JIM Hamilton took his place in the outdoor pool at Scotland’s team hotel last night and immediately pledged to turn the most humid experience of his rugby career to Scotland’s advantage in the coming weeks.
The big second row, who has left Gloucester for Montpellier, played for the Barbarians against England two weeks ago and came off the bench in the historic first Baa-Baas match against the British and Irish Lions in Hong Kong, in temperatures touching 100F.
“That was an unbelievable experience,” he said, yesterday, having flown into Durban to join up with the Scottish squad ahead of the quadrangular Castle Lager Series tournament.
“It’s funny because I’ve been telling the boys it’s cold here and they’re saying it’s quite warm [Durban weather dropped from 29C to 17C and rainy yesterday]. But we certainly had crazy weather in Hong Kong and it didn’t help the game or what either team was trying to do probably.
“The atmosphere was not quite what I expected either if I’m honest, because there were lots of empty seats in the stands. We had tickets and asked people if they wanted to go to the game and they said ‘no’; they’d rather watch the game in the bar because the heat was extreme.
“I don’t think the Barbarians were expected to win, but the score was poor in the end and I was quite disappointed with the way the two games went. But, looking at the positives, personally, having been out for eight weeks and having shoulder surgery it was great preparation for this tour.”
It was a controversial fortnight in which the role of the Barbarians, one of world rugby’s most famous touring sides, was questioned, particularly after it emerged that the players had spent nights in the lead-up to the match with England indulging in heavy drinking games. “The preparation wasn’t where it needed to be going into those Tests,” Hamilton agreed. “The Barbarians have always been notoriously about that social, fun side to rugby, and even when I played for them against Scotland in 2006 and we lost by 50 points there was a bit of drinking.
“We’re maybe at a stage where we have to look at it and take it a little bit more seriously, but it is what it is. There is 100 years of tradition around a touring team where players come together for fun and I’m not about to tell them how they should run the club.
“If you’re asking me for my opinion from the last two weeks, I think we probably needed to have a game against a less strong side before playing England, to have a blow-out, and also off the field having the social side before that one, and then lessened it in the lead-up to England and last week.
“But, it was a great experience and being on tour with guys like [Sergio] Parisse, playing against the Lions in Hong Kong, is something that will live with me forever. I really enjoyed the players’ company, and you do learn a lot from speaking and training with some of the best players in the world.
“But it goes to show that no matter how good a team you are as individuals if you haven’t got structure at this level now, you haven’t got a scrum or a lineout, then you’re going to struggle big-time.
“I was not sure whether I would go and play to be honest, but it is an honour to be invited and the chance to play against the Lions was massive. Now, I look at it and I am 100 per cent fit and ready to go for Scotland, which I wouldn’t have been had I come straight to South Africa with the guys after eight weeks out.”
At 30, Hamilton is one of the senior players in the Scotland squad that Scott Johnson is looking to for leadership on this tour. He, and a few others who have reached 30, were laughing off how old they feel watching a fresh core of young uncapped players making their claims to be part of the team named today for Saturday’s first Test match against Samoa in Durban, but that only seems to fuel their desire to prove they are far from past it.
While vying with Alastair Kellock for second-row leadership, Hamilton may have been in Lions company at the weekend but here he is under pressure with Grant Gilchrist leading the army of newcomers. But he is determined to respond and show in the next few weeks that he remains a key part of Johnson and Vern Cotter’s plans to turn Scotland into a more battle-hardened, but winning side.
“The competition is good,” he added, “and I’m glad that I’m fitter now and able to take it on. I needed a couple of big run-outs, and it was tough going in the first one against England. I didn’t play well in that game, and I wasn’t 100 per cent fit enough to start against the Lions, through not having had the preparation, but apart from being rounded by Alex Cuthbert just after I got on the pitch in Hong Kong, it was a very enjoyable experience and that run in that heat has definitely set me up nicely for the games here.
“We set our stall out in the Six Nations in that we showed were up there, able to compete. We’ve obviously lost three front-line players to the Lions, which is great for them and us as a squad, and we have lost some guys to injury, so it’s about blooding new guys now, too.
“We have a few uncapped guys and that’s exciting, and a lot of the boys have had a fantastic season with Glasgow, so now it’s about bringing all that together and developing. But, we keep saying ‘developing and developing’, and winning at the end of the day is what it’s about.
“We’re under no illusions about the size of the task we’ve got here, but the guys are in great shape and are looking forward to it.”