YOU can grow old pretty quickly in this game. Barely eight months after his rookie appearance for Scotland, Blair Cowan has graduated speedily to the status of a senior international. One, moreover, whose place in the team is under threat from the next generation of openside flankers.
It is testament to the impact made by the London Irish forward that he has become established so quickly in the team, being seen as the man in possession of the No 7 jersey that Edinburgh duo Hugh Blake and Hamish Watson aim to take away from him. And it attests to the spirit of self-criticism within the squad that he welcomes the competition, believing that it helps prevent stagnation.
“You’re always on your toes, but it’s probably because I’m worried about who’s below me,” Cowan said yesterday.
“I know I have two young guys below me raring to go, so I’ll stay on my toes because the competition is hot.
“The success shown in the Autumn is because of the pressure from below. If you’re starting, there are at least two or three guys who are putting the heat on you.”
Having said that, Cowan quickly added that he was making no presumptions about being named in the starting XV for Saturday’s match against France, even though he did more than enough in the Autumn Tests to merit a first Six Nations appearance. Indeed, he thinks that the moment he believes his place is guaranteed will be the moment he starts to lose a grip on the jersey.
“I don’t read too much into [the Autumn Tests] or look forward too hard. I just stick to what has worked in the last couple of years to get to this point. I do the same process every week whether it’s club or international duty. It’s about getting your preparation right. Control the controllables, that’s been my format for the last couple of years. The people around me, my family and my friends, are very good at keeping me grounded. That helps. The minute I start thinking I’m any different as a player, that’s when I’m going to slip up. I just do the same thing every week with the same mentality for training and for games. I have to stay on that if I want to keep going the way I’m going.”
Blake, born in New Zealand like Cowan, is probably next in line for a place at openside, having been praised by national coach Vern Cotter for bringing a touch of the unexpected to his game. Unlike Manchester-born Watson, Blake has yet to play for Edinburgh, but Cowan has admired what he has seen of the younger man in training. “From what I’ve seen out there, I’m very impressed. He’s young, but he’s played a lot of rugby and been involved in the Super 15 franchises [in New Zealand]. He is enthusiastic, he’s skilful and he has all the goods to be a top player.”
Although his international career is still in its infancy, at 28 Cowan has far more experience than either Watson, five years his junior, or Blake, who is 22. But, while the two younger men are progressing fast, the speed at which Cowan has settled into Test rugby should not be underestimated.
“I have adapted very fast and I’m very happy,” he admitted. “I think it’s because of the environment I’m involved with where everyone is so helpful, everyone is so willing. It keeps you on the same page and that has made a huge difference to me.
“Vern drops in bits and pieces,” he continued when asked how much the coach had tried to change his game. “Modify is a good word. It’s just little tweaks here and there that’s going to take your game to the next level.
“He knows what my strengths are and he’s helped me get those stronger.
“He hasn’t changed the way I play, but he has helped take me to the next level by just tweaking little bits here and there,” added Cowan.
While he has yet to play against France, Blake has a fair idea of what to expect from a couple of outings at club level.
“We’ve played Grenoble home and away this year, so you know the gist of it. You know you’re going to get a few shots on the deck at the breakdown and stuff. They like to spend a bit of money, so that’s about it for me.”