AYR stand-off Finn Russell and Edinburgh Accies prop Alex Allan have been named as this year’s recipients of the John Macphail Scholarship.
The pair, elite development players with Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh Rugby respectively, will spend 15 weeks in New Zealand playing for clubs in the Christchurch area and receiving specialist coaching from the Canterbury RFU.
Allan was unable to attend yesterday’s press conference at Murrayfield to announce his success as he twisted an ankle while training and was taken to hospital for a precautionary scan. However, he is expected to be able to fly out to New Zealand on schedule early next month.
“New Zealand are world champions with a lot of pride and a lot of history,” the 21-year-old said in a statement released by the SRU. “I hope to see why rugby is so good there and test myself in the environment that produces these players.
“It’ll be interesting to see what the difference is both on and off the rugby pitch. Obviously I was delighted when I learned that I had been awarded this scholarship as it’s a great opportunity to advance my skills.”
Those skills have been in evidence this season not only at club level, but also in the Heineken Cup and Rabo Direct Pro 12. Allan made his debut for Edinburgh in the former competition against Munster, and had his first league outing against the Ospreys last month.
Born in Harrogate, Allan qualifies for Scotland through his Edinburgh-born grandfather. He is studying commercial management and quantity surveying and can play on either side of the front row. He has played 15 times for the Scotland under-20 side, having previously made appearances for the under-17 and under-18 teams.
Russell, who did attend the press conference, has ten caps for Scotland’s under-20 team. A former pupil of Wallace High School in Stirling, he played for Glasgow in their league win over Zebre last month, and has already been briefed by Glasgow team-mates about what to expect in New Zealand.
“I’ve spoken to Jonny Gray and John Barclay about it, because they won the scholarship previously, and Sean Maitland is from Christchurch,” the 20-year-old said. “They all talked really highly of it and said what a good experience it will be.
“I went to New Zealand on holiday when I was younger for a couple of weeks. I always wanted to go back over, and now to get the chance to go there for rugby is just amazing.
“Rugby is everywhere you go there. You see people in the streets with rugby balls – it’s just part of the culture. It will be so good to go over and have rugby all the time rather than just as a job.
“We’ll train as much as we can and watch games as much as we can as well. To actually live and breathe rugby while we’re there will be really good. I think we play 12 or 13 games when we’re there – basically we go straight into their season.
“I feel really grateful for this chance and lucky when you think of the number of players who could come into contention. I’m not sure yet which club I’ll be going to, but my initial objective will be to do as well as I can for that club, learn and make good contacts there.”
Russell was out of action for a time at the start of the season after fracturing an ankle, but returned to play a part in Ayr’s RBS Premiership triumph. The champions are still going for the double, but he will have to sit out their semi-final this weekend to ensure he is injury-free when he leaves for New Zealand a week on Saturday. “It’s obviously not the best to miss the semi-final and a potential final too, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’ve got to make the most of it,” he added.
The scholarship, now in its ninth year, was established in memory of former Scotland hooker John Macphail, who died in 2004. Macphail was chief executive then chairman of the Edrington Group, a private company that is owned by the Robertson Trust. Macphail was also a trustee and chairman of the Robertson Trust. Glasgow’s international flanker John Barclay benefited from the scholarship in its inaugural year, while subsequent recipients have included Scotland’s newest cap Grant Gilchrist and his Edinburgh team-mates Roddy Grant, Harry Leonard and George Turner.
In addition to the two players selected, two coaches will also have the chance to broaden their knowledge through the scholarship with a similar trip to New Zealand. Coaches at Premier Division clubs, age-grade and women’s international coaches and SRU performance department staff all have the chance to apply. The successful coaching applicants will be announced next month.