Jon Welsh: The high-voltage hardman

HE MAY only be 23, and he may operate in the least glamorous position on the pitch, but in his debut year with Glasgow Warriors loosehead prop Jon Welsh has already become something of a cult figure.

Older fans love the fact that he spent three years forging his rugby character at the coalface of club rugby with GHA before coming into the professional game, while their sons who dream of playing for Scotland see a player who has proved that naked desire and a ferocious work ethic are still enough to take youngsters overlooked by the Academy system to the very top.

But it's his team-mates to whom the ebullient larger-than-life Glaswegian has been the biggest inspiration. Not only has this gallus yet grounded former electrician quickly established himself as the heart and soul of the pro-team, with his enthusiasm in training making even the most mundane weights session fly by, but his contribution once he crosses the whitewash has been immense.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Nowhere was that more obvious than when the 6'1", 19-stone prop skewered All Black legend Greg Somerville when Glasgow played Gloucester in the Heineken Cup. But Welsh's game also comes with a hard edge that was honed partly in the amateur game, partly in the boxing ring, where he was something of a prodigy.

"When I was 13 I was second in the Scottish championships and the next year I won it," he says. "I won the Scottish title aged 14 when I was at the Bad Apple Gym in Kinning Park, but I boxed at a lot of gyms – at the ABC Gym in the Gorbals, in Woodvale Street in Govan, all over Glasgow.

"I started boxing when I was eight years old and stopped (at 14] when my boxing coach told me I had to choose between rugby and boxing. In boxing you've got to be as light and as nimble as you can be, on the other hand a good prop forward has got to be a big bruiser, and the two don't go hand in hand.

"But that experience has been vital because boxing stands you in good stead for life: the discipline it gave me has helped me in every area of my life, and it's come in handy on the rugby pitch when you need to get aggressive. There were always lots of scuffles and tussles, and there were times when I had to think and act fast. When I was at Whitecraigs (where he started playing aged 12] you always knew you were guaranteed a bit of scuffle with clubs like Ardrossan and Dalziel. Happy times."

More than anything, though, it is Welsh's work ethic that has seen him through. That appetite for hard graft is partly because the prop is a driven man who enjoys the training, but even more so because he knows what it is like to be a working man for whom rugby is a release not a profession. Welsh is that rarity in the professional game, a youngster who has earned his living outside rugby. After leaving school at 16 and spending three years as a time-served electrician, he appreciates his good fortune every time he hits the gym or the tackle bag.

"It's definitely been a good thing that I had a life before rugby," he says. "When you're an electrician you're getting up early every morning in the freezing cold, often while it's still dark, to go and do physical labour. Playing rugby for a living, you're getting up and going to lift weights or to play rugby, which used to be something I did after work to enjoy myself. As a living it's brilliant. There's never a morning where I think to myself 'urgh', because I'm excited every morning to wake up and go and do the thing that I love most."

It hasn't been easy though. He hogged the headlines when he completely dominated Munster tighthead Tony Buckley as the Magners League champions' scrum was overwhelmed at Fir Hill, and was lauded for handling Somerville with impressive ease, but on his first start as a Glasgow player he was, as they say, handed his own backside on a silver platter by Castres' tighthead on the Warriors' pre-season tour of France. "I wasn't trying to fool myself, I knew it was going to be a massive step up between the club game and pro game, but it was still a bit of a shock," he says. "Still, it happened once, but it won't happen twice."

If Welsh has burst on to the scene with Glasgow this year, his character and potential were revealed by the amateur game even after he'd been signed by Glasgow. Farmed out to play at West of Scotland alongside skipper and former Scotland hooker Gordon Bulloch last season, coach John Beattie soon realised that he had a youngster of rare quality on his hands. "(Glasgow coach] Sean Lineen phoned me and I told him Jon was the best loosehead prop in the country," said Beattie. "Jon has great scrummaging ability, is very powerful and rarely gives an inch. From his very first game, when he took Glasgow Hawks' front row to the cleaners, I knew he had it."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Welsh burnished his already substantial reputation for hardness when he played on for ten minutes after breaking his leg against Stirling County, his second leg break in quick succession. Far from setting him back, though, the injuries he suffered last season – broken legs, a broken jaw and a stress reaction in his other leg after his body weight shot by up ten kilos – have been the making of him. Confined to the gym for ten months, he became a complete weights monkey, bulking up and becoming the formidable physical specimen who has terrorised Magners League tightheads this season. "Last season was the worst of my life, this season has been the best," he says.

Welsh's rise to prominence has come at a time when Glasgow have a group of young forwards of enormous potential, with his sidekick Moray Low, second row Richie Gray and back-rowers John Barclay, Johnnie Beattie and Richie Vernon all sharing the potential to be Scotland greats for many years to come. The extent to which they have bonded as a side was, says Welsh, particularly evident in the double-header against Edinburgh.

"When we were in the changing room before going out you could see that desire in everybody's eyes, could see that there was not one guy switched off," he says. "We were raring to go and everyone wanted it, so it was no surprise that we won both games because we expected to win even though we knew those two games were going to be battles because it was a national trial. And they were – it was fiery out there."

If Welsh "would love to think I could play with these guys for years" and says that Glasgow maintaining their place at the top of the Magners League is his immediate priority, especially as "everyone knows that it's easier to get there than to stay there", then he could also be forgiven were his mind to turn to winning his first cap for Scotland. Allan Jacobsen, Alasdair Dickinson and Kyle Traynor are all arguably ahead of him in the pecking order, but with Welsh proving he can play tighthead against Wales and Ireland in the club internationals two years ago, many seasoned observers believe the big man from Glasgow will emerge as the long-term choice.

Welsh won't say as much, but you sense he may just agree with them. He's living the dream, and the dream has always been to make the Scotland loosehead position his own. "When I was playing club rugby, becoming a pro was always on my mind. When I was boxing I always wanted to be the best at that, and when I started falling in love with rugby at the back of my mind was always the ultimate dream of playing for Scotland."

If he carries on playing the way he is, that dream may be a whole lot closer than even he imagines.