Zander Fagerson: 50 caps, early doubts about his rugby future and a lesson from Shagger

A lesson in scrummaging from a moustachioed veteran helped set Zander Fagerson on the right path when the young prop was nursing doubts about his future in the game.

Zander Fagerson makes his debut for Scotland in the 2016 Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS
Zander Fagerson makes his debut for Scotland in the 2016 Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS

On Saturday in Santiago del Estero, Fagerson will win his 50th cap for Scotland but he admits that there were times in his late teens when he wondered if rugby was for him.

On leaving school there was no contract from the SRU academy, no offers to join the Scottish Institute of Sport. Fagerson contemplated a year out, a chance to travel and pursue his love of mountain biking.

In the end, he played club rugby for Glasgow Hawks, turning out for their second team under the watchful eye of Jimmy Sinclair.

The veteran coach can take credit for helping nurture Fagerson’s raw talent and the player remains forever grateful. But he also owes a debt of gratitude to Lindsay ‘Shagger’ Ross, something of a local legend in club rugby circles in Edinburgh.

It was during a second XV match between Hawks and Ross’ Stewart’s Melville that Fagerson came up against Ross, a wily doyen of the front row. Experience trumped youth on the day and the teenager had to face the music.

“It was my first game for Hawks 2s,” explains Fagerson. “After the game I had a good heart to heart with Jimmy Sinclair and he gave it to me with both barrels and said that wasn’t good enough and I have turned it around since then.”

It’s something of an understatement. The tighthead is reaching his half century of Scotland appearances while still only 26, is a Lions tourist and has been the cornerstone of the Glasgow Warriors scrum since breaking into the team a few short months after his time with the Hawks. But there were a few bumps along the road.

Zander Fagerson will win his 50th Scotland cap in the third Test against Argentina. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

“I was pretty young in my year at school and when I finished school a few boys got Institute of Sport but I didn’t get anything. For me it was a case of, ‘do I want to play rugby?’ I was thinking of going on a gap year and doing more mountain bike training.”

In the end, Perth-born Fagerson decided to give his rugby a serious go and listened to Sinclair’s wise counsel.

“I was told if I wanted to give it [rugby] a crack the best place to go was Edinburgh or Glasgow. My girlfriend at the time, now wife, was in Glasgow so it was an easy decision.

“I spoke to Jimmy Sinclair and he looked after me very well through there and he did a lot of extra work for me. So I went to Glasgow, I did my college and played for Hawks and luckily at the end of that year got my academy contract.”

Zander Fagerson has been a key member of the Glasgow Warriors pack since making his debut in 2014. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

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That led to a deal with Glasgow Warriors where Gregor Townsend was head coach. The now Scotland boss remembers being impressed by Fagerson’s rapid progress, particularly in the gym where his power quickly became evident. But there were hiccups, too.

“He had some moments that didn’t go well for him,” recalls Townsend. “I remember Scarlets away. It’s always a difficult decision you have to make to take someone off before half-time, but that did happen to Zander on one of his first outings for Glasgow.”

Fagerson groans when the Scarlets match is mentioned.

Zander Fagerson, left, is immensely proud of the way younger brother Matt has performed for Scotland. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

“I try to forget that game,” he says. “I’ve had a few lulls in my career and I think that Scarlets game especially was one of the lower points, but I always say that I learned from that. The tough games are when you learn the most.

“So, I’d definitely say that experience put the bit between my teeth and drove me to keep pushing on and get better to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“Touch wood, I’ve not been taken off before half-time since then, so it is going alright – but never say never!”

Fagerson, a product of the High School of Dundee and Strathallan, has long been a fixture in the Scotland pack but so too now is his younger brother, Matt. The No 8 excelled in last weekend’s second Test win over Argentina which sets up Saturday’s game as the series decider. Townsend believes the siblings drive each other on and Scotland are the beneficiaries.

“Zander has always been driven to improve, he cares a lot about this team and he’s got extra motivation every time he plays with his brother,” says the Scotland coach. “They are bringing the best out of each other just now.”

Just how important the Fagerson brothers are to the team is reflected in the fact that they are among five Scotland players in Argentina to be selected for all three Test matches. A defeat in the opener in Jujuy was followed by a decent win in Salta but Zander knows that anything other than a victory in Saturday’s decider would leave a lingering sense of failure. And proud as he is to win his 50th cap, he knows that nothing matters more than the result.

“I don’t need any extra motivation to win the series. I’m just going to focus on my game and bring what I can bring. Hopefully I can look back afterwards and remember it fondly,” he says.

“Playing for Scotland was a dream of mine as a young boy so to play once was a dream come true and it’s not really sunk in yet that I am playing my 50th.

“It has a lot to do with my family, and all those late nights being driven to and from training and games all over Scotland and the UK by my mum and dad. It is a huge milestone in my life and one that I am very proud of.”


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