Rugby interview: Johnnie Beattie

Montpellier's John Beattie. Picture: Getty
Montpellier's John Beattie. Picture: Getty
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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button told the story of a man who lived his life backwards, being born an old man before dying many years later as a newborn baby. Johnnie Beattie is doing something similar with his rugby career.

The explosive No.8 was capped for Scotland by Frank Hadden at the tender age of 20, almost before he’d played for Glasgow, dropped from the national squad at 25, when most breakaways are making their breakthrough, and now, just turned 27, he is making a name for himself in the club ranks with Montpellier. Perhaps when he peaks in a couple of years time, Glasgow Accies will give him a call.

Coaches spin the line that players turn professional and start improving until, eventually, their bodies give up and they retire. The reality is a lot more muddy, with a hundred and one issues pushing and pulling performance one way or the other. Just two and a half years ago, Beattie was the brightest star in Scottish rugby after a performance against Ireland in Dublin that comprehensively outshone the Lions No.8 Jamie Heaslip, capped by an explosive 30-metre try.

That remains the high tide mark of his career, at least to date. In the summer that followed, Beattie helped Scotland to a series win in Argentina but, later in the year, a second operation on a troublesome shoulder sidelined him for six months. He missed the start of the 2011 Six Nations then made a rushed return against Ireland but looked plum ordinary.

Beattie missed out on Andy Robinson’s World Cup squad before also finding himself frozen out at Glasgow. So it is little wonder that his relationship with Warriors coach Sean Lineen was best described as “frosty”.

Ryan Wilson, John Barclay, Old Mrs Miggins and pretty much anyone and everyone else were preferred to him in the middle of the back row.

So who does he blame?

“I don’t blame anyone,” says Beattie from his new home in the south of France. “I chose to come back too early after my shoulder operation, it’s my fault. It’s just the nature of the beast. Ask any player who has been lifting weights for five or six months in the gym and all they want to do is play.

“I was expected to come back straightaway at the exact same level that I had been playing at before my injury and that was tough. I was frozen out at Glasgow and only now, for the first time in years, have I managed to string five or six games together on the trot. I’m playing pretty well and I’m happy again.”

Beattie is following a precedent, although not a particularly happy one. Another back rower, Ally Hogg, was capped almost before he boasted stubble and he was un-droppable for much of his 48-cap career before becoming equally un-pickable almost as fast. He hasn’t had a look in since February of 2009, despite being the right side of 30.

Hogg is classy, intelligent and aware, with the soft hands of a natural ball player, but one theory is that the sheer, breakneck physicality of the game left him behind and there were plenty who said something similar about Beattie. They might have had a point, except that Beattie is flourishing in France.

The French Top 14 is the highest-paying, hardest-playing, most physically demanding league in world rugby and yet the Scot has established himself in the starting XV for one of the title contenders against some serious opposition.

Montpellier sit fifth in the league and the giant Georgian Malmuke Gorgodze is being nudged into the second row to accommodate all the club’s breakaways.

Beattie set up a try against Sale in the Heineken Cup, scored himself against Bayonne last weekend and he has picked up two man-of-the-match awards in the last six weeks. So, has anyone from the Scotland set-up been down to run the rule over the self-imposed exile?

“No. I don’t think so. I don’t know to be honest. I haven’t been in touch with anyone recently. I spoke to Robbo [ex-coach Robinson] before the autumn Tests and he said it was good to see me playing regularly again but that the autumn Tests had come a little too early for me.”

No hard feelings about missing out on the World Cup?

“I think he had little reason to take me,” comes the response. “I had hardly played any rugby. I owe Robbo a lot because 2010 was the most enjoyable rugby of my career. I sent him a thank you message when I heard that he’d resigned from the Scotland job.”

If he is at peace with Robinson, the same cannot be said for his old Glasgow coach.

Asked if he would welcome Lineen getting the Scotland job, even on an interim basis, the player pleads the fifth. Instead he asks about Robinson’s assistant Scott Johnson and offers his thoughts on Scotland’s recent performances.

“I was in Murrayfield doing some hospitality at the Springboks game but I watched all three [autumn Tests],” says Beattie. “I know the boys and I know how good they are and it just looked to me like they didn’t know each other at all, that was the scary thing. It was very disheartening. I keep in touch with John Barclay and Al Kellock and I know they were devastated.

“They trained hard and they played hard and they were incredibly disappointed.”

For now, Beattie’s mind is focused on Montpellier’s Heineken Cup showdown against the Cardiff Blues today, although he admits, with a hint of embarrassment, that it isn’t the club’s main focus. Their head coach Fabien Galthie does not hide the fact that he is targeting the Top 14 rather than European glory and several French players who were involved in the autumn internationals have been given the weekend off. That is just one of many differences between Beattie’s old and new clubs. No one at Glasgow keeps their pet snake in the changing room as Beattie insists full-back Benjamin Thiery does!

“The coaching style is totally different,” he says. “It’s more of a dictatorship than the false friendship that you get in Scotland. They may scream at you but there is less bullshit. You have a job to do and you either do it or get out. I’m there to carry ball and go forward and I think I am doing that. We play in front of sell out crowds [16,000] in maybe ten of the 13 home games.

“It’s a multi-national environment. There are Georgians, English, South Africans and about six Argentinians. We start at 8.30am on the dot and we have to be off the field by 1.30pm. I love it. I’d like to finish my career here but we’ll see.”

He couldn’t be tempted back to Glasgow by the new coaching set up under Gregor Townsend? “No. They have good young Scottish qualified guys like Ryan Wilson and I think this is the way forward for Scottish rugby. When guys like me move on and play elsewhere, then young Scots get a chance. Argentina have almost all their players abroad and look how well they did in the Championship and beating Wales.”

What about an international comeback?

“If I was to retire when I’m 32 or 33 and I had just 16 caps I think I would be a bit disappointed but it’s not up to me. Maybe I will give Scott Johnson a call…”

Maybe he should. Scottish rugby needs to get the best out of the limited number of players available to them and no one can say they’re getting the best from the man in Montpellier.

• SCOTLAND lock Jim Hamilton looks set to link up with Johnnie Beattie at Montpellier next season, with French media reporting he has agreed a three-year deal. The 30-year-old Gloucester captain, who has won 41 Scotland caps, has a year to run on his contract and the English club would be due compensation.