WINGER Rory Hughes is facing the media ahead of his first Scotland cap and tells us: “My upbringing has helped me out on the pitch, because if I got hurt instead of just lying down I would battle through it because you can’t show weakness in Castlemilk.”
That’s right, you read correctly, he did say Castlemilk. Not Merchiston Castle, and yes, you are on the rugby pages.
The 22-year-old Glasgow Warrior was yesterday named to start on the left wing for Scotland in tomorrow evening’s World Cup warm-up match against Italy in Turin and it swiftly becomes clear that, in Hughes, we are dealing with someone refreshingly different.
Goodness knows there isn’t enough rugby talent produced by the state school system and this has always been a weakness for the game here, but a stream has always been there. From the Borders heartland where rugby is resolutely the people’s game to the traditional Ayrshire breeding ground of ferocious forwards, there has always been a rump of working-class heroes alongside the alumni of the Edinburgh private schools.
Glasgow’s comprehensive institutions have produced a good number of current and recent internationalists but it tends to be from areas such as Newton Mearns and Bishopbriggs. By contrast, a place such as Castlemilk, the southside estate built in the 1950s to accommodate the slum clearances of the Gorbals, is the kind of Glaswegian footballing enclave you would never imagine might produce a top rugby player.
And yet here he is, on the verge of winning that first cap and Hughes is positively beaming with fulfilment.
He said: “I am proud to put my hand up and say I am the first person to come from Castlemilk and go on to be a professional rugby player. It gives me extra pride, especially coming from that kind of area and not having a rugby background through school or parents.”
They may not have come from a rugby background but his parents played a big part in encouraging their son when, aged six, he showed more interest in trying rugby than kicking a round ball around with his mates.
“I went to Kings Park Secondary School which was a football school based in the Castlemilk area where I grew up,” said Hughes. “When I was at school there was no rugby at all.
“When I was six years old I was too big for the other sports and when we would play football I would bowl the other kids over, so I asked my mum if I could get into rugby.
“She found me a local club just down the road, GHA in Clarkston and my mum enrolled me there. It was mini-rugby from the age of six and I worked my way up. I played for the first team when I was 16 years old in Premier Two. From there I went to Stirling County and was contracted with the sevens as an EDP player.
“Growing up. I was always the odd one out as a rugby player, as all my friends were footballers, joiners and things like that.”
Hughes still lives in nearby Simshill and hopes that his rise to the national team can inspire youngsters growing up in the neighbourhood. “There are so many people from Castlemilk who have great talent but let the Castlemilk in them keep them down. They don’t let themselves blossom and even though I always pride myself on coming from Castlemilk, it is not an up-and-coming area or a posh area.”
The SRU has made clear its intention to broaden rugby’s participation and is now rolling out a revamped youth, schools and academy system it hopes will unearth more Rory Hugheses.
“The only class we are interested in is on the pitch,” said SRU chief executive Mark Dodson recently.
Hughes, who was a contemporary of Commonwealth Games boxers Joe Ham and Stephen Lavelle at King’s Park, said: “I am happy to say my old school has now got a rugby programme involved with it.
“I see my old deputy head teacher quite often and he talks quite highly about it, so I am happy they have brought rugby into the southside of Glasgow.
“When you see young boys, even girls, running about out there on the southside, well, with a rugby ball is better than chasing each other!”
Hughes only featured in four games in Glasgow’s Guinness Pro12 title-winning season but is highly regarded by the coaching team at Scotstoun.
He found himself embroiled in the unsavoury incident at a Glasgow takeaway restaurant last year which led to his team-mate Ryan Wilson being found guilty of assault and suspended by club and country. Charges against Hughes and Ryan Grant were not proven.
Hughes has put this behind him and is now looking forward to building a bright career in the game. An impressive display in a bounce match at BT Murrayfield did enough to convince national coach Vern Cotter to give him his chance in the extended training squad.
It was always understood that everyone was going to get a chance in these first three warm-ups but that didn’t take away any of the excitement the winger felt when he discovered he was starting in Turin.
Hughes explained: “My name flashed up on the screen and I was in the starting 15. I had no idea as the coaches didn’t give me any hints or anything other than saying I was training well. I was really shocked but also over the moon to be getting a start.
“I was very shocked to get into the initial squad. I went along a few months ago to get a medical which involved a heart test but I thought that was just for every player who qualified for Scotland and we all needed to get it done as it was a World Cup year.
“Then I found out that I had a chance of being named in the 46-man squad so that was a shock. Getting into that squad has boosted my confidence and I felt good that I was being recognised for the way I was training and that Vern and his coaches could see me in their plans.”