I WAS on the island of Islay recently and one of the local characters was boasting that their new car came complete with a sat nav. Never mind that you could get lost in Jenners more easily than on the little Hebridean isle. One road may lead pretty much everywhere on Islay but there is evidently more than one route into England’s Premier League.
Six years ago, Greig Laidlaw was third or fourth choice scrum-half at Edinburgh and used to share weights sessions with Steve McColl when the teenage apprentice was no more than fourth or fifth choice inside centre at the capital club. Next season the pair of them will be pulling on the famous cherry and white shirts belonging to Gloucester Rugby, although the routes they took could hardly be more different.
Laidlaw stuck with Edinburgh, became first choice for club and country and now has 29 Scotland caps to his name. McColl took the road heading south to the English Championship and it might yet prove a smart choice, as he explains.
“My ambition has always been to play for Scotland and being at Edinburgh or Glasgow would help that a lot but at the time [back in 2008, when McColl was just 19] Rob Moffat was coach and he was very honest and said that there were three or four boys in front of me and I wouldn’t get much game time.
“He knew Lynn Howells, the head coach of Doncaster, and he sorted it [the move] out for me. It wasn’t a choice of my own, Rob put it to me and asked if I liked the sound of it and I said that I would give it a crack so I had three years down there at ‘Donny’ [Doncaster Knights] and I enjoyed the experience.
“The first thing my agent says when I come out of contract is: ‘Where would you like to play and do you want to go back up to Scotland?’ But I’m quite happy, I enjoy playing in England and I’m settled with family down here now [McColl has a wife and one-year-old twin daughters]. When I was in the age groups teams and stuff, my ambition was always to play in the Premiership at some time and now that’s happened I’m getting past the stage of playing for Edinburgh and Glasgow.
“What worries me a lot, and I think that its the same for a lot of Scottish players playing in England, is that Edinburgh have a lot of foreign players and, with Scotland only having two teams, they have big squads, so it’s getting game time.
“You don’t want to sign for these clubs and then play for the premier clubs on a Saturday while training on a Tuesday and Thursday night. You want to be playing top level rugby week in and week out.
“Championship rugby is a very good level. I reckon Leeds would give Edinburgh a good game, it wouldn’t be a pushover.”
McColl has served his apprenticeship and done so in a demanding league. His three years at Doncaster were followed by another three years at the highly ambitious Leeds Carnegie, where he has been the stand-out player. After last season he was named at full-back in the Championship Dream Team and his abilities were recognised and rewarded by Gloucester coach Nigel Davies.
“Steve is someone who stands out at Championship level and as anyone who watches Leeds will know he has been a big part of their success,” said Davies after announcing his Scottish signing. “He’s very strong, a powerful runner from deep who hits good lines. As a result of playing in the Championship he’s gained a lot of experience and shown his quality.
“It helps his game that he playing with a very strong side, he’s plays behind a good pack of forwards that get on the front foot but he’s been very effective, he’s got good stature and he’s really explosive.”
Which, translated from rugby jargon into English, means that McColl is a big lad who can run a bit. He can also kick a bit, especially from hand. Leeds are the only team to travel to Bristol this season and come away with a league win, triumphing 28-22 back in December. In that televised game, McColl received the ball a few yards from his own line, swung a lazy boot at it and Bristol found themselves throwing into a lineout deep inside their own 22.
Perhaps it was his length from hand that caught the eye of Duncan Hodge, because the skills coach invited McColl into the Scotland training squad ahead of the South Africa match last November. It said something about the quality of the Championship, it also showed how far McColl had come since moving south.
“I don’t think I was ever going to play,” he admits. “They brought me in to give me a bit of experience, to see what it takes to play at that level and I couldn’t thank him [Hodge] enough. I saw some old friends I hadn’t seen for three years. I wanted more, for sure. I really enjoyed myself and it made me want it even more. Even if only for a couple of days I was in the Scotland international squad! It was a wonderful feeling and, hopefully, next year I’ll get involved a lot more.”
First things first and McColl won’t walk into the Gloucester starting XV but he will take some solace from the man who stands between him and the No.15 jersey. The big Scot has crossed swords with Rob Cook before, when he was playing Championship rugby. Cook has made the step up to the top flight with some aplomb and McColl plans to emulate him.
“I played against Rob when he was at the [Cornish] Pirates,” says McColl. “He’s a quality player so I expect he’ll get first dibs at the jersey but it’s up to me, when I get an opportunity, to show that I am capable of doing the job that they want me to do.”