Graeme Morrison can still remember the way it panned out in 2007, but then he reckons the day which remains one of the worst of his rugby life will be seared into his mind for years to come.
The Scotland centre had won a whole load of caps off the bench in 2004, and by 2007 was really beginning to prove his worth, muscling his way into the 38-man World Cup warm-up squad. Then came the call.
“We were told we’d get a call that morning from Frank (Hadden, the coach), so I was up early and sat by that phone for three hours, just looking at it,” he says. “Eventually I needed to go to the toilet so I jumped up and went as quickly as I could. I could only have been away for 30 seconds, but when I got back I could see that there was a missed call showing. I frantically tried to ring back but just couldn’t get through. Eventually the team manager rang to say that ‘Frank tried calling but you weren’t around – I’m afraid you didn’t make it’. It was, to put it mildly, a pretty rubbish time for me.”
Were it not for the knee injury he sustained during a fiery festive encounter against Edinburgh at Firhill, Morrison’s mind might not be casting back to that day in 2007. With 22 starts since the last World Cup and no obvious replacement, the inside-centre is as near as you get to a shoo-in to survive the cull of Scotland’s 40-man training squad down to a rump of 30. But with over three months out and just four games at the end of the season to prove his fitness, the fear of missing out on what could be his last shot at a World Cup – he’ll turn 29 mid-tournament – has never been far from his mind.
“It sort of preys on you,” he says. “I’ve never experienced a World Cup, and never been to New Zealand, so being on that plane is incredibly important to me. I feel pretty good physically – the time off has refreshed me because I’d played virtually every game for Glasgow and Scotland for ages and was beginning to feel a bit jaded. We had fitness tests at Glasgow a couple of weeks ago and I was far better than I expected. The important part will be proving that to everyone else, and that’s why I’m really glad that we’ve got a couple of warm-up games.”
It’s not just for Morrison that those two Murrayfield dates – against Ireland on 6 August and Italy a fortnight later – are pivotal. After an exceptional run of form, Scotland hit the buffers in the Six Nations, starting as slowly in 2011 as they had in 2010. With question marks being raised over Scotland’s scrum, key men like Joe Ansbro and Max Evans returning from injury, and five of Scotland’s top players needing to hone their match fitness after Andy Robinson decreed they sit out the end of the season, the Murrayfield Tests will be vital.
“We seem to start slowly, and maybe that’s a confidence thing, but it means that with the two warm-up games, followed by our opening World Cup games against Romania and Georgia, we’ve given ourselves the best chance of not just coming through the pool but of winning it.”
Morrison is particularly looking forward to playing Ireland. His last memory of facing them remains the last-gasp win on Ireland’s Croke Park farewell (above right). Nor does their much-vaunted midfield hold any fears for the Scot. “Ireland will be a good benchmark for us and personally I’m not daunted by playing against O’Driscoll and D’Arcy. They’re great players but we’ve faced each other so often that there’s a familiarity there rather than the sort of mystique you get from playing against a Sonny Bill (Williams), as I did last autumn.”
But if Ireland are a huge challenge, how Scotland go against Italy may be more of a guide to their potential World Cup form. Although Scotland were easy winners over Italy in March, when Sean Lamont was outstanding at 12, the Azzurri’s ten-man game has troubled Scotland in the past. It’s also far closer to the sort of abrasive, limited game that Scotland will face when they play Georgia and Romania.
“The Italians showed against France how dangerous they’ve become, but we’ve always done well against them when we’ve started well, which will be the key for us in every game in the World Cup. In a pool like ours we need to come out of the blocks quickly so that we can play expansive rugby and run teams ragged. If we can do that against Italy it will hold us in good stead for the tournament.”
By then we’ll also know if Morrison is the same player who limped off the Firhill pitch six months ago. “I’d attained a level of consistency that I was pleased with before the injury, and you worry that you might not regain that,” he says. “Not that the same thought seems to have occurred to my dad or brother. Dad lives in Hong Kong and my brother lives in San Francisco, and they’ve pre-empted selection by booking their tickets for New Zealand already. I’m champing at the bit to get out there, but I just hope they don’t come to regret it.”
There is little chance of that. A reassuringly physical presence, Morrison remains the linchpin in Scotland’s midfield. Fresh back from a five-day morale-building trip to Las Vegas with the two Johnnies, Beattie and Barclay, all he has to do now is prove it against the Irish and Italians.
This article appeared in the July 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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