Lions player David Denton on the South Africa tour

DAVID Denton has always been blessed with boy-band good looks and he has now augmented them with what looks suspiciously like a boy-band haircut, short at the back and sides but long and a little floppy at the front.
David Denton's boy-band crop has stopped autograph hunters mistaking him for Richie Gray. Picture: Jane BarlowDavid Denton's boy-band crop has stopped autograph hunters mistaking him for Richie Gray. Picture: Jane Barlow
David Denton's boy-band crop has stopped autograph hunters mistaking him for Richie Gray. Picture: Jane Barlow

At least the new look has had one important if unforeseen benefit. No one now pesters him for Richie Gray’s autograph.

“You have no idea how many times I’ve been mistaken for Richie, especially since he got into the Lions squad,” says the man who, just a year ago, might have had similar aspirations himself. Instead, the big breakaway forward is jetting off this week to South Africa with the rest of the Scotland squad for a quadrangular tournament with the hosts, Samoa and Italy. It will be a homecoming for him, well almost, because Denton grew up in Zimbabwe, his parents still live in Harare and he finished off his schooling in the Eastern Cape.

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You can take the boy out of Africa but you can’t take the Africa out of Denton. He was back there just last summer, getting over the ankle injury that kept him out of Scotland’s tour of the Pacific. A family friend doubles up as a big game tracker and Denton lent Scotland on Sunday a picture taken in the immediate aftermath of an elephant attack that only halted way too close for comfort. Denton looks admirably unflustered but still the tracker has him firmly by the arm to prevent him running – the worst of all possible moves when being charged by an elephant – not that he would have got far sporting a moon boot on his injured ankle.

“After the tour is over I am taking [Edinburgh team-mates] Matt Scott and Greig Tonks on a safari in Zimbabwe which will be awesome,” says the man who is still in awe of African wildlife despite that close encounter. “The same guy also provoked an attack by a lion which was pretty scary and I am hoping that he’ll get Matt or Greig up front like so they’ll get the same shock that I did. It’s odd because, when the lion charged, I was so scared I didn’t even want to run, it felt that the ground itself was sucking me down and I couldn’t move a muscle.

“I’m really looking forward to the tour. Although South Africa is not home for me I was schooled there for four years. Zimbabwe is definitely home but I had a good long time in South Africa and it will be good to go back there.

“There is no guarantee that there will be dry weather in South Africa but I am looking forward to the opportunity to playing in conditions that will probably suit my game, in that I am better in the wider channels with a bit more space to use my speed. But it also suits Scotland’s game as a team. We’ll be able to put in an 80-minute performance, even at however-many-thousand-feet above sea-level Loftus Versfeld [in Pretoria] is. I think it’s going to be good for us and playing against the bigger teams, Samoa and South Africa, that’s going to help us a lot.”

Elephants will be the least of Denton’s worries this summer. Instead he will concentrate on repairing his dented reputation. After making a huge impact in 2011/12, the big fella endured rather than enjoyed this last campaign, both for Edinburgh and Scotland. In 2012 Denton won the man of the match award against England in his first-ever Six Nations appearance, a marked contrast with the player who came off the substitutes’ bench to throw a horribly wayward pass to thin air at Twickenham back in February.

“It’s been a very frustrating season for me,” Denton is quick to concede. “It started with a drop in form, I’m willing to admit that. I think I put a bit too much pressure on myself but then the annoying thing for me was that injury stopped me from getting back to my best.

“It was not until the Scarlets game [on 1 March], when I tore my knee ligaments, that I felt back to my true self and felt I was playing good rugby, which was part of the reason why I didn’t want to come off the pitch after injuring myself. I finally felt that I had put together a performance that would get me back my starting position in the Six Nations. It is very frustrating but that is the nature of the game and, so long as I come out of this injury a better player than before, then I haven’t lost the entire season.”

If Denton can recapture the form he showed in his breakthrough season he will heap pressure on the incumbent Johnnie Beattie.

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While Scotland interim coach Scott Johnson could play them side by side, with the Zimbabwean most likely deployed at No.6, Denton has made it clear that he favours playing at No.8 and wants to make that his regular Edinburgh position next season. At just 23, he still has plenty to learn and, if the coaches want him at his best, the more experience he gets in the decision-making position between now and next season the better.

While the Scots have lost just three players to the Lions (at least as things stand) it must still be a little daunting for a relatively young squad to face the most physical side in world rugby in their own backyard?

“First of all, I appreciate the faith the coaches have shown in me in that I haven’t played a game for ten weeks,” says Denton. “They know I still have the ability to play well at international level. But I’m under no illusion that I’m in the team to make a physical impact and, as Jonno [coach Scott Johnson] says, there aren’t that many players who can do that.

“It’s a big ask but I was asked just the other day if I really believed, in the lead up to the game in the autumn Tests, that Scotland could win the game against the Springboks? I don’t know how this happens but no one ever goes into a game thinking that they are going to lose but there was a genuine belief in the Scotland squad that day that we should win that game against South Africa.

“We didn’t win it on the day but we could have, we were right in the game at the end when [Adrian] Strauss got that interception try.

“We knew they would come charging around the corner at us, we knew it would be physical, the Springboks’ game plan is very simple, you know what’s coming. So we have to man up and take them on physically which is great because that’s what I am here to do.”

Presumably the Springboks will prove a walk in the park having faced down a charging elephant?

“They both bring their own challenges,” says Denton with a bring-it-on grin that Justin Bieber would find hard to muster in the same circumstances.