George Horne on fighting for a Scotland spot and the team's recent form
Being known as a ‘super sub’ is not the worst thing in the world, but for George Horne the label has become restrictive. While the scrum-half has finally established himself as first choice at Glasgow Warriors in the 18 months since Franco Smith took charge, he has remained a bit-part player with Scotland, Gregor Townsend preferring to employ his pace and panache from the bench, if at all.
Only three of the 28-year-old’s 26 caps have come as a starter – his first two Test appearances in North America back in 2018, then in the rout of Russia at the World Cup the following year.
Read more: Scotland Six Nations squad
Ever since, Horne has had to content himself with cameos here and there behind Ali Price and, latterly, Ben White. Only three times has he had more than 30 minutes in a single match.
When it comes to the Six Nations, the picture is even more stark. Although Horne missed the whole of the 2021 tournament due to injury, the fact he has made only half-a-dozen Six Nations appearances is still striking. Four of them came in 2020, with the other two materialising last year when he replaced White in the final quarter of the thrilling wins over England and Wales with which Scotland opened up.
Price returned to bench for the last three games and was given the nod to start the pool decider against Ireland at the World Cup. Horne came on for the final 31 minutes on the wing after Darcy Graham went down with a hip knock. As a second-half replacement, he had scored against Tonga and contributed to the late try glut against Romania. Big victories for Scotland – but still the smallest of wins for Horne.
“Everyone talks about the impact I can have off the bench, which I like to think is true, bringing my speed and tempo to the game. I guess my thought would be, ‘why can’t I just do that from the start?’” he says. “Bring that speed we like to play with, start with that from the very beginning and really take the game to the opposition.
“I’ve worked really hard on my kicking game and the decision-making side of things. That has come with minutes and experience at club and international level. Some people might think it’s a riskier option picking me because of the gung-ho style, full pace all the time. But if I can bring that in a controlled manner, there’s no reason I can’t be comfortable starting games. That’s the goal – to try to start every game. That would be huge.
“Definitely people talk about it, me being a better replacement. It’s not a bad one (tag) to have. If I’m playing for Scotland I’m delighted, whether it’s off the bench or starting. You want to just get into that match-day 23, and that role off the bench, it does suit the way I play. I can come on and up the pace, let loose almost.
“Because I’ve done it quite a lot and because as a scrum-half there’s always two nines in the team, 50 per cent of the time when Ali was at Glasgow, one of us was going to be coming off the bench. As the pace and tempo-bringer, some people maybe have pigeonholed me into that kind of role. But hopefully I’ve shown people when I start for Glasgow that it works when you start from minute zero as well.”
Price caused a bit of a stir back in November when he moved to Edinburgh on a season-long loan, with Townsend keen to see both him and Horne starting regularly ahead of the Six Nations while White settled in at Toulon following the collapse of London Irish.
Many times in those years when Price was the favoured option of Dave Rennie and then Danny Wilson at Glasgow, we wondered whether Horne would decide to depart in search of the sort of status he has now earned under Smith. He is adamant it never crossed his mind to leave.
“The competitor in me, I was always striving to be that number one. But I also understood it’s a long season, you’re going to need to rotate and play games off the bench, get rested here and there.
“It actually worked really well, probably for both of our (his and Price’s) form, being able to come in and out of the team. We also had Jamie (Dobie), a great young player, so the three of us went toe-to-toe with each other.
“I love playing for Glasgow, what with my older brother being here and stuff. It feels like it’s my home. I’d always fight to try to keep my place in the team and stay here for as long as I can.”
Peter Horne, the former Glasgow and Scotland centre/fly-half, has recently been appointed to the national team coaching staff on a permanent and exclusive basis, having previously shared responsibility for the attack with Brad Mooar while remaining part of the Warriors set-up.
There are six years between the brothers but they have always been particularly close, Peter asking George to take charge of the backs, scrum attack and counter-attack when he was briefly at the helm of Ayrshire Bulls in the Super 6 competition. Junior laughs that the dynamic these days is pretty much as it always has been, with him taking orders.
“Aye, it’s just more of the same,” he says. “Nah, he’s been so good, he’s been great. Even when he first started at Glasgow, just his energy, his enthusiasm and positivity rubs off on all the boys. He’s another part of the reason why coming into work and training is so much fun. Having that around the Scotland team as well, in camps and stuff, the boys that maybe didn’t know him so well, it’s rubbed off on them as well.
“I’m probably biased but I’d like to think that everyone sees the benefit of having him around. He’s also an excellent coach. He’s so experienced, and he was always a leader in the sense of getting his points across to younger players because of his vast knowledge of the game. Having him as a role model has been huge for my career development.
“I wouldn’t say he’s extra hard on me but I’d like to think he doesn’t have to be. If we ever do a drill, I always make sure I’m nailing all my detail. We still go over my games together, and we’ve both got the mindset that we pick out the flaw before we ever pat ourselves on the back.
“We’re always trying to find little ways that we can improve. His approach as a coach isn’t to call people out. He’s always looking for the positive side and instruct where boys can get better as opposed to screaming at them for being crap.”
Scotland begin their Six Nations in Cardiff, a city where they haven’t won since 2002. There was a behind-closed-doors success in Llanelli in October 2020, but Welsh soil has proved barren for the Scots in recent times. However, this team has made a habit of shedding historic baggage, having claimed back-to-back wins at Twickenham and achieved a first success in Paris since 1999.
Find a way past Warren Gatland’s renewed charges and they will attack consecutive home games against France and England with justifiable heart. First and foremost, Horne says, they want to prove that the meek defeats to South Africa and Ireland at the World Cup were unrepresentative.
“That’s the beauty of club rugby, you get the chance to bounce back a week later, whereas with the international stuff it’s going to have been almost five months until we get the chance to correct some of the things that didn’t go so well at the World Cup.
“We’ve got a talented squad, we are able to produce performances to beat the best teams, but not consistently enough at the moment. That has shown. Ireland and South Africa were better than us in those games at the World Cup. We still need to get better if we want to be challenging those best teams and trying to win trophies.
“There was a lot of disappointment, particularly in terms of how we performed, because we had shown signs leading up to the World Cup, in the warm-up games. But that counts for nothing when you get on the big stage and don’t perform.
“Last year in the Six Nations we started two from two. An amazing start, a perfect start. Then we came up against France away. They’re a great team and hadn’t lost in ages at home, but we had chances to win that match. But ultimately we didn’t (losing 32-21).
“You could paint it as classic Scotland: doing enough to win and then not winning when it comes down to it. We want to shake that tag off and be the guys that can get it done, whether it’s by playing beautiful rugby or with those nitty-gritty away performances in the Six Nations.
“In the Ireland (Six Nations) game (a 22-7 loss), the first 30 minutes we had chances to take and go ahead. We didn’t and those best teams will punish you in those situations. The bottom line is we can do it – it’s just about doing it consistently.
“Cardiff is a chance to do something that a Scotland team hasn’t done for quite a few years. We know how good Wales are at home, so it will be a massive test. But there’s no reason why if we go down there and play to our potential, we can’t get another win to start the campaign.
“Every team will be out to avenge how they didn’t win the World Cup, I guess, so it’s going to be an exciting tournament.”
Scotland are craving a fast start. Horne, for his part, would take a start of any description.
This article first appeared in the free Six Nations magazine in the February 2024 edition of Rugby World.