In-form Johnnie Beattie savouring his French renaissance

Recalled number 8 Johnnie Beattie in action for Montpellier. Picture: Getty
Recalled number 8 Johnnie Beattie in action for Montpellier. Picture: Getty
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JOHNNIE Beattie has enjoyed a particularly good few weeks.

He proposed to long-time girlfriend Jen on Christmas Day in their new home in the south of France and she accepted, and continuing the feeling that new promise was in the air he received a call last week from Scotland team manager Gavin Scott informing him of his selection for the Scotland Six Nations training squad, and welcoming him back into the fold.

The 27-year-old is not counting any chickens yet. He is fairly confident that Jen will be there when they get around to tying the knot in Scotland in the summer, but remains reluctant to become too excited about the prospect of pulling on the Scotland jersey again until he sees his name on a team-sheet.

It is only 18 months since Beattie was last involved in a Scotland camp, the last of his 16 caps to date coming in the World Cup warm-up against Ireland, before he was left behind. His life has changed considerably since then. A final season of slog at Glasgow, success for his club on the field contrasting with his frustration at being left off it, watching from the stands.

So, he upped sticks and left the country. Montpellier offered him a route out of Glasgow and disillusionment, and it could not have come at a better time. After eight years with his home city club, Beattie’s popularity with coach Sean Lineen had waned, and the coach was looking at younger and foreign recruits. Had he stayed he might have enjoyed the switch to new coach Gregor Townsend, but it was time for Beattie to move out of the relative comfort zone and challenge himself again.

He joined a club with a welter of internationalists in his position, notably skipper Fulgence Ouedraogo, local favourite Alexandre Bias, Georgian star Mamuke Gorgodze, Remy Martin, a French cap, and Kiwi Alex Tolou. No sooner had he started his French classes, and enjoyed his first game for the club, when a torn quadriceps muscle ruled him out of action for five weeks. Not quite the impact he was hoping for.

But since returning to fitness in mid-October he has started every game and become a new Montpellier hero, among the male and female fans. Jen was not daft to agree to a ring now.

The fact that he is not only back in the Scotland squad, but also in coach Scott Johnson’s thinking for the Calcutta Cup, caps a story of rejuvenation that will delight many Scottish rugby supporters.

So, how has it occurred?

“It has just been an opportunity to play,” he says, perfecting the Gallic shrug. “I haven’t missed one game since I have been fit and played 80 minutes every week for the last eight or nine games and we’re winning mostly, so the confidence rises and the performances follow.”

There was a concern at Glasgow that Beattie had become stale, suggestions behind-the-scenes that he lacked the work ethic of others coming through, or did not have the game any more to be a convincing No 8.

But, as we discuss what is different about French rugby and what his days are like, another thread to his improvement emerges: simplicity. “People watch French rugby and think it’s all flair but actually it’s very structured, at least at Montpellier,” he explains. “But the structure facilitates flair play, if that make sense.

“It looks like the passes are off the cuff, but actually it’s the structure that we play that ensures the players are there to take the passes, and so players go for them knowing that their team-mates will be there because they have done it time and again in training.

“It is slightly different with different coaches, because we analyse all the teams and they play differently, but they all have plans to get players into the right positions to break or create.

“I play my part in that plan, and it’s easier to follow. I’m involved in everything but it’s more simplistic because it’s mapped out. It is far less player-driven here, more coach driven, and if you’re out of place or step out of the plan you get a rocket.”

I find that fascinating. In pro rugby in Scotland there has been a real trend towards allowing players to take more control of the game they play. A decade ago, Jim Telfer admitted to me that he was struggling with coaching and it was time to get out, because pro players were growing all-powerful in the team and match environment.

There will also be the fact that teams in Scotland lose at least as many games as they win at a high level, and so coaches are always having to look for new ways to get the most from their charges. Handing over some responsibility is often such a method.

