Harlequins centre James Lang adds to Scotland’s options in midfield

James Lang kicks a conversion during the Anglo-Welsh Cup match between Harlequins and Scarlets at Twickenham Stoop. Picture: Getty
James Lang kicks a conversion during the Anglo-Welsh Cup match between Harlequins and Scarlets at Twickenham Stoop. Picture: Getty
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He was born just outside London to an English mother who played football with those famous three lions on her chest while his father was Welsh and Junior enjoyed two seasons of club rugby in the Principality, so little wonder that Harlequins’ versatile back James Lang had all the journalists hurrying to Google when he was announced as the surprise pick in the Scotland squad for the summer tour.

Lang earned himself two caps on tour, starting against Canada in Calgary, coming off the bench against Argentina and probably thanking his lucky stars that he was not selected for the shock defeat by the United States; their first ever win against a tier 1 nation.

Now the flyhalf/centre/fullback has an early opportunity to catch up with some of the pals he made on tour because next Saturday Glasgow kick start their pre-season friendlies with an afternoon game against Harlequins on the Inch at Perth; presumably as a favour to Famous Grouse, a long term sponsor. (Tickets are still available from Glasgowwarriors.org)

“It was wicked… an amazing summer… one of the best summers of my life, probably,” says Lang on the phone from London. “It has just been awesome getting to know the coaches and players in Scotland, And the style of rugby that Gregor wants us to play is a really enjoyable, a fast-paced, free-flowing game. It was just a really, really enjoyable four weeks away.

“I’ve learned loads. I came in as a 10 at Quins, and kind of moved around between there, 12 and 15 but was on tour as a 12 so I got to learn off the other centres there and having four weeks to focus on that means I have learned a lot in that position to take back to Quins for the upcoming season.

“I’m just looking forward to the chance to catch up with the lads from the tour after the game. But it is a good opportunity for me to put down a marker by going out there and performing, showing what we have been working on in pre-season for the Quins and hopefully push on from there into the new season.”

Lang performed pretty well on tour without ever quite showing the rest of us what Gregor Townsend saw in the bit-part Harlequin, although he didn’t have long to shine. His game against Canada lasted just 44 minutes before a head knock ended his international debut and he came on with just eight minutes left against Argentina, replacing Adam Hastings at flyhalf. The two youngsters are close in age and appear to have gelled well.

“Adam is an awesome player,” says Lang. “He had a really good tour. I got on really well with him, he’s a really good guy and I’m looking forward to coming up against him if I am playing. We’ll have to watch him. He’s got big things to come in the next two years, that’s for sure.”

The two amigos are unlikely to find themselves fighting over the same number ten shirt any time soon. The Scotland coach insisted that he viewed the versatile Lang solely as an inside centre so it looks like Townsend is scratching around for a Kiwi-style second five-eighth to bring another playmaker on to the field and, perhaps, take some of the heat off Finn Russell. Peter Horne fills that roll from time to time, brilliantly against England but his distribution twice let him down against Ireland in last season’s Six Nations.

The ploy of fielding twin playmakers can work well, especially for an attack-minded side that Scotland have become. Matt Giteau filling in as a second five-eighth outside Bernard Foley was one of the main reasons that the Wallabies did so well at the last World Cup. However the All Blacks managed pretty well for a decade or more with Ma’a Nonu in harness and no one can accuse the big man of possessing the silken skills of a Beauden Barrett or Jonny Sexton.

The midfield selection depends on the style of play you want but also the type of player you have, and you wonder if Scotland has enough beef in the backline to field two slight, skilful players at 10 and 12 rather than an explosive character like, say, Alex Dunbar or Duncan Taylor?

Townsend is awash with choices because he has the luxury of picking two centres from nine capped international players: Huw Jones who scored twin tries against England, Alex Dunbar, Duncan Taylor, Nick Grigg, Mark Bennett, Matt Scott, newly returned to Edinburgh, Peter Horne and Chris Harris.

Meanwhile Lang’s club Harlequins is under new management, Paul Gustard controversially quitting Eddie Jones’ England staff just ahead of the World Cup to take the reins of the London club which has the reputation of being run by the senior players.

“Gustard has been awesome,” said Lang, who was never really going to say anything else. “The mood in the camp has been really good. This is only my second week and I’m loving it and I know the boys all were when I was on my holidays. He is a great coach and I think this season is going to be really good for us with a different style of rugby he has brought in. His background is as defence coach of England, and he is bringing in a lot of good ideas for us, so I’m really excited for the start of the season and seeing what this group of players can achieve – get Quins back to where they should be at the top end of the table.

“We’ve worked a lot on our fitness. A lot of boys like myself coming back from international duty had a lot of conditioning and fitness time, which the other lads had a few weeks ago, now. The sessions are really tough but it will put us in good stead when the games start.”

With the carrot of the World Cup at the end of the tunnel this is a big season for everyone, but before he lets his imagination run riot Lang first has the tricky task of getting into the Harlequins starting XV and doing so in a position that is not his natural one.

“That is at the forefront of my mind,” replied Lang when the question arose, “just making sure that I perform well, keep working on my skills and positioning at 12 and hopefully get the opportunities to play a bit more (club rugby).

“Obviously, in international rugby it is a lot more physical, so I’ve got to be working on the gym a bit more to put on that extra bit of muscle mass which will allow me to be more physical and that will, hopefully, stand me in good stead for the Premiership and for whatever comes after that. At the moment, I’m focused on trying to get in the squad for Quins and perform well there, and take it from there.

“Everyone wants to play in the World Cup and that is my ultimate goal for the year but I can’t look too far forward. At the minute I am concentrating on having a good pre-season and putting my hand up for a place in the first game of the season and then going from there. All I can do is play well for my club and whatever happens after that is out of my hands.”