Sam Hidalgo-Clyne looks at home at Exeter after two years on the road. The Scottish scrum-half lines up against Northampton on Sunday in a Champions Cup quarter-final
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne proving a natural Chief
Nobody said life was fair. With Exeter top of the Gallagher pile and with a home Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final this weekend to boot, the resumption of European professional rugby should have been an intoxicating time for Nic White. Instead, the Wallaby departed just as things hotted up, his Chiefs contract cruelly expiring during the lockdown.
Enter Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, swelling the ranks of Scottish internationals at Sandy Park to four. He has his own tale to tell, his own misfortune to ruminate over.
A little over two years ago, the scrum-half was at his hometown team Edinburgh, 24 years old, a few Tests caps and a World Cup under his belt. “We were re-signing and I’d had probably the best season I’d played. They offered me a pretty poor contract. We asked for more and it went up to the SRU board and it was probably Scott Johnson who pulled it off the table and said there’s no contract. That was it. There was no negotiation.”
Forced to uproot, he secured a two-year deal at Scarlets but things there didn’t work out. So he went on loan to Harlequins, which he loved. In April last year he played at Sandy Park on a ferociously windy day. “It was hard to keep the ball on the pitch. During the warm-up you’d put up a box kick and every single one went over the stand. I remember thinking I don’t think I could play here with this wind!”
Hidalgo-Clyne scored a try and made another in a narrow Quins defeat. Did he catch Rob Baxter’s eye that day? Presumably so because it wasn’t long before the Chiefs got in touch.
But first came a huge decision: with his Quins loan over, he elected to pick up a World Cup medical joker deal in France rather than see out his Scarlets contract. This means you’re waiting for an injury to give you your chance.
He went to Racing and then Lyon, completing the speediest tour imaginable of Europe’s top three leagues. When Exeter snapped him up in late April, it was his sixth club in two years.
“I’ve moved around a lot but if I had gone back to Scarlets for that second year, I wouldn’t be at Exeter. So it’s been the best thing for my rugby. To be honest I was pretty scared about testing the waters elsewhere from Edinburgh. To then go on to Scarlets, Harlequins, Racing and Lyon – they’re all big clubs. And then Exeter as well, here on a two-and-a-bit year deal.
“If you’re only at a club for four months you’ve got to make good first impressions and learn the way they play it. And not disrupt anything. You’ve got to settle into their environment, that’s not an easy thing to do. I think the experience has been really beneficial.”
Off the pitch, it was a trying period for Hidalgo-Clyne’s family, fiancée Sarah-Jane and two-year-old son Hugo. “The moving is horrendous, you’re constantly packing and unpacking. I have a storage unit and for a year I didn’t really know what was in it,” the player says.
At one point, he flew to London from Edinburgh, picked up a removal van, caught the ferry from Dover, drove to Paris, packed his house up, got up at 4.30am, caught the ferry back, drove to Harrogate for an overnight stop, then completed his journey to Edinburgh.
His relief at being able to put down roots at Exeter is evident. So keen was he to join the Devonians that he didn’t even speak to Stuart Hogg before signing because he didn’t want to jinx it. How is he finding life with the Premiership leaders?
“Everyone has been brilliant with me. Really, really nice,” he says. “They’re all very close. They’re very particular about who they bring in and that was made clear when I was on the phone to Rob and Ali (Hepher).
“The way training is run is different to other clubs. With most teams you have one full-out day and the rest you jog through. Here, it’s all very intense and at full speed, there’s nothing half-hearted