Blair Cowan aims to stay put in Scotland squad

Flanker Blair Cowan has a colourful heritage but is proud of his Scottish blood. Picture: SNS Group/SRU
Flanker Blair Cowan has a colourful heritage but is proud of his Scottish blood. Picture: SNS Group/SRU
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Scotland’s latest international flanker Blair Cowan might not agree, but if the journey is more important than the arrival he has at least had a more interesting and varied one than most other colleagues.

Cowan was born in New Zealand to a Scottish mother and a father from the Cook Islands and is blessed with the sort of good looks that stare out from many a magazine advert. Struggling to make much of an impression in Wellington, where most of the breakaways were already All Blacks, the Cook 
Islands kilted Kiwi travelled to the UK and joined...well, the Cornish Pirates obviously.

That was back in January of 2009. After contributing an impressive 15 tries in his first full season with the club the breakaway was picked up by Worcester Warriors a few years later in 
January of 2011 and he played most of the remaining matches in that season for what was then a Premier One side. And that was that.

He managed just three starts in his second season with Worcester and a once promising career might have been over had London Irish not come calling. He started 17 league matches for the Exile club and walked away with the player of the year title.

If Cowan could bottle whatever elixir elicited that upswing in his rugby fortunes he would be buying out Warren Buffet with the loose change down the back of his sofa. So what the heck happened?

“You see it in a lot of careers where people fall out with coaches,” replies Cowan. “Or not so much fall out, they are just not what the coaches want. In the first half of the season I started every Premiership game and couldn’t do anything wrong, but I broke my hand and when I came back I was just not what the coaches wanted. It was a tough one for me mentally because I knew I could play and when I did play I think I put my foot forward.

“But that’s fine. That’s rugby, professional sport. I was lucky enough to get coaches [at London Irish] who knew exactly what I could do and give me the chance to play exactly as I wanted to play, so I wasn’t on a strict, regimented style. I got to express myself.”

The flanker certainly did that on his debut against the Eagles. Had it not been for one unfortunate missed tackle he could reflect on a job well done because he hits well above his weight, like the Pacific Islander his dad is. Time and again he knocked the USA ball carriers backwards and if he wasn’t, maybe, at his best at the breakdown Cowan certainly did enough to ensure that his first Scotland start is unlikely to be his last.

“I had some presence in the game,” he said. “I did okay, but I did some uncharacteristic things. I wish I could blame them on the conditions. I did my work and I got through what I needed to do. There are a few areas I was unhappy about, but the occasion was amazing. I know my grandfather will be so proud. When I ring him up and speak to him I can hear that genuine sound in his voice.”

Appearances can be deceptive and, in the case of Cowan, they are. For all his Pacific Island make-up, he boasts a Scottish heritage that is stronger than many of his colleagues. Moreover, he has probably seen more of his mother’s country of birth than a good many fellow Scots. His sister lives in Edinburgh, having married a Scot, and after that wedding Cowan’s mother took Blair on an exhaustive tour of the country. He may not have spent much time there, but Cowan has undoubtedly covered a good many miles in the motherland.

“To look at me, my colour and my accent, you wouldn’t think that my Scottish roots are that strong but funnily enough they are,” Blair says – albeit with an accent that owes more to Upper Hutt than Lower Largo. “My mum was born and raised in Scotland, at Blairmore, near Dunoon. She was originally called Joan McConnell. My uncle is in New Zealand but he is also very strong on his Scottish roots. My grandfather always had stories for me about the glens and stuff like that.

“I think I developed morals from my Scottish roots as well. When I’m around Scots and I see how passionate they are I understand where I got it from.

“I think my father [Mark] must have some Scottish roots but they are very distant.

“My dad is a first generation New Zealander himself; his parents are from the Cook Islands. I am a mix but I’m pretty proud of that.

“At the end of the day, I have Scottish blood and it was a huge proud moment for me to represent Scotland and something I would never take lightly.”