Skinn in the game
Around one third of Scotland’s 44-man Rugby World Cup training squad will not be boarding the plane to Japan for the 2019 edition of the sport’s global showcase.
Competition for places in Gregor Townsend’s 42 (and latterly 44)-man extended squad named in May was understandably – and reassuringly – fierce, with the second-row berth up there with the most competitive of positions.
Five locks have been named in the training group, two of whom have world cup experience from finishing in the last eight in Vern Cotter’s class of 2015 – Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray – and three have not: Edinburgh’s Ben Toolis, Exeter’s Sam Skinner and Glasgow Warriors’ Scott Cummings.
Skinner is the most recent of the group to announce himself on the Test scene – uncapped Cummings is yet to have such an opportunity – arriving, as a relatively unknown quantity, to mark his debut in the most fairy tale of fashions – as man-of-the-match in a winning home side.
“To be honest it was one of the best experiences of my life,” said Skinner.
“I remember being extremely nervous for the game because I wanted to prove to the Scottish nation and my teammates why I was there. To come out with man of the match in the end was the icing on the cake for me.
“I was just really privileged and pleased to have made my debut for Scotland. It was a very special moment, not just for me personally, but for my family as well.
“The looks on their faces when I came off the pitch is the sort of memory that I’ll never ever forget.”
“Whenever you go through some tough times in training or get unfortunate injuries, moments like that really spur you on because it makes it so worthwhile.
“It’ll never leave you.”
By the end of November Skinner had featured in all three home Autumn Tests, shifting to start on the blindside flank against South Africa and coming on as a lock replacement against Argentina.
Having performed so well in the autumn, Skinner – and it would be fair to say a large portion of Scotland fans – were looking forward to his return to BT Murrayfield for his first taste of a Guinness Six Nations.
Scotland were to open the championship with two home games, starting with Italy, who they had beaten in their last six meetings.
Only twice in the previous 19 editions had the hosts won an opening-round fixture, in 2006 against France, and 2017, when they beat Ireland.
Both of those were at BT Murrayfield, where they had won 10 of their last 12 Tests, so the omens were good.
Unfortunately for Skinner, it ended as quickly as it got going, leaving the field in noticeable discomfort to sit on the side-lines with large pack of ice pressed against his knee.
“I loved the first ten minutes but unfortunately I picked up a couple of injuries in that time and I couldn’t carry on,” he added.
“I was out for about six weeks, which was really frustrating as we were hit hard with injuries in the championship.”
His part in the campaign looked all but over, however he focussed on his recovery and set a target of featuring in a championship finale that would feature several of his Exeter teammates at England’s Twickenham home.
“The England game was obviously an incredible experience,” said Skinner. “To be given that opportunity was an incredible feeling.
“It was a very tough first-half but I’m glad we pulled it back and were disappointed we didn’t win it in the end. It was a great occasion that’s for sure.”
Decent showings, then, book-ended and otherwise frustrating debut Six Nations in which Skinner would have much preferred the opportunity to cement himself further into the minds of the coaches.
However, in spite of the inherent ruthlessness of sport at an elite level, combined with such an impending squad cull, Skinner insists it’s camaraderie, not competition, that is getting the best out of the players as they battle their way through pre-season.
Speaking from the team’s warm-weather camp in Portugal, he said: “At the minute we’re all trying to push each other in the same direction and get the best out of each other, and therefore getting the best out of training for the team’s performance.
“It’ll be a tough decision for the coaches and for whichever one or few of us don’t make the squad. It’s going to be really hard to take for no more or less than any of the other players.
“There are elements in training that are competitive but I’m pretty confident that all the second-rows, in fact all the players in the squad, are just trying to push each other on at the minute.
“It’s hard training and it’s intense, but it’s just a great atmosphere to be part of really.”
There will soon come a time when the coaches have to make, and announce, their decision – first in private to the fortunate and less fortunate individuals, and then to the world.
When, then, will the camaraderie be left behind in the face of promoting ones own cause for the final 31?
Scotland have four Tests this summer – home and away fixtures against France and Georgia – to refine the side’s preparations for Japan, while they will almost certainly stand as a bookmark in the coaches’ summer-long assessment schedule.
At least in this case doing enough in a game to promote your own standing could still be for the benefit of the greater good.
“So as long as you put your best foot forward, that’s all you can do. That’s all I’m focussing on at the moment,” said Skinner.
“I’m trying to do my best, trying to help my teammates as much as possible and then, when the final decision comes, it’ll be what it’ll be.
“To play for Scotland at a world cup would be a dream come true. To be on the plane would be incredible, for me and my family, and that’s all I’m thinking about right now.
“That’s my goal and that’s where I want to be, so if it happens, I’ll be an extremely happy man.”