It is highly unusual in this day and age of social media and indeed the old-fashioned sort that a player can come through the ranks and play for his (adopted) country in almost complete anonymity but that is exactly what Simon Berghan has managed. Not only have I never interviewed him, I am not sure that anyone else has either.
The only thing anyone knew about him before last weekend’s France game was that the Kiwi-born prop had kicked Fraser Brown in the head during the 1872 Cup inter-city match in December.
Last weekend the sum total of our combined Berghan knowledge doubled because we learned that the burly tighthead could play a bit (Perhaps everyone should have a six-week break before the Six Nations?). And on Friday in Gala we learned a third thing about the Kiwi: he hates the English, to which we will return.
So firstly what was his take on mistaking Brown’s head for a football that earned Berghan his six- week sabbatical?
“You can believe whatever you like but it was a genuine accident,” says the prop. “But the result was I clipped Fraser on the head and had to take the six weeks on the chin. It was a speed-bump but I did try to use the break to get better at other parts of my game.
“I spoke to him (Brown) afterwards and we know each other reasonably well and everyone who knows me as a player knows that that’s not in my character. Unfortunately, when you look at it, it doesn’t look that good, but Fraser was good and wrote a letter, as did Gregor (Townsend) but it was an outcome-based decision. The outcome was that my foot clipped his head and I had to take that.”
Did Berghan imagine that his Six Nations was over there and then?
“Yes, definitely,” he replies. “It was the worst timing ever. I got a bit of luck with other front-rowers being injured and got my opportunity against France but it was terrible timing because my plan had been to have good form off the back of the autumn, play well for Edinburgh to run into the Six Nations and it didn’t work out like that. I didn’t get that opportunity. But it sort of worked out against France.”
It did. Along with Grant Gilchrist, Berghan was the stand-out Scottish forward against France, a real revelation in his sophomore international season although success has been a long time coming for the Kiwi. Unable to command a place with Canterbury back home, he was mulling a move within New Zealand but a Scottish grandfather allowed him instead to travel halfway across the world.
“I got a call about joining Edinburgh and after a bit of research jumped at the chance,” is how the player puts it. “I’ve never looked back. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
He then spent most of the next three seasons watching rugby from the subs’ bench as Edinburgh’s then South African coach Alan Solomons picked Edinburgh’s South African prop WP Nel at every possible opportunity. Joining Edinburgh early in 2014, Berghan was in his fourth season with the club before he earned a start in the PRO12.
But tighthead props come of age a little later than most players and having walked away from Canterbury, Berghan could hardly afford to do the same to Edinburgh. With all the physical attributes in place, the Kiwi’s demons were mostly in the mind.
He freely admits to feeling “overwhelmed” and a “boy amongst men” on his international debut against France at the Stade de France last season, having never played in front of more than a few thousand souls at Murrayfield. Berghan still admits to suffering from nerves before a match, any match, and the hard-earned self-belief he got against the same opposition last weekend will probably go a long way to bolstering what is clearly a brittle confidence.
“Maybe I didn’t deal with the pressure of playing for Scotland too well,” Berghan concedes of his first season, “but after a while it becomes a bit easier and it’s made it easier for me this year to put my front foot forward and put my hand up with a bit more confidence. Hopefully, now I’m getting some traction.”
The Kiwi at least looks the part, a seriously big man in every direction, tall, muscular and broad shouldered. He is listed at 6ft 4in and over 18 stones and, hell, the stats may even be accurate for once. Certainly he did his stuff against the French eight, one of the great set scrum specialists in world rugby. Berghan conceded a penalty at the first scrum but got one back after the break and he grew in confidence as the game progressed, which for him was a full 80 minutes.
He knows England a little from last season when he came off the bench as Scotland suffered that 61-21 spelunking at Twickenham, trooping off the field a distant second. If he starts in Saturday’s clash at Murrayfield he will likely face Mako Vunipola in the set scrum. So what did he make of England and their loosehead prop 12 months ago?
“We haven’t spoken a lot yet about England but I’d imagine Gregor will be speaking about a better start, to start fast and get points on the board early,” says Berghan, looking ahead to the Calcutta Cup.
“We’ll get a good look at England next week but it’s going to be a big old match isn’t it?
“They’re a good squad and are really well drilled. I remember coming off the pitch last year and thinking ‘far out, that team was really well drilled’.
“It felt like they didn’t seem to put a foot wrong, which basically tells us you have to take every chance against them. You have to play well, make chances and take them.
“I managed him (Vunipola) reasonably well. Whenever there are scrums on your five-metre line it’s tough but I thought we scrummaged well against the French and they are renowned as a good pack. They have Joe Marler available again and so we’ll do our analysis on all of them.”
Like Berghan the English prop Marler is just returned from a six- week suspension for hitting Sale’s flanker JJ Ioane in the head with his shoulder. He may pose more of a threat than Vunipola because Marler is probably the better set scrummager of the two likely English looseheads. Berghan may fancy his chances against Vunipola with WP Nel backing him up.
“I knew all about the rivalry with England of course,” the Kiwi continues. “I sort of knew that everyone hates England basically because we did but when I came over here it was made more obvious to me and the reasons why, the history and that. It will be brilliant to get one over them next week, if I can say that?” So Berghan dropped the ‘H’ bomb and the Murrayfield media brigade called for the smelling salts and the world, just briefly, stopped spinning on its axis.
This is grist to the Calcutta Cup mill, something that is dredged up every year and tame stuff compared to what will be said behind closed doors but still the RFU’s media bods attempt to pluck the word out of thin air and shove it back down Berghan’s throat as if that particular horse wasn’t already in the next county.
“So Eddie,” you can imagine some minion informing the England coach, “Scotland’s Simon Berghan says that everyone hates England.”
“Simon Berghan... ” Fast Eddie strokes his chin in thought. “Isn’t he the bloke that kicked Fraser Brown in the head?”