.

"I know I need to be performing well to have a sniff of getting back into the Scotland team, but if I start thinking about the Six Nations, it is bound to take away from what I'm doing this week. Obviously I want to play for Scotland again; I'm desperate to play again, but I really am delighted just to be running out there and playing again at the moment.

"And there's a job to be done. We can't keep looking at games at Glasgow and saying 'what if?'. We have to do it now, over the next few weeks, for us to be pushing for where we want to be this season. Of course it's tough. Two games against Toulouse and then two against Edinburgh were always going to be intense, hugely physical matches in one month, but you'd rather be taking them on head-on than watching it.

"We loved every minute of beating Toulouse out there two years ago and I was hugely disappointed with the way we played against them at Firhill last week, so we need to pick it up big-time this weekend. If we play like that again we will be on the end of a hiding, but if we play as we did in 2009, and against Biarritz in France last year, things can turn around quite quickly."

He added: "This year has taught me a lot about how quickly things can change, but you've got to ride with it. It's maybe the Scottish underdog spirit in me, but games like this against Toulouse are the best because everyone talks about their money and their perceived bigger players, and that just makes it more enjoyable when you win."

The competition for places in the Scotland squad may be more intense than for some time, but Kellock's newly-intensified desire, alongside his improving skills, seem likely to push him into the mix again when it comes to choosing the men to lead Scotland in 2011.