Scotland has a proud history of producing world class loosehead props: Hugh McLeod, Ian McLaughlan, David Sole and Tom Smith come to mind, every one a tourist with the British and Irish Lions. But when it comes to candidates for the No.3 shirt the cupboard is suddenly bare… or rather, bear. Iain “the Bear” Milne is probably the last world-class tighthead to come through the Scottish system.
So there is a lot riding on the broad shoulders of 20-year-old, 20-stone Zander Fagerson who, like the Bear, is never going to be mistaken for a ballet dancer, even if size isn’t everything in a tighthead’s world, as Fagerson explains.
“If you like physical confrontation in rugby, it’s probably the best position. You don’t have to be the biggest guy, it can be more technical. Brian Mujati, who plays for Sale, is 105 kilos [16st 5lbs], you don’t have to be a 140-kilo monster, but if you like eating it’s definitely the place for you!”
With the injured WP Nel out of the equation, the young Scot looks set to face the Wallabies on Saturday and probably from the off. He beat them back in June but that was at Under-20 level and Saturday will be a massive step up.
Nel’s personal victory over Scott Sio in last year’s World Cup quarter-final helped Scotland cling on to the Wallabies’ tails. Nel got on top of Sio, Scotland won the penalty count and Greig Laidlaw converted five of them into 15 precious points. So, with some justification, there is a question mark over whether Nel’s young Scottish sidekick has the wherewithal to step into arguably the toughest job in Test match rugby: no tighthead, no contest.
While no one questions the Scot’s ability, you have to marvel at his youth. Ramiro Herrera may be the best tighthead in world rugby, he is 27 and probably won’t be at the peak of his powers until he is well into his 30s. Provided Fagerson avoids serious injury he could beat Chris Paterson’s 109-cap record just as he’s getting warmed up.
To date Fagerson has just one, short international appearance to his credit, off the bench against England, and the young tighthead understands that he is about to be tested as never before . He is asked if expects the Wallabies to target him.
“I think they will,” he replies, “that’s one of the challenges and I think we can do a job. It’s going to be a big confrontation, one of the keys of the game and we just need to front up. Same as every week, we’ve just got to stick to our structures.”
Coincidentally, Zander’s father was schooled alongside Tom Smith at Rannoch and his grandfather taught the former Scotland prop basketball skills which he put to good use. Junior kick-started his formal rugby career at the High School of Dundee and he did so in the third row of the scrum, where he loved getting his hands on the ball until several truths dawned on the growing teen. “I was just too big for a No 8,” he concedes. “I wasn’t fit enough, wasn’t fast enough and they said there’s an opportunity; if you want to play professional rugby and make it your career move to tighthead, and I just took it from there.
“I loved carrying the ball so when I was younger I just used to run into people and smash them so my coach said to me, ‘You just do that but in a controlled environment with other people behind you’. I was 15 when I switched.”
The elder Fagerson started there and his teenage brother Matt remains a flanker. He appeared on Glasgow Warriors’ reserve bench yesterday evening and only turned 18 in the summer. So peripheral was Matt at the start of this season that he still doesn’t merit a player profile on the official Warriors’ website. There is a third brother, Daniel, the youngest of the lot, and what quickly becomes clear is that the fighting Fagerson brothers drove each other to new heights even if they drove mum around the bend.
“Ever since a young age, if you ask mum, we fought all the time growing up but that’s just because we were so competitive,” says Zander.
“I’d have my friends over, three years older than him [Matt] and we’d be playing full-contact rugby in the garden. He would join in and my other younger brother Daniel would be doing the same, playing kids six years older than him!
“So probably the proudest moment in my rugby career was seeing Matt getting his first cap for Glasgow. I was over the moon to see him there.
“I am his harshest critic. He goes over his game with the coaches and then I go through it with him on the phone. But he’s come on leaps and bounds and it’s great to have him in the same team. I love it.”
The oldest of the Fagerson boys is an engaging character, a good talker. Throw him a question and he picks it up and runs with it, erudite and intelligent, the brains that supplement the brawn are obvious and very possibly the key to his success.
At one point Fagerson opines that scrummaging is at least as much about the mental contest as it is the physical challenge, which explains why the Glasgow front row can give Leicester Tigers a hurry-up one weekend before getting mugged by Munster.
The beefy tighthead insists that he is able to park past disappointments, including Thomond Park, or as he poetically puts it, “flush them”, and move on, which can only be a good thing. Anchoring a scrum is a trade that usually requires a long apprenticeship and the fact that Fagerson is where is he is now is testament to his ability to soak up those lessons and put them to good use.
“If you dwell on it, it’s going to happen again so just look back on it, see what you did wrong, review it on a Monday or Tuesday and that’s it flushed,” he says. “If you don’t have that mindset it’s really quite tough to perform at this level because it’s always in your mind. I’d say the scrum is 50 per cent mental, 50 per cent physical so you’ve just got to flush it and move on to the next job.
“I’m lucky enough just to get a bit more game time this year, that’s really helped me come on, it’s nice to have Gregor [Townsend] putting faith in me starting for Glasgow so just extra game time, keep working. I’m used to that environment now, it’s my third year of professional rugby, I feel a lot more comfortable in that environment and I’m thriving and really enjoying it.
“I love being involved [in Test rugby]. I remember that first year at Glasgow I was 24th man against Tonga, I really enjoyed the atmosphere and thought what an awesome place and what an awesome thing to do, play for your country. I couldn’t wait to get my first cap and England was awesome, getting that first cap and then I was a bit gutted not getting on against Wales but ever since I’ve had that first taste of international rugby I’ve wanted more. I wasn’t ever: ‘Wow, I’m out of my depth’. I just take it as it comes and enjoy it.”
Scottish fans will hope that Fagerson’s insouciance survives its first encounter with the Wallaby scrum on Saturday afternoon.