But Beattie is playing under three very experienced former internationalists. The ex-France scrum-half and captain Fabien Galthie is head coach, with one of Argentina’s most-capped players, Mario Ledesma, his forwards chief, and the great French centre Stephane Glas running the backs. A new start and new bosses, with so much to learn, has also brought the Glaswegian back to where he was as a 20-year-old, all fresh-faced, eager to please, and listening.

He enjoyed a winning environment at Glasgow too, particularly through 2009-10 where the Warriors reached the league play-offs, and he starred in the RBS Six Nations. Had a Lions squad been picked then he would have been it. Glasgow also reached the play-offs last season, but by then he was hardly playing.

Beattie had been through a tough period with a shoulder injury following the successful tour of Argentina in the summer of 2010. He should have been back inside a few months but it required a second operation to finally be fixed. And then there was the European mix-up.

Back to full fitness, he had to be loaned out to club side Ayr because the Warriors had mixed up his Heineken Cup registration and he was not eligible. He went to Ayr and tried to prove his fitness at amateur level and Robinson selected him for the third game of the championship, against Ireland, but after six months out and only a handful of club games played it was all too apparent Beattie was nowhere neat Test sharpness.

He hit the downhill road then and while Robinson gave him a final chance to make the World Cup squad, Beattie was struggling. Now, to see him sitting in his French apartment, his Dad John having pitched up this week for a look-in, and French friends popping round, is to see a wholly refreshed person.

The first couple of months of communication problems are behind him, his and fiancée Jen’s Higher French coming into its own – Jen is also studying French at Montpellier University – and he is also now picking up the training ground French, which, according to previous exiled Scots, is a whole other language.

It all raises the thorny question for me of whether more players should leave Scotland to make the most of their talent. Mike Blair is also enjoying life in Brive, and other Scots have said they wished they had gone earlier.

Beattie is certainly a fan, but he thinks carefully when asked whether he should have left earlier, or if others like him, struggling for game-time at Glasgow and Edinburgh, should depart.

“It is a balance,” he says, musing. “What works for one player might not for another.

“But we do have a problem in Scottish rugby. Two pro teams are not enough and we’re up against it in terms of competing with the other nations, and also in terms of being able to give young talent in Scotland the chance to develop.

“When you leave you realise that Scottish rugby lives in a very small bubble; that there’s a big world out there. It was always an ambition of mine to play in France if I got the chance, but more Scots would probably benefit from thinking about it.

“I don’t know how Scotland could change the model we have, but two professional teams is not the way to go. The odds are always stacked against us.”

He does actually have an idea about how Scotland could change the model, just isn’t sure whether it would work. He has discussed it with French players, and Ledesma and other Argentinian players, and wonders about the Pumas route.

“You look at Argentina, where they don’t have pro rugby at all, but their players get scouted and play abroad, and you look now at the impact they are having on the international stage. They reached the Word Cup semi-finals in 2007, six years ago, and are higher than us in the world rankings, and everyone expects them to get stronger now that they’re in the Rugby Championship.

“Argentinian players I’ve spoken to actually fear that a pro league in Argentina could be the worst possible thing for them, because they’d be obliged to go back there and it might take years to build it to the level they are playing at here. They love the way their system works.

“There isn’t a lot of money in Argentinian rugby, and there isn’t in Scottish rugby, to sustain a proper pro game. You look at Leicester, Gloucester, Munster, Leinster, Clermont etc, they have all grown commercially while retaining their fan base, and even they have found it hard going. We’ve gone the other way. I think we missed a trick when the game went professional.”

But would shipping the pro players out of Scotland, leaving behind an amateur game, not remove the inspiration and motivation for younger generations, and new supporters, to get into rugby?

“You look at crowds we had in amateur eras in Scotland. Crowds were big. I used to go and watch Glasgow Hawks play Hawick, and there were a few thousand there. OK, internationalists played then, but when you’re growing up you just go and watch your local team, and they become your heroes, whatever level they’re playing at. Wouldn’t we go back to that if the club game was the top of the tree again?

