TWO years ago, Budge Pountney was a man riven by frustration, compelled to walk out on his country. A horrific injury sustained while playing for his club cost him a testicle, and raised concerns over whether he was able to start a family. It brought into sharp focus his concerns at the "unprofessional" management of the Scotland international squad and he chose to effect an immediate and dramatic retiral from Test rugby.
This weekend, he will lead Northampton back into the Heineken Cup, aiming to secure a place in the quarter-finals, not as a player but as their head coach; a position he was handed just six weeks ago after a sudden change at the Saints helm. He had a brief few hours off yesterday, and made the most of it by playing at home with his five-month-old daughter Naeve. Given what he’d been through, it was a domestic scene of utter contentment. How life has changed.
"It is quite remarkable," he says, shaking his head at the turn of events since that day in January 2003 when the former Scotland captain walked out of Murrayfield for the final time. "The past two years have been an incredible, emotional roller-coaster.
"I’ve gone from the injury to retiring from Test rugby the way I did; to having to explore whether myself and my wife Ali could have family; then breaking an ankle and being told I’d played my last game of rugby; then getting a new job in a field which excited me; having a baby girl; moving house; and then this, being asked to coach the club I’d played at for years. I’ve never had time to stop and think about it, which is probably just as well."
The starting point was the excruciating injury he received when kicked by a London Irish player. The problem proved so serious he was forced to undergo an operation to remove the badly-damaged testicle, leading to serious concerns over his ability to father children.
Remarkably, he was back playing rugby within a fortnight and was building up to Scotland’s Six Nations Championship campaign when he decided he had had enough of squabbles within the Scottish Rugby Union and the team management. Then 29, he told The Scotsman: "I just couldn’t take it any more. Players work very, very hard to be the best they can be, to win for Scotland, but get treated like second-class citizens by the SRU.
"Every week before an international is like a fight - a fight to get simple things like water after training, food, kit, studs, whatever. I know it is a difficult financial climate, but when opposition sides are worrying only about the game, many Scotland players are involved in stupid squabbles until kick-off."
It was a damning indictment of the game’s governing body and he was supported publicly by skipper Bryan Redpath and the long-serving Tom Smith, and praised privately by many other team-mates. Some questioned his decision, and Jim Telfer, the forwards coach at that time, stated that he felt the injury might have affected his judgment, but, looking back, Pountney has no regrets about what he said. "I have none at all, because there was no other way to make people listen.
"I took some flak, but I’ve kept in touch with many of the players and I know things are a lot better now. I’m not saying that’s down to me - maybe it would have happened anyway - but hopefully the Scotland team have a better chance of being successful now.
"I thought it was pretty crass of people [at the SRU] to question my state of mind - they had known me for five or six years, but obviously didn’t know me very well at all - but I knew exactly what I was doing. Of course, I felt terrible for my team-mates and Scotland supporters when I took that decision, and I missed hugely not playing for Scotland, but the roller-coaster had started and I had other things to keep my mind active.
"The injury forced us into exploring whether we were able to have kids, and the fact of the matter was we did need help, not only because of injury but other factors. Sport is a wonderful thing and I was always someone who viewed rugby as a fantastic sport, but there is life outside it. I love it to bits, but you always need perspective; it makes you a more balanced and healthy sportsperson."
The low he felt then is probably fully appreciated when compared to the high he experienced when his wife Ali gave birth to a daughter, Naeve, in the summer. To then become Northampton’s head coach, without any top-flight coaching experience, was the icing on the cake. Suddenly, his personal and professional lives had reached new peaks.
"It is hard to put into words the feelings now," he said. "I thought I was lucky to get the chance to move into strength and conditioning with Northampton when I had to stop playing, because it was an area I’d had an interest in - I completed a sports science degree at De Montfort University in Bedford - but I never dreamed of becoming a head coach.
"I never saw it coming. [Team-mate] Paul Grayson and myself were literally called the day before Northampton announced that we were taking over from Alan Solomons; we both agreed to do it because it’s a club we played for a very long time and it was in a spot of bother; we had to say ‘yes’.
"Since then we’ve just gone at it head-first, which is sort of the way I played I suppose - when you don’t have much skill you have to meet challenges head-on, I think! The players were very good about it, were very supportive, and have upped their work-rate, and that’s been the secret - the players have trained harder and worked harder and got the results on the pitch - but we’ve got a long way to go yet."
Pountney assumed the head coach’s role as Grayson continues to play. The appointments are temporary for now, but four wins from six games - losses to Newcastle and Toulouse away have been the only blemishes - have led to many at Franklins Gardens backing the pair to continue on a permanent basis.
The club have moved up three places to ninth in the Zurich Premiership, and this week were voted Europe’s Club of the Week for jumping four places in the European rankings to 18th ahead of their trip to Llanelli tomorrow.
On Friday next week, Pountney welcomes one of his former Scotland coaches in the shape of Hugh Campbell, when Glasgow sign off from their Heineken Cup adventure for this season, and he will be in Edinburgh in May to launch his testimonial year - planned before be was appointed Northampton coach.
"Scotland is still a big part of me - I watch the games, still admire Murrayfield so much, and still feel for the guys out there, more as a supporter now than a player, probably. I hope dearly that we beat England at Twickenham this year. It’s been a pretty hectic couple of years since I left the squad, very strange, but it’s been fun as well, and exciting, and I feel above all that I’ve been very lucky. We probably wouldn’t want many years like that again, but it’s been quite defining in many respects and when I look at Naeve I’m glad we’ve gone through it."
Pountney might feel that few things in life are as strange as life itself, but he clearly has little time for reflection. He may also crave a slower pace, yet given his recent choices, there are inevitably more peaks and troughs to come - none likely, however, to rival those of the past two years.