The former All Black Eric Rush once famously quipped “play rugby union, see the world. Play rugby league, see Wigan” but Scotland are keen to prove that there is life for the 13-man code outside its traditional strongholds.
Later this month Steve McCormack’s side will face the biggest and most exciting challenge in Scotland’s rugby league history when they face the sport’s superpowers Australia, England and New Zealand in the Ladbrokes Four Nations.
It will be a first ever crack at the Aussies and English and the squad have gathered for a week-long Edinburgh training camp at Heriot-Watt University’s Oriam high-performance centre before heading down to the north of England ahead of the opener against the Kangaroos in Hull on 28 October.
McCormack has assembled a squad containing several star performers in the Super League and Australian NRL, with Wigan Warriors’ Lewis Tierney attracting the lion’s share of publicity.
The 22-year-old full-back is the eldest son of former dual-code international, World Cup winner and British and Irish Lion Jason Robinson.
He was raised by his mother and doesn’t have much contact with his famous father, qualifying for Scotland courtesy of his Glaswegian grandmother Dot, who moved to Hunslet but “is proper Scottish and hasn’t lost her accent at all,” according to Tierney.
McCormack has been Scotland coach since 2004 but also works for Wigan as head of scholarship and coach education and played a big part in convincing Tierney, who starred in the recent Super League Grand Final win over Warrington and became the first son to follow his father by playing in the showpiece, to opt for Scotland.
“About five months ago I had a chat with Steve and he asked how I’d feel about having a shot playing for Scotland,” explained Tierney during a break from training at Oriam yesterday. “I was pretty chuffed to get the chance to play for an international team and jumped at it.”
Tierney, whose stepfather Paul is a top English football referee, says it won’t feel strange playing against the country he has grown up in when the auld enemies clash at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena on 5 November. The final match against the Kiwis is in Workington on 11 November.
“I’ve always been aware of my Scottish blood and proud of that,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I grew up feeling Scottish but I’m delighted to be involved and it will be a proud moment if I get to pull on that blue jersey, that’s for sure.”
Of course, some cynics might question the Scottishness of a squad that contains only two players born north of Hadrian’s Wall – Dave Scott from Stirling and Irvine-born Matt Russell – but all are selected through blood ties, with not a three-year residency rule in sight.
“Playing in this Four Nations will be massive,” said Tierney. “I know rugby league doesn’t get the biggest following up here but hopefully with these three games, if we can do well, make a nuisance of ourselves and play some good rugby against the big boys it will spark some interest. Then hopefully by the time the next World Cup comes around the team might have more of a profile.”
Tierney doesn’t rule out the possibility of going dual-code himself at some point down the line.
“It is something I’d look at,” he admitted. “I like union and I do enjoy watching the Premiership and the big international games on telly.
“It would be a good thing to do and I’d be open minded about it after my time is up at Wigan. But I’ve still got lots to prove for Wigan and Scotland now as well.”
Other Bravehearts players to watch include Luke Douglas, the Gold Coast Titans prop who is joining St Helens next year, Lachlan Coote and Kane Linnett, who both won the NRL title with North Queensland Cowboys in 2015 and the World Club Challenge in 2016.
Former Super League Man of Steel Danny Brough will again captain the side.
McCormack said: “We get our players from all over. But when we get them together in a Scotland camp they are all here for the right reasons. We don’t really have to impose a collective Scotland mindset because they already have it. That’s something that’s been ingrained over the last few years and the culture is really good. There are no egos or big heads.”
Both McCormack and assistant Dave Rotherham have been with Scotland for 12 years and the head coach added: “I’ve been fortunate and I never envisaged being Scotland coach for this long. I’ve never taken it for granted. The 2008 and 2013 World Cups were really exciting and then we won the European Nations Cup in 2014 but, in terms of profile for the team and how much of a test it will be, this Four Nations is probably the biggest thing we’ve been involved in.”
McCormack is delighted to have such a promising young talent as Tierney on board.
“For a young man he’s been outstanding,” the coach said of a player who made 22 appearances for the Warriors this year. “I’ve obviously seen him a lot with my role at Wigan and I’ve known him a long time. This year he has been superb on and off the pitch. He’s done everything asked of him and was absolutely brilliant in the Grand Final. We’re delighted to have him with us.”