Iain Morrison: Carlin Isles on the wrong track

Henry “The Fonz” Winkler starred in so many episodes of Happy Days that the writers inevitably struggled for storylines, so someone suggested sticking Fonzy on some waterskis, where he would encounter. . . a shark!

Carlin Isles in action for USA. Picture: SNS/SRU
Carlin Isles in action for USA. Picture: SNS/SRU

It must have sounded great in the production meeting but that disastrous episode spawned the phrase “jump the shark”, which is used when something or someone has just pushed the boundaries of credulity too far. Glasgow Warriors have jumped the shark by signing Carlin Isles.

My first impression on hearing the news was that Glasgow must have persuaded the landlords to lay an artificial pitch at Scotstoun because otherwise the “fastest man in rugby” won’t see the ball from October to April – unless he is squinting into the floodlights, waiting for it to drop from the heavens.

My second thought was that the whole thing was a publicity stunt, a ruse to deflect attention from the woes of Scotland’s national team. If that’s true the timing could hardly be worse with widespread grassroots resentment at the legion of foreign imports.

How much are Glasgow paying him? Almost certainly more than he’s worth. Isles wants to play for the USA Eagles in next year’s World Cup and Glasgow are supposed to help him achieve that goal. He needs Glasgow far more than Glasgow need him – a player with almost no experience of 15-a-side rugby, perhaps just a couple of matches.

I presumed that was a joke, or at least an exaggeration but no, at least according to Andy Katoa, the USA Sevens manager and Aspen coach who mentors Isles and housed him while the youngster first dipped his toe into rugby. Speaking from the USA last week Katoa admitted that he has reservations about the Glasgow move but he didn’t want to say anything publicly that might undermine the man he looked after when he was first starting out.

According to Katoa his protege’s total 15-a-side experience is “a couple of games for Aspen in the summer, plus maybe five minutes for the San Diego Aztecs”. He probably knows the player better than anyone but no one from Glasgow has picked his brains. Isles’ history is in track and field. He texted the performance director of USA Rugby Nigel Melville – “I want to play rugby and I am very fast” – and he has wasn’t joking. He has since turned out for the Eagles in the IRB (sevens) circus where he has proved mighty useful with a blistering, Bugatti-like turn of pace.

What he lacks is a muscular Bugatti frame. Isles is listed as anything between 71-75 kgs or 11Ω-11¬ stones and he is 5ft 8in inches tall. He was described by one coach in North America as “a defensive disaster”. For reasons of comparison Edinburgh’s Tom Brown is about as slight a figure as you will bump into on a professional 15-a-side rugby field, he is 14 stones and 5ft 11in inches tall. Isles isn’t small, he is tiny, the kind of rugby player you might find in a Kinder Surprise. He’s the rugby equivalent of Ming porcelain. If you look at him nastily he may well crack, touch him and something might fall off.

The news of Glasgow’s interest caused widespread disbelief in the US where Isles is seen as a speed freak and nothing else. Speed is just one of the many skills needed by a modern 15-a-side winger and far from the most important. Isles was supposed to be trying out for the Detroit Lions in the NFL but, frankly, they boast cheerleaders with more muscle.

Even if Glasgow get their plastic pitch you could make a better case for the club recruiting any number of young Scots – Craig Gossman of Hawks, Accies’ Sam Pecqueur, Edinburgh’s Jamie Farndale or Stephen Fleming from the Scotland Sevens squad who is lightning quick over the all-important first 20 metres.

How is the miniature American supposed to cope on a wet, wind-swept night at Scotstoun when every visiting stand-off will test his ability to catch a slippery, swirling ball with several hundredweight of Welsh (or Italian or Irish) beef steaming towards him? George North or Tim Visser could run right over Isles without even noticing.

The reality is that they won’t. The American certainly won’t be seen playing for Glasgow in today’s game against Newport Gwent Dragons in Wales, nor, in fact, in any match that matters. At best he’ll break cover at the Melrose Sevens, where Glasgow have bagged an invitation. That would boost the attendance at the Greenyards but it’s hardly a compelling reason for Scottish rugby to sign yet another import.

Glasgow have offered a rare glimmer of light in the gloom that envelopes the Scottish game.

Now they have jumped the shark, although no one mistakes these for Happy Days.