“The Irish system works well, because it has four provincial sides. The more people you have playing at a higher level the better the players will be, and you’d obviously spread it. I would love to see us emulate that with at least a third team, spreading the talent to Caledonia for example, but the SRU says it doesn’t have the money to do that.”

The new chiefs at Murrayfield have taken a different tack. They have spent an extra £2 million on attracting foreign talent to strengthen the existing city sides. Newcomers Josh Strauss, wing Sean Maitland and scrum-half Niko Matwalu at Glasgow and Edinburgh prop Willem Nel are making their mark, but others are yet to add a great deal.

“Sean [Lineen] did a great job for Glasgow in terms of recruitment,” adds Beattie, “and you look at Strauss and the others and they are definitely helping the squad be competitive.

“But, at the same time you know that they are keeping a Scottish player out of the team, so it’s a risk. When I was there we had Ryan Wilson, James Eddie, Chris Fusaro, John Barclay and a talented kid Adam Ashe coming through, who I feel has the ability to go all the way, but how often do they play back-to-back, to learn and develop confidence?

“There is no easy answer. They will be paying a lot of money to Strauss and Maitland, and if they go on to play for Scotland then you’d say that was worth it, but if they don’t it’s a waste of money. From what I’ve seen Sean and Josh were quality players; the problem is with the lower rank of guys coming in really.”

The irony is not lost on him. Beattie is one a host of foreign players now wearing Montpellier’s colours, and no doubt keeping out a young French talent.

“Yes, of course. But the remit of Montpellier isn’t to produce players for the national team. In France they have 28 teams across the top two divisions, with semi-pro below that, so the French coach has a lot of pro players to choose from.

“In Scotland, we never have more than 70 or 80 pros to look at, and rarely that number when it comes to games. I don’t know the answer, to be fair. I just know that it’s very tough at a Scottish pro team and the national side to be consistent against sides that have huge resources, and I don’t think it’s getting any easier.

“Scotland has some big decisions to make in the next few years as to what the best model is to develop their players.”

Beattie has always been a thinker, but what has helped revive him has been clearing his mind of Scottish rugby. French life, the beautiful Montpellier architecture, new team-mates, friends, banter and games of rugby with a bawling crowd behind you every week.

That has lifted him back to the Beattie of old and pushed him back into contention for Scotland. But, asked if he thought when flying to France, that that might be it for him as an internationalist, he just smiles.

“You never give up. In my head I’ve always believed I’ve been capable of playing international rugby. The way I’m wired every time I’ve watched Scotland play since 2005 I’ve been thinking ‘I could be playing here’. “Andy had his reasons for selecting other people and I have to be honest and say that I did begin to think I might have a chance again when he left. You never know, and Scott [Johnson] hasn’t been in touch at all, but it was a really nice surprise to get the call from Gav. A great feeling.

“I have missed it. I don’t know whether I’ll be involved in the Six Nations but I’m really looking forward to flying back to Glasgow and meeting up with mates I haven’t seen for a while now, and just being in that squad again.

“There are some real quality players in Scotland and we can be competitive in this Six Nations. It’s going to be tough – my Dad was in the last Scotland team to win at Twickenham so that says it all! But I’d rather be in the squad trying to make it happen again, than watching on TV.”

Beattie has a good chance. A former Glasgow age-grade footballer, he plays a style of rugby off the back of the scrum that few others in Scotland can master, one given to the quick, free-flowing, off-loading kind of game that Scotland need to rediscover. But Johnson will want to see what kind of character Beattie is for himself first in camp next week.

Before that, however, Beattie has the small matter of trying to help Montpellier into the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the first time later today. This is only their second season in the tournament and ‘le crunch’ pits them against France’s real big-spenders Toulon, at home. A win guarantees them a last eight spot, but they may still qualify with a narrow defeat.

French renaissance? Expectation is certainly building around the young Beattie once again and he’s enjoying it.