A trio of teenage prospects will join the illustrious list of John Macphail scholars when they fly out on Saturday to spend five months at South Africa’s renowned Stellenbosch University rugby academy.
Foscroc Academy players Jacob Henry, Thomas Jeffery and Kristian Kay, all 18, have been chosen to benefit from the scholarship which was left as a legacy by former Scotland hooker Macphail, who passed away in 2004.
This will be the 14th year of the scheme, funded by the Robertson Trust, which previously sent emerging players and coaches to Canterbury in New Zealand for a 15-week programme. This changed to a longer stay in South Africa last year, keeping the youngsters aligned to the northern hemisphere season.
Eight previous scholars have gone on to win full Scotland caps, including the likes of John Barclay, who was the first recipient in 2005, Finn Russell, Jonny Gray and Grant Gilchrist, with nine further going on to win professional contracts.
Melrose wing Henry is a Highlander who has made the move south to be part of the Borders academy set-up.
“It was difficult because you are moving far and it is like moving schools you have got to settle in quickly and make friends,” said the youngster.
“When I played Scotland under-16s I was travelling a lot to Edinburgh and Glasgow and I got used to moving away from home and I feel like I will adjust quickly to being away in South Africa. I’m really happy with how it’s all come about. I was honoured to be put forward for what’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s a real privilege. It looks amazing.”
Scrum-half Kay grew up in Buckingham to Glaswegian parents and was part of the Wasps youth set-up before being identified by the Exiles programme and moving north to be part of the Glasgow academy and play his club rugby at Hawks.
“It is really flattering to be added to that list [of past scholars] while Stellenbosch looks like an amazing place,” he said.
“I’m just really excited to get out there. It’s a five-month, intensive programme so it’s a great opportunity to improve personally.
“Former South Africa scrum-half Neil de Kock is at the academy as a specialist scrum-half coach, so I’m really looking forward to working with him.”
Loosehead prop Jeffery is also part of the Borders academy and came up through the ranks at Peebles before moving to Jed-Forest where he has been taken under the wing of coaches Kevin Barrie and former Scotland prop Gavin Kerr.
“They attracted me to Jed, they are two old school coaches who can show you the basics and the tricks of the trade and being an 18-year-old prop that is key,” said Jeffrey.
“There are a lot of older, experienced props in National League 1 so it has been good testing myself against them, it has been an eye-opener.
“It’s still not really sunk in that I’ll be in South Africa next week but I’m really looking forward to getting out there and meeting new people in a new rugby environment.”
Mark Laing, Chairman of the Scholarship Committee of the Robertson Trust, said: “Jacob, Kristian and Thomas have exceptional potential and I’m in no doubt all three will prove to be worthy recipients of the scholarship.
“I, along with the Macphail family and all at the Robertson Trust, look forward to hearing about the players’ progress throughout their time in South Africa and beyond.
“Through the John Macphail Scholarship, the Robertson Trust has assisted in the development of some of Scotland’s brightest young rugby talent for over 13 years.
“We are proud of this legacy and believe the programme’s new setup, and all the experiences it will bring, will help to accelerate the development of even more professional and international players going forward.”
SRU technical director Stephen Gemmell added: “Thanks again to the Robertson Trust and Macphail family for their continued support of Scottish Rugby.
“Since its inception in 2005 the partnership has allowed us to send some of our most promising young players to other parts of the world to develop in new environments, with different coaches, fresh challenges and at world-class facilities.”