There is no shortage of youngsters who excel at a number of different sports but some combinations are harder to picture than others.
At the top end of the incongruous scale is the image of Zander Fagerson, the 20-year-old Glasgow tighthead prop who was called up to Scotland’s Six Nations squad last week, careering his way through treacherous narrow tracks to become a teenage mountain biking champion.
My Gran actually prefers the mountain biking – she hates the rugby and thinks it is far more dangerousZander Fagerson
You would normally envisage lithe, nimble athletes negotiating the perilous twists and turns but in 2010 and already 16 stones (he is now around the 20-stone mark) the burly young Angus lad became national under-15 downhill champion at his local Dunkeld track. The fact it was downhill and not cross-country might make things more believable but Fagerson insists his size didn’t act as a gravitational advantage.
“Everybody says the only reason you were good at it is because you were so big and heavy,” he said. “But that was actually a disadvantage because if you look at the track it is rocks, trees that have to be pushed apart so being a big guy it was tough to dodge in and out. You have to put in a lot and go as fast as possible down a set course. It’s not just rolling down. If you watch a race you’ll see it is pretty intense. The speed you are going at and the traction element means there is a massive risk element.”
Thankfully young Fagerson came through unscathed and went on to focus on rugby at school, a decision which has paid off handsomely with a fledgling professional career, international age-grade recognition and, of course, that call on the eve of his 20th birthday to join Vern Cotter’s squad. He and Edinburgh loosehead Rory Sutherland are the only two uncapped members of the Six Nations group.
“I didn’t get too many injuries doing the mountain biking, maybe injured my shoulder a bit going into a solid oak and doing a bit of treehugging. But I never broke anything. The worse I probably got was pedals on the shin. You’d go to school bleeding through your trousers pretty bad. My Gran actually prefers the mountain biking – she hates the rugby and thinks it is far more dangerous.
“I went to Strathallan School [after a spell at Dundee High], and they wanted to push both sports so I started rugby training. When I was getting older and the other guys were getting faster the mountain biking side wanted me to get lighter but the rugby guys wanted me to get heavier. So I bit the bullet at about 16, started eating and became a prop and it’s been great.”
Team manager Gavin Scott’s phone call informing him of his selection certainly set the tone for a great birthday celebration. “Yes it was a very special day for my birthday, he said. “It didn’t really sink in until the next day. I called my mum to say, ‘I think I am in’, and she went nuts. It was good. I am happy to be here and looking forward to working hard to get my first cap.”
If Fagerson does get on the pitch in the Six Nations, which Cotter has hinted is a definite possibility, he would be the fourth youngest prop in Scottish history, and the youngest to represent Scotland for more than half a century, since Bill Black debuted against France at Murrayfield 1948.
Fagerson, who has played 23 times for Glasgow since his debut in Treviso in 2014, admits: “If I got the opportunity to play for Scotland I would be over the moon. It was a boyhood dream of mine.”
It has been pointed out that he was only five years old when the oldest man in the squad, centurion Sean Lamont, made his Scotland debut – a fact that brings a smile to the young man’s face.
“I watched Sean play when he was younger,” he said. “His hair colour has changed and he has taken off those gloves. I’ve not really mentioned that. But it was his birthday the other week and he was reminded how old he is [for the record, it’s 35].”
If he does get that cap it is traditional for the newbie to perform a song on the team bus, which should pose no problem to someone who was in the National Boys and Youth choirs.
“Exactly. I have got quite a few numbers I could pull out of the bag,” he said. “My parents were keen for me to spread out and do lots of things when I was younger. I was in the national boys choir and national youth choir until my voice dropped.”
The Fagersons live in Westmuir, near Kirriemuir, and Zander’s younger brother Matt is a back-row forward in the Scotland under-18s this year. He has two other brothers and a younger sister.
In a squad of Strausses and Nels the name Fagerson may stick out to the uninitiated and suggest another foreign import but it comes from a Swedish great-grandfather and that Viking stock has certainly produced a young man who relishes a battle.
Tighthead is the most unforgiving position on the field and he is progressing in that tough school impressively. “You definitely get a lot of sore necks,” he explained. “You sometimes wake up the next morning and think you have been hit by a bus, which you learn to enjoy later on. It tells you you’ve done your job well. It has been a pretty tough learning curve but I love the physicality side of things, it’s good fun.
“It gets emphasised a lot that I am quite young for a tighthead prop but I’m just grateful for the opportunity the coaches have given me and feel I am improving week on week.”