Three seasons of battling for selection at club level and a desire to impress Scotland’s coaches have finally paid off for Joe Ansbro. The Northampton centre won his first cap against South Africa last month and found his patience and persistence rewarded as his team achieved a 21-17 victory – only their second defeat of the Boks in 12 meetings in the pro era.
Ansbro joined Northampton in 2007, fresh from Cambridge University, but hasn’t established himself as a regular starter for his club. However, he registered on Scotland’s radar and was picked for Scotland A during 2008-09, but opted out because he’d just returned from injury and Northampton wanted him to stay put. He did make his Scotland A debut at the Nations Cup in 2009, helping the Scots to triumph, but a niggling knee injury restricted his game time and stopped him from kicking on from that breakthrough last season. “I found myself watching more club games than I played,” Ansbro explains. “Then Scotland asked me to play for the A team again but I had just got back into the Northampton team and made the difficult decision to try to get a run of games with them and miss another chance for Scotland A.”
With his knee fixed, this season Ansbro has been challenging Jon Clarke and James Downey for selection at the Saints and has played almost every match, whether starting or off the bench.
Scotland coach Andy Robinson responded by naming Ansbro in his 34-man squad for the autumn Tests. He wasn’t picked for the first match, a 49-3 trouncing by New Zealand, and was preparing to play for Scotland A against the USA at Netherdale the following week when he was called up to replace the injured Max Evans at 13 for the Test against South Africa. “Initially I was a little bit shocked,” Ansbro says. “I was thinking of playing a big game for Scotland A and putting my hand up for selection against Samoa. To get straight in – well, my heart was going.”
In the ensuing 36 hours he managed to buy a dozen match tickets to add to his player’s allocation, as his parents, five brothers and sisters, his girlfriend and her family all wanted to be at Murrayfield. Rainy weather didn’t manage to spoil Ansbro’s big day and Scotland secured a famous win which lifted them to an all-time high of sixth in the IRB world rankings. “I absolutely loved it!” laughs Ansbro. “I was pleased with how it went and I got really positive feedback from the coaches. There are always things to work on but it’s a good foundation.” Scotland showed great mental fortitude to put their beating by the All Blacks aside, but Ansbro wasn’t surprised. “We had trained hard and we were fully focused and well prepared. I realised we were going to perform in a ruthless manner. We played a lot smarter than the week before.”
Ansbro is the first black player to play for Scotland but his colour has never been a factor in his rugby career. “It didn’t influence me. I’ve just been someone with ambitions of playing at the highest level. I would love to be a good role model but just as a rugby player representing his country.” Ansbro’s rugby journey began at the age of six when he joined his elder brother Alastair at Stewartry Sharks rugby club. “Our parents were keen for us all to play sport. We would always be outside and you were never short of someone to play with in my family!” Just before his eighth birthday, Ansbro headed south to Lancashire to go to boarding school at St Mary’s Hall and then on to Stonyhurst College. Other former pupils there include Will Greenwood and Iain Balshaw, and the rugby culture soon rubbed off. Ansbro played for Lancashire Schools but didn’t get through the England U16s trial. Knowing he was from Glasgow, the England coaches asked if he planned to try out for Scotland at U18s level instead, but Ansbro says: “After that, pride made me come back and have a go at England U18s and I got in!”
After school Ansbro put his professional rugby ambitions on hold in favour of reading natural sciences at Cambridge. “The chance of going to Cambridge was something I was never going to turn down. I had worked very hard to get there. Luckily I got a chance to do the rugby afterwards,” he says.
Now that his talent has taken him to the highest level, his next target has to be his Six Nations debut. Scotland host Wales, Ireland and Italy in 2011 and have the potential to win all three and pose a threat in Paris and London too. Ansbro is certainly optimistic. “Providing we prepare well and play smart rugby then the quality is certainly there for us to beat anyone. ”But having fought so hard to get his first Scotland caps – he was retained for the win against Samoa in Aberdeen – Ansbro isn’t looking ahead to the Six Nations, never mind the World Cup.
“Now I’m just trying to get back into the Northampton team. That’s what helped me get involved with Scotland in the first place.”
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