Matt Scott relishing his return to Edinburgh Rugby

Edinburgh Rugby's Matt Scott scores a try. Pic: SNS/SRU Gary Hutchison
Edinburgh Rugby's Matt Scott scores a try. Pic: SNS/SRU Gary Hutchison
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It was Dr Johnson who claimed that the noblest prospect open to any Scotchman was the high road that led him to England, and a good few rugby players have heeded that advice, albeit with varying results.

Chris Paterson lasted one season at Gloucester before returning to Edinburgh, Rory Lawson managed six, never to return, finishing his playing days with the Newcastle Falcons, while Matt Scott falls somewhere in between those two.

The classy centre played 26 times in the league for the Cherry and Whites but the majority of those were during the 2016-17 campaign as he was sidelined with an ankle injury for much of last season.

Four tries in as many matches on his eventual return to first team action showed his potential and Gloucester’s new South African coach Johan Ackermann admitted that he might well have chosen to extend the Scot’s stay had he seen more of him upon his arrival at the West Country club.

After a two-year break from the capital, what differences has Scott noted since being back at Edinburgh Rugby, now under newish management itself in the shape of Richard Cockerill?

“There is not one easy answer,” he replies. “There are a lot of different things. A lot of it stems down to culture around the club and ambition.

“That manifests itself in training off the pitch. A lot of you would have heard of a lot of the little things that Cockers has brought in. Discipline around training, what kit to wear, punctuality, things like that.

“He has brought a different set of eyes from a career where he has won a lot of trophies and he knows how a successful club operates. It was easy for him to see where he had come from and where we were, to bring it up to that standard.

“I met him before I signed for a good chat and a coffee. He is a frank and honest guy. He knows what the [English] Premiership is like, especially at Gloucester, we get big crowds every week.

“He said, ‘look, it is still not like that at Edinburgh but they are changing. We are still not where we want to be but we are still ambitious’.

“At the start of my second season at Gloucester if somebody had said to me I would be back at Edinburgh I probably would not have believed them. This was before Cockers had taken over but it just shows the impact he had.

“Speaking to players I kept in contact with they were all very complimentary of him. As it transpired, things didn’t work out for me at Gloucester and to be at a club with really good friends with chances to potentially win silverware at your home town club, that is what you really want to do.

“Also to have the ambition to still play for Scotland with the World Cup so close round the corner it is a great place for me to try and do that.”

The little innovations that Cockerill has instigated are only half the story because the biggest change in the Scottish rugby landscape, certainly since Scott first donned Edinburgh’s colours back in 2011, is the increased competition for places.

Scotland used to scratch about down the back of the sofa to rustle up the requisite two Test centres. As recently as four years ago Sean Lamont was selected to start an international match in the No.13 jersey against Tonga and while he was a decent understudy, no one is pretending that the big winger was a natural in the role.

Now there is a cast of thousands, ten full international centres are vying for two starting places, or would be is everyone was fit; Mark Bennett (inj), Duncan Taylor (inj), Nick Grigg, Alex Dunbar, Matt Scott, Peter Horne, Huw Jones, James Lang, Dougie Fife (capped at centre against Argentina in 2014) and Richie Vernon, although you’d be surprised if either of the last two were to detain the Scotland selectors for any length of time.

“It was me and Nick de Luca and Joe Anbro was there,” Scott says of his early days in a Scotland shirt. “I think Graeme Morrison had just retired when I was around. I had only been a pro player for about six months, I was still in the academy here at Edinburgh and I had only been played centre for about six months when I was capped [having played stand-off as a youth].

“That just shows you that there was no one really knocking on the door nationally.

“The thing about centre at the moment is that there is a lot of different skill sets and body shapes and it must be difficult for a coach to decide what sort of game he wants to play.

“I suppose it is good in the sense that there is that variety, you have power, you have ball players, you’ve got line breakers, you have guys who feed so there are different combinations depending upon what you want to do but, yeah, the competition is really tough.”

Scott has started his second stint with Edinburgh pretty well, certainly his coach sees him as his first choice 12 although he seems to be pigeon-holed as a straight running ball carrier in heavy traffic, while those of us who have been around for a while will remember a younger, less muscular version of the same player running rings around Samoa in Apia back in 2012. The loss of Bennett to injury also splits an interesting partnership.

The centre claims that his defence, for a long time his Achilles heel, has made big strides under the watchful eye of Calum MacRae, Edinburgh’s defensive expert who played in the midfield himself, and he has spoken to Scotland coach Gregor Townsend about what he needs to do to make his mark in the national squad having last played for his country in the summer tour of 2017.

“He just wanted me playing regularly,” says Scott, who has had his wish granted with four starts in five games since returning home. “From a national coach’s point of view he would prefer me playing up here in terms of the control they can have over your strength and conditioning and keep monitoring you more closely.

“In terms of getting back in the team, I just spoke to him recently. He has been in contact with me a lot, which is good. He says he is happy with the way I have been playing. A couple of things he wanted me to work on was just getting my hands on the ball more to try and get more touches, more carries, that was his main feedback.”

The centre is good on the main difference between the two leagues, England’s Premiership and the Guinness Pro14, which can be summed up in one word –relegation – which ensures that there are almost no meaningless matches in England’s top flight; some team or other is always scrapping to avoid being sucked into the relegation dogfight. Scott also talks amusingly about the blinkered approach some for his English colleagues bring to the game.

“When I moved down a lot of English players hadn’t heard of the boys in the Scotland team.

“It was around the time when Glasgow beat Leicester by 40 points at Welford Road and they were baffled by it. I was like… ‘well, he’s a British Lion and he’s got 50 caps for Scotland’… and they just didn’t have a clue. The Premiership is a great league, everyone is just focused on the players in that league and that is just the way it is.”

At least those Gloucester boys will recognise one of the Scottish players presuming, of course, that Matt Scott can remind everyone why he was such an exciting prospect when he first burst on to the scene.