Dempsey, capped 14 times by Australia, has used a change in the international eligibility regulations to switch allegiance to Scotland and could make his debut in dark blue against the Wallabies on Saturday. The prospect of the Sydney man going up against the country of his birth is an intriguing one and Gregan believes he will add dynamism to Gregor Townsend’s back row. The Australian great worked for ITV as a pundit at the World Cup in Japan three years ago and got to see Dempsey at close quarters.
“I was around the Wallabies in 2019 and he was part of that squad,” said the former scrum-half. “He’s an explosive player, a great athlete and brings a lot of physicality to any team he plays in. There will be players in that Wallabies squad who will be aware of what he can bring to a match in terms of his skillset.”
Dempsey has brought a hard-running, abrasive edge to Glasgow Warriors since joining from the NSW Waratahs in summer 2021 and will look to transfer that to Test level with a view to playing for Scotland at next year’s World Cup in France. His international career had stalled when he moved to Scotstoun but at 28 the back-row has plenty left in the tank and Scotland are to be the beneficiaries thanks to his mother’s side of the family.
World Rugby’s amendment on eligibility allows capped players to transfer allegiance as long as they have spent the previous three years out of the international game and have “a close and credible link via birthright” to the country to which they are switching. Dempsey last played for Australia on October 11, 2019, against Georgia in a pool match in Shizuoka at the World Cup. He qualifies for Scotland through his maternal grandfather, Andrew Prentice, and still has a number of relatives living in the Glasgow area and in Ayrshire.
Gregan, who was born in Zambia to an Australian father and a Zimbabwean mother, and who played a record 139 times for the Wallabies, has no issue with Dempsey using the rule change to switch sides. “It’s there, isn’t it? If he’s changed circumstances whereby he wants to live the rest of his life, or a good chunk of his life, in Scotland and represent them, then I get that. I don’t have any real qualms about that,” said Gregan. “I think we’ve seen it in the past. I played against Shane Howarth [who was representing New Zealand] in 1994 but by 1999 he was playing for Wales, so it’s not as though it hasn’t been done before.”
Dempsey is recovering from a rib injury and was also one of the many Glasgow players struck down by a gastro bug in South Africa last week but Townsend has already said he is in his thoughts for Saturday’s autumn opener at Murrayfield. With the game falling outside the international window, the Scotland coach is expected to select a match-day squad composed of home-based players. Townsend has an excellent record against Australia – three wins from three since taking over in 2017 – a fact not lost on Gregan and the 1999 World Cup winner expects a tough test for the Wallabies in what is the opening match of their five-game European tour.
“Gregor sets up well against England too, he’s got a pretty good record against them as well,” noted Gregan. “Playing away is very challenging for teams. Scotland can play through the middle, you’ve got a good set-piece and you can play on the edge. People like Hoggy have got a real ‘let’s go after this’ attitude. And when they get in form they can score a lot of points and they can really stretch you across all parts of the field and all aspects of your game and that makes them a very dangerous team to play against. I don’t think anyone really relishes the challenge of trying to defend against a Gregor Townsend-coached team because they will question you on so many areas.”
Dave Rennie, his Australian counterpart, comes to Scotland under a little bit of pressure having lost four of six Rugby Championship matches. Michael Hooper is back in the squad after missing the tournament for personal reasons and Gregan thinks the openside flanker will add leadership and nous even though prop James Slipper will retain the captaincy for the tour.
“He is a wonderful player, wonderful person and he'll just contribute to the team and fair play to him for taking that time off which was important,” Gregan said of Hooper. “I think that's really good to see in the modern society. And the fact that he's put his hand up and said he is ready is really positive. Michael Hooper's second family is the Wallabies and the rugby family. He is a fantastic leader who leads by example and will show some of these uncapped players what it's like to prepare and be a Test match rugby player.”
The Australian tour is an arduous one with five matches across five weekends as they head to France, Italy, Ireland and Wales after Edinburgh. Gregan thinks it will be tight on Satuday but tips his countrymen to edge it. “I think the Wallabies will play full out at Murrayfield. Dave Rennie will be keen to get one over and it will be a hell of a Wallaby team picked and I say a Wallabies win by five.”
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