Alasdair Dickinson toughened up by his ‘dark days’

Against the odds, Scotland's scrum held up against France. Picture: SNS/SRU
Against the odds, Scotland's scrum held up against France. Picture: SNS/SRU
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I WAS watching the game against France in Paris on the box back home and with Scotland defending a four-point lead and the clock ticking down I was like the prodigal son, willing to believe again.

Which is when the Scots conceded a five metres scrum to the powerful French pack. “That’s them screwed,” I declared cheerily to anyone that would listen.

Scotland had their reserve props on the pitch. Jon Welsh is second-choice tighthead and he had received a lesson in anatomy from David Kilcoyne in Dublin just before the Munster prop had been deemed surplus to Ireland’s requirements. Gordon Reid, the third-choice loosehead, was on the opposite side of the scrum. France field a huge pack of muscular forwards, arguably the best scrummaging team in world rugby, and a pushover/penalty try seemed inevitable.

Instead the Scots dropped anchor and held firm. They surprised me, they certainly surprised the French pack. They may even have surprised themselves.

How? I put the question to one insider who replied that the forwards had effectively done a “Telfer”. The veteran Scottish coach was famous for his brutal scrummaging sessions on the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa, 46 scrums in 42 minutes, including occasional sprints. Sure enough Scotland’s forwards had spent the week leading up to the France game concentrating on the three most important things that a pack of forwards can do: scrummage, scrummage and scrummage.

It worked. France scored but it wasn’t the result of bullying the Scottish set scrum over the line. Two of the architects of Scotland’s new-found solidarity, prop Alasdair Dickinson and scrum coach Jon Humphreys, are talking to the press and both are talking up Scotland’s opponents in Wednesday’s opener.

“They [Japan] have improved out of sight in terms of what they are doing and how they are going about it,” the softly spoken Welsh coach opens the batting. “They look very well drilled. I’ve known Steve [Borthwick, Japan’s forwards’ coach] for a long time now and their lineout is certainly representative of him so we are expecting an extremely tough challenge.

“I think you see the last ten years about so called little teams they are very, very strong. They worked out a long time ago what their weaknesses were and to compete at international level they had to improve in certain areas and they have certainly done that. When we played them last time at Murrayfield the scoreline suggested a different game to what it was. It was extremely tough at scrum time in that game.”

“They got a scrum turnover that game,” one of the journalists chips in.

“They got two,” is Humphreys’ succinct response.

What have Scotland done to improve the set scrum?

“What we have tried to do is to stay straight and square and try to get as much power as we can through us. So we have just gone back to being pretty basic, trying to be biomechanically sound. I think that any national coach is heavily reliant on the calibre of people coming through.”

Which is where Dickinson comes into the equation. The loosehead is 32 and he has been to two World Cups already, which marks him out as a veteran although he makes several mock complaints about the journalists labelling him as such – “hoy, easy on the old!”

But prop forwards mature into the role at different speeds and only now in his 30s is Dickinson realising his full potential.

When he first appeared the prop was accompanied by great expectations. He was later labelled something of a gym monkey. Then he was shoehorned into the number three shirt he was never going to fill and he pointedly admits: “You learn from getting a hiding and I’ve had a few of them over the years.”

Appropriately enough the making of the man probably took place during his four-year stint at Gloucester where Scotland start their World Cup campaign because the English Premiership is as good a scrum school as exists. Dickinson returned to Edinburgh two years back and proved something of a revelation.

“I am just really enjoying my rugby at the minute,” he says by way of explanation. “It comes with a bit of experience. Again I am just really enjoying my rugby, coming back to Scotland, I have put in a lot of hard work over the last couple of years with Edinburgh and Scotland as well and I think the experience and just being back and enjoying it and playing regularly makes a massive difference.

“You are playing well, things are good, you are happy and you’re confident and you can create some sort of momentum. I learned a lot when I moved away from Scotland so again that experience thing. You try and bring that to every team you can and I have got good guys around me as well so it all adds up.”

The “good guys” he refers to are the remainder of the front row collective, all culled from Edinburgh’s ranks, the veteran hooker Ross Ford and the little barrel of cheer from South Africa WP Nel. All three are expected to start the big games and may well get a run out against Japan.

“I think you go through peaks and troughs and I had some serious injury issues for a couple of years so you go through some dark days,” Dickinson continues. “We were talking about that before and it does toughen you up. I had an opportunity to come back and come home and I have really been enjoying it. You do get a lot of confidence if things go well at your club and you play regularly.”

As one of the few forwards with previous experience of the World Cup – Dickinson made his bow against New Zealand in Frank Hadden’s weakened team back in RWC’07 – does the veteran prop offer advice to the debutants?

“There are a few guys have asked what it was like in previous World Cups,” he replies. “It’s kinda hard to describe. Obviously you are in this rugby bubble and there is this media hype and the build-up has been so long for this. Every team is the same, but this has been the focus for a lot of players for a long time.

“The simplest way to put it is that you just have to think about one game and then whatever happens you just progress on to the next game. You can’t think about the bigger picture, that’s what I say anyway, or else you get engulfed by the whole lot. So I just avoid all media, all that kind of stuff, or else it just sucks you in. That would be my advice to young kids.”

At the end of the interview Humphreys is asked his thoughts on the player sitting not two feet away from him on the sofa, which can be a little embarrassing.

“He’s been fantastic for us,” replies the coach. “The kid works unbelievably hard, prepares unbelievably well and is a positive influence on the group. That’s all you want really.”

Dickinson tries to keep the smile off his face but is unequal to the task. At last someone has dropped the “veteran” tag and labelled him a “kid”.