Rugby is a sport on the up. From increasing TV revenue, higher playing standards and more fans coming through the turnstiles across the UK and beyond, there’s a lot for enthusiasts and players to be happy about. It’s a sport that still has refreshing levels of honesty from players and coaches and is highly accessible for those with a genuine passion about it.
As someone who grew up watching and playing rugby, admittedly not particularly well, it still gives me a buzz every time I get to watch a game or speak to a player. I am able to appreciate the immense physical challenges they undergo and therefore it was a real privilege to sit down earlier in the week with the new St Andrews Director of Rugby, the former Newcastle and Scotland hooker Scott Lawson.
Lawson was appointed as the new Director of Rugby at the end of the last academic year, having retired last season after a 16-year career in the paid ranks. He spent time with Glasgow Warriors before moving to England, spending more than a decade in the Premiership at Gloucester, Sale, London Irish and most recently Newcastle Falcons, where he enjoyed a very fruitful five years.
Our chat began by reminiscing about old times and Scott’s career, going back to his start at Biggar RFC in the early 2000s and how much the game has evolved since then.
“I actually think it changes year on year, I went back to watch Newcastle/Saracens in the first game of the season and I was glad I was sitting in the stands. The pace, the physicality, the tackles, the skill level on show, it just increases year on year. It’s a different game.”
Whilst his club career was obviously a big highlight, we also spoke about Scott’s time in the international arena, where he accumulated 47 caps for Scotland, scoring two tries and appearing at two World Cups.
This year he earned a recall to the Scotland team during the Six Nations on the back of his performances with Newcastle and it allowed him to add to his caps and continue doing something that he referred to as a ‘boyhood dream’.
As someone who has spent so long in the game and around the Scotland set-up, it seemed fitting to ask Scott about the current state of Scottish rugby, with the World Cup in Japan only a year away.
Scotland have enjoyed a renaissance over recent years, firstly under the stewardship of Vern Cotter and now with Gregor Townsend. Scott believes that the national game is going from strength to strength across all areas.
“I think it’s in a great place. I think from the national team doing so well, from both professional teams, Glasgow and Edinburgh, having excellent seasons last year and starting the season well, it looks good.
He added, “Numbers are growing for children playing the game and allied to that is the women’s game – I think women’s rugby is the fastest growing game in the world at the moment … and Scotland have been at the forefront of that.”
Last year Newcastle Falcons shocked pundits across the country by playing an exciting brand of rugby, staying competitive throughout the season and edging out the traditional big teams like Leicester and Bath to make the top four. For Scott and the rest of the team it wasn’t much of a shock, but more like the deserved fruits at the end of five years’ worth of hard work.
“It was the end of a long journey. I signed when they first got promoted to the Premiership and Dean Richards had this vision to take them to the top of the league and the top four was a target within those five years. We had a slow start but it ended five years of hard work and pulling together with a great bunch of boys and I made lifelong friends there.”
There was certainly a level of consternation, or perhaps mild dismay, that Scott would walk away from a quality Premiership outfit where he remained a first-team regular and take up a coaching position at a University back in Scotland. However, his decision also demonstrated the sensibility and class he exhibited throughout his playing career.
From my first club to my last and all of the others in between, a huge thank you to every single person that has contributed to what has been an amazing journey in the game I love. I’m grateful to every single one of you. pic.twitter.com/oMqlie12vE
— Scott Lawson (@scottlawson02) May 10, 2018
Sport can be a cruel mistress. The lure of playing or competing in something you’ve done all your life, lived and breathed for decades in some cases, is often addictive. Players keep trudging on, maintaining that they haven’t lost a step and remain a vital cog in a bigger wheel, yet cut rather forlorn and pitiful figures on the pitch or in the ring. Retiring on your own terms is a lost art, especially with the money now involved in most sports, so the obvious question to me was why had Scott retired then, after what could fairly be described as one of the best campaigns of his career, and not carried on for another couple of years.
Whilst I didn’t get a totally clear answer, it was apparent that coaching is something he wanted to do and that the St Andrews opportunity came up and was perhaps a case of right time and right place.
He remarked, “I’ve played the game for a long time and really, really love it. I’ve been coached by some genuinely world-class coaches and I wanted to share my experiences and impart the knowledge I have received on to others.
“I had that passion for coaching and then the opportunity to be a director here, coaching rugby and running a programme was an ideal fit for my skill set and ambitions.”
Perhaps something that gave Scott more perspective were the difficult decisions taken by a former teammate of his at Newcastle, Scott Wilson. Front-row forward Wilson, aged 24, was forced to retire during the summer as a result of neck injuries. As someone who had had such a long and illustrious career, it was clear Scott Lawson valued what he’d been able to achieve and his longevity but that his primary emotion was humility and compassion for someone he knew well and classed as a friend.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have played the game for a long, long time and I’ve had some great memories. I’ve loved every opportunity that’s been given to me and that’s been taken away from him by injury.
“So yes, it makes you reflect on your own career and think how much you enjoyed it but ultimately it’s about him and the fact he’s had that taken away from him through no fault of his own.”
From there the conversation naturally moved towards St Andrews, a more business-like direction if you will, and the passion and enjoyment Scott had spoken about before became all the more clear.
He had repeatedly talked about loving rugby and enjoying the opportunities he had had, be that playing for Scotland, helping out an old friend and playing 40 minutes for Melrose at the weekend (although he did insist he remains retired) or helping with line-out throwing at age-grade level with Scotland.
Enjoying your rugby is clearly a mantra of his and therefore it was no surprise that when I asked him to explain his philosophy on rugby here in St Andrews, fun and enjoyment came top of the list.
Lawson asserted that the academic side of things had to come first, describing rugby as a release for students. As for the rugby though, he was clear and articulate in explaining that there are levels to what he believes in and what he wants to impart to the cohort of players he’s worked with over the past few weeks.
“There’s your performance element, your development element and also your social element. I think to get through to the performance side of things with the great facilities and coaching we offer is that you can still train hard and aspire to be the best you can be whilst still having fun.
“As for the developmental element to it, it’s the players that have come into it possibly not playing that much rugby and they’ll get good coaching and work with better players and try and improve themselves as a rugby player.
“Then there’s a social element, which is obviously a huge part of student life. Rugby’s a great driver and great facilitator for that.”
Looming in the background of the conversation was Varsity. In a week, St Andrews take to Murrayfield to play their old rivals Edinburgh in the fourth Varsity fixture to be staged at the national stadium. Last year saw a change in fortunes, with St Andrews’ four-game winning run coming to an end with a 31-7 reverse against the capital outfit.
He seemed genuinely excited by the occasion, terming it one of the ‘biggest events on the Scottish rugby calendar’, and said that the players in for pre-season for both the men and women had given him a lot of food for thought before the big day under the lights.
Ahead of that game it was announced that another former international had been added to the St Andrews coaching ranks in the shape of Quintan Sanft. The former Samoa fly-half arrives from Kirkcaldy RFC, where he’s been head coach for several years, and he is the new backs coach for St Andrews. With that sort of international quality involved, the players, who Lawson described as ‘having a great work ethic and desire to improve’, will certainly be well-drilled for their forthcoming season.
Crowd numbers are expected to be in excess of 10,000 once again as Varsity remains a real spectacle and highlight of the St Andrews social calendar. Saints will be looking for a change in outcome at next weekend’s final whistle, and even if they don’t succeed, judging by Lawson’s approach and demeanour, they’ll certainly have a lot of fun under the lights, just as he seemed to throughout his illustrious career.
Tickets for Varsity can be acquired here: https://www.eticketing.co.uk/varsity/.