Interview: David Denton, Scotland no. 8

David Denton, who qualifies to play for Scotland through his mother. Picture: Jane Barlow
David Denton, who qualifies to play for Scotland through his mother. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa, David Denton never had any doubt that he wanted to play for Scotland. The new boy in the home pack explains how he’s gone from Edinburgh Accies second XV to the Six Nations inside 18 months

HAS ANY rise ever been quite so quick? Eighteen months ago, David Denton was playing for Edinburgh Accies’ second XV at Inverleith Park, but, on Saturday, the Zimbabwean-born, South Africa-raised breakaway seems certain to be a key figure in what is being billed as a nail-biter of a Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield. It is, as he readily concedes, an elevation that is “surreal” in its rapidity.

Yet the 6ft 5in Edinburgh player, who weighs in at almost 18 stone and looks and acts like a mini-me to Richie Gray, is exactly what Scotland have missed since Simon Taylor exited the international stage: an athletic, muscular ball-carrier who can also put in a good shift at the coalface. Still just 21 – his 22nd birthday falls the day after Scotland play the Auld Enemy at Murrayfield – his emergence could barely have come at a better time, with a drastic loss of form for Johnnie Beattie being exacerbated by an injury to Kelly Brown, the man slated to captain Scotland against the English.

Denton has done more than enough to suggest that he is ready for an encounter of this intensity. His dramatic try-scoring run in the Heineken Cup win at Racing Metro remains the YouTube highlight of his season but it is the relentless intensity and physicality of his play that has caught Andy Robinson’s attention. It also has to be said that, although he suffers from severe pre-match nerves, in common with many brought up in Southern Africa, Denton doesn’t generally suffer the crisis of confidence that afflicts many Scottish players.

“I’ve always been confident in my ability,” he laughed. “I knew that I was capable of the step up and I was just waiting for the opportunity – and now that it’s come I won’t waste any time being too nervous about it all; I’ll just go out there and play as well as I can.”

Being pitted against the top English and French packs during Edinburgh’s best-ever Heineken Cup run was an eye-opener. “It’s been good because they are a lot bigger, although I wouldn’t necessarily say they are more physical, and the same goes with Cardiff Blues. It was good to test myself against guys like Sam Warburton and Sebastien Chabal. That’s how I found out that I was ready to play at that level against players of that stature.

“Chabal is someone I’ve wanted to play against ever since I was at school. I think I’m quite similar to him, although maybe I’ve got a few more things [to my game] than him. Maybe I’m not as physical as he is, although I am working towards that, but, hopefully, I can make as big an impact as him. Playing against players like them shows that everyone is human – well, maybe not everyone!”

If Denton has already faced two players he rates highly, then the Six Nations will provide an opportunity to ramp up his rugby education by pitting him against two players he particularly admires. “[France’s Thierry] Dusautoir is a name that crops up a lot,” he says, when asked which back row players he really looks up to. “Tom Croft is a great player as well. He’s an athlete and, although we’re very different players, it is good to compare yourself to someone like that.”

Although Denton, who qualifies for Scotland through his Glaswegian mother Joy, is not certain to start – Robinson has said he will select conservatively for the first game, so Richie Vernon at No.8 and Alasdair Strokosch at blindside is a possible starting selection – he seems certain to come off the bench at the very least. Whatever the case, he has no illusions about the role allotted to him.

“I’m there for the physical side of my game, that’s my job,” he says. “If I am selected then that is what Andy says I am in the team to do, particularly against the English and French. I am very comfortable with that; in fact I love putting my head down and running into contact.”

Whether he does so from his preferred position of No.8 or his club position of blindside flanker (he can also, at a push, play in the second row) has also been a source of much discussion. He’ll probably start on the blindside, where there is less pressure, but Denton says that he is happy playing in either spot. “I’m definitely looking at myself as an eight and a six,” he says. “I’m very comfortable playing both. Obviously at eight there is added pressure because there are different things I need to keep control of, I have a more vital role at the scrum – but I am comfortable with that. I feel like I could do it well.”

Down the years Scotland have shown a regrettable tendency not to throw youngsters in at Test level until they have proved themselves for an endless period of time but even Robinson, who is wary of exposing youngsters too early since pitching English teenager Mathew Tait in against Wales in 2005 with disastrous results, is happy that Denton is ready for the fray. Part of the reason for that is a remarkable transformation in his game since he landed on these shores. As Denton says: “I’m fortunate that I have had a bit of luck, but having said that, I have grasped it – I’ve played well whenever I have been given the opportunity.”

When he finally got registered and could play for Accies firsts in Premier One, the space afforded at that level gave him the chance to “develop my ball-carrying and boost my confidence”, which he did well enough to get called into the Scotland under-20s squad. But it was a trip to Las Vegas last year with the Scotland sevens team which really transformed his game. “Sevens was good for my skill and fitness development,” he says. “I had grown up [in South Africa] playing a very one-dimensional style of rugby, and, while it is still one of the strengths of my game that I am very direct and very physical, I now also have the other parts of the game that have helped me get to where I am now.”

Denton was also spurred on by the disappointment of missing out on a place in the World Cup squad after making his Test debut off the bench in the warm-up game against Ireland, although he now accepts that it was too soon for him. “At the start of the World Cup I wasn’t as fit as I should have been,” he admitted. “I was carrying a lot more weight than I was used to, having bulked up a lot during my first year as a professional, but now I am used to that. My handling skills have also improved, and your confidence grows as you play more games. Andy said that the World Cup came a month too early for me, which was true, but I feel I am in a very good position now.”

Denton is even becoming used to deflecting questions about his commitment to the Scottish cause. His sister had already come to Scotland to study, and he says everyone in his family – himself included – had always known he would do the same. Our interview takes place in the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews, overlooking the famous course which he played the day before with his uncle, an R&A member (Denton shot 98 and is “not an idiot on the golf course but not good either”). Regular trips to Scotland as a boy had made him intensely aware of his Scottish heritage.

“A lot of people grow up dreaming of playing for Scotland against England at Murrayfield, and it should be an incredible experience,” he says. “I suppose I wouldn’t have grown up with quite the same feeling as the people here do, but I grew up wanting to play for Scotland so I shared that dream.”

By this time next Sunday he will have already lived that dream.