Richie Vernon can’t wait to get started for Scotland against Samoa

IF Richie Vernon is cheesed off at being overlooked in favour of John Barclay in his specialist position at No 8 the tall breakaway forward is far too diplomatic or perhaps relaxed to let it show.

Or maybe he’s just so delighted to be starting a Test match as it’s such a rare event.

Vernon is getting a reputation as a bench bunny, a sideline specialist. A label that you feel is about as welcome as a punch in the face. The back-rower won his first three caps off the bench, was called into the action late in four of the five Six Nations matches in 2011 and was thrown into the fray approximately three quarters of the way through the 37-25 win over Fiji on Saturday.

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“I’ve been on the bench for Scotland a lot more than I’ve started,” said Vernon.

“I think a lot of the games I have started for Scotland have been ones where we haven’t done so well, which has been unfortunate. But I think when I have been on the bench I’ve made a good impact.

“It is a double edged sword because, obviously, they realise that you are good off the bench but it might start raising doubts as to whether you can start a game quite as well.

People go through careers being known as better off the bench than they are as starters and that’s certainly not what I’d like to do. I suppose this weekend [against Samoa] is another chance for me show that I can make as big an impact starting as I can coming off the bench.”

There was a time when talk of a Scottish contingent in Manchester conjured up an image of Joe Jordan, Gordon McQueen and Denis Law sporting United’s red strip. Now the Sharks host the same sizeable Scottish community in Sale which is about to get much bigger. “Big Richie” Gray will play his rugby alongside “Little Richie” Vernon (if anyone who is 6ft 5in can be deemed little). Steve Scott is already in situ as forwards coach and he will be joined by Bryan Redpath as head coach. It’s all getting a little incestuous, especially as owner Brian Kennedy is, you guessed it, another Scot.

“It’s good thing for us,” says Vernon. “There’s been a few jokes in the changing room about being called Scottish Exiles or Manchester Scottish or whatever else but, with a few different coaches in the last couple of years, we had a French revolution with Philippe Saint-Andre and then, with Kingsley Jones, we had a Welsh one and now with the Scottish guys its time for us to have a go!”

And have a go is exactly what Vernon will do on Saturday against Samoa because starts don’t come his way very often.

Quite apart from being cold shouldered in favour of a flanker, Vernon is all too aware that he is playing in the long shadow of David Denton who made such an impact in the Six Nations both literally and figuratively.

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The Edinburgh man is back home nursing an injury but Vernon knows that he needs the performance of a lifetime if he is to dislodge the Zimbabwean from Robinson’s thoughts for very long.

“It’s a huge opportunity,” said Vernon. “I’m really looking forward to it. David Denton did brilliantly in the Six Nations, I think he was one of the best players in the tournament. It’s one of the most competitive positions but, to be honest, since I’ve been in the squad it’s always been a competitive position. Johnnie Beattie was playing really well when I first got into the squad and, anytime I play for Scotland, I understand that it’s really important that I play really well to keep my place. Certainly this game is no different.”

Vernon made his mark in rugby thanks to athleticism and speed that marked him as out of the ordinary. While at Glasgow there was reputedly just one player quicker than the No 8 over the length of the field and winger Thom Evans has since retired. More to the point, Vernon’s frame has sometimes looked almost too fragile for the rough and tumble of Test rugby and one unkind character recently took a look at his almost non-existent calves and asked how on earth his socks stayed up. Now he will face down one of the most physical sides in world rugby.

“We watched the Samoa/Japan game just a few nights ago,” says Vernon of Saturday’s opposition. “They have been in really good form since the World Cup. In a lot of ways South Sea island teams and Samoa in particular are going to be big hitting, big guys and we kind of expect that. But they are going be a bit more organised that the Fiji team were and have more of a kicking game and test us in that respect. There are similar challenge to Fiji, a dangerous team with good steppers and good runners but they have a bit more control and they can play territory as well, so it will be a big challenge for us.

“We have [Samoan] centre Jonny Leota at Sale and he is great to play with, brilliant skills and he’s a big lad as well, ferocious in defence so I know what to expect in that respect. It’s good to have them in the premiership and I enjoy playing against them. They add that real physical challenge to the game that you get from a lot of teams in the premiership and they certainly hit hard in the tackle, which is something you have to prepare yourself for try and do it back to them.

“For me starting at the weekend it’s a good opportunity for me to put down a benchmark starting at eight.”

If Vernon can produce the benchmark performance many believe he is capable of, he may not find himself left stuck on the substitutes bench quite so often in future.

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