Interview: Geoff Cross, rugby player

GEOFF CROSS is one of the most memorable rugby players you will ever encounter. Even if you knew nothing about him, on meeting him you'd immediately be struck by the almost comic disconnect between his 18-stone frame and his exceedingly erudite chat. If he looks like Godzilla with a hangover, he sounds like Mr Cholmondley-Warner revving up to read the script on a 1930s public education film, only on fast forward.

But then Cross, a denizen of the front row who has qualified as a doctor, is used to confounding first impressions. Which, as it happens, is a skill that might just come in handy over the next month or so, because for rugby fans who don't follow the fortunes of Edinburgh intimately, the impression the prop has created so far is a fairly extraordinary one. And not necessarily for all the right reasons.

For anyone who happened to be holidaying in the last remote corner of the world not reached by Sky Sports, Cross's introduction to international rugby last February was utterly unforgettable. It started off with the clearly pumped-up tighthead belting out the words to Flower Of Scotland at Murrayfield while tears streamed down his face, and ended less than 20 minutes later when he charged forward and, in trying to bullishly retrieve a high ball, ran smack into Wales fullback Lee Byrne, knocking himself out in the process. Cross's first cap ended with him being yellow-carded as he was stretchered off, Wales going on to win 26-13.

It is, he concedes, the thing that people are now most likely to know about him. If it was "traumatic" at the time, it's now a wrong that's ready to be righted. He is a man who needs a stiff dose of catharsis next month when the Fijians, Wallabies and Pumas come to town. If he has come to terms with the events of that Sunday afternoon, he hasn't erased either his own or anyone else's memory. "Besides, it's there in glorious technicolour on YouTube for all to see," he says with a wry smile.

"I remember everything about that game," he says. "I remember blubbing in the line-up, I remember focusing on doing scrums well, on sticking with the shape of play, on winning contacts and collisions. In fact I remember everything for the first 20 minutes before I ran into Lee Byrne's knee. But you have to live with the decisions you make, and that's particularly true in a constructed and controlled world like a game of rugby."

It says much about Cross that he is able to put the incident in perspective, especially as lesser men could have been consumed by the fallout. Cross, though, remains defiantly determined to extract a thin core of good from what is otherwise a deep pit of despair.

"Starting that game for Scotland was one of the proudest moments of my career," he says. "It's disappointing that I made a poor decision but there are a billion people in China who do not know or care. That's not to belittle what's a very important and proud thing for me, but there's no need to get too tied up going over things that are water under the bridge.

"What this is is an opportunity to learn: there are things I don't generally practise, such as chasing and taking high balls, and there are decisions I can make to make the best of situations like that in the future because it's my job to make better decisions. What you saw when I got knocked out, injured and sent off was a poor decision and you saw the very public consequences of that decision. I've been judged for that, and there's nothing wrong with that.

"I enjoy my self-control and it means a lot to me when I can't control myself; that means something's very important to me. That was one of the few instances when that's been the case, so that makes it very special for me. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that my first cap for Scotland is very special for me – no shit, Sherlock! I was very pumped up and I was very charged, and I think that affected my decision-making. The important thing I have to do is use that energy and passion and temper it with improved decision-making so that I do the right thing at the right time."

For Scottish fans who have complained about a lack of passion at times from Scotland's players, Cross is proof that while few may be willing to actually die for the cause, some aren't beyond ending up in casualty in pursuit of playing perfection. But the big question is whether or not Cross will suffer another disastrous rush of blood to the head if he gets the call in three weeks' time.

"Will I be less excitable next time? If I'm picked we'll find out, won't we! I certainly hope so. That's something I've certainly been working towards – for example, if a high ball goes up then look around and stay in the line, don't go flying out. But we'll only truly know if and when I win another cap."

Barring injuries that day, as Cross almost certainly knows, is nearly at hand. The injury which has kept undisputed Scottish heavyweight Euan Murray out for the three Autumn Tests means that Cross, who played a blinder as Edinburgh beat Magners League champions Munster at Murrayfield on Friday, believes he holds the secret to ensuring he doesn't end his career as a one-cap wonder. It's a simple plan, and it revolves around employing the work ethic he encountered when he spent a year in Otago playing for the province's under-19s and trying to work out how serious he was about his rugby.

"New Zealand taught me that everybody bleeds red, that there's no great magic about rugby being played in other parts of the world, that we can be every bit as competitive as the teams that are higher ranked than us if we execute basic skills well," he said. "That's how you get success. As a wee 18-year-old laddie who had played some schools rugby and a little bit of club stuff, but had no experience of professional rugby, I saw a much more professional attitude than I had been used to. I loved it, and it was a very useful thing for me as a young player to see, because what it said to me was that if you are willing to put the work in then the chances are there for you so get stuck in to it."

With an attitude like that, it is little wonder that Cross has caught the attention of the national coach, the man who happened to be the prop's coach at Edinburgh last year. Andy Robinson is, above all else, a man who respects 100-percenters. And Cross is, above all else, a man who respects Robinson's blunt directness. "At Edinburgh I had a very paternal relationship with Andy," says Cross. "He was very much the boss and the father; he wasn't my friend, which was a very good thing, because there was an element of fear which motivated you to perform there because you read loud and clear the passion he had for the team he was coaching to perform and improve and how hard he would work to facilitate that.

"He gave you licence to do whatever you thought best but he also gave you responsibility so you were accountable for what you did; if you did something silly you were taken to task for it. If you messed up you were accountable to him personally, which is why I was – and am – a little bit frightened of him. It's a useful type of fear because it motivates you to perform because you see how much he cares and that encourages you to care more as well. It's an energising type of passion."

Robinson will also doubtless be aware that the 26-year-old still has more potential than many of his contemporaries because he had to put his development into suspended animation while pursuing his medical degree (one of ten children, he became the seventh member of his immediate family to qualify as a doctor). If there was any doubt about Cross's raw potential then Robinson could do worse than consult Edinburgh coach Rob Moffat who was Cross's teacher for two years at Galashiels Academy as well as his meeter-and-greeter when he joined the Borders.

Yet for now, it's all about getting the big man back on the bike. Fiji, Australia and Argentina are almost upon us and it's time for Robinson to wind Cross up and point him in the right direction. Only perhaps this time he might ensure that the prop is not wound-up to breaking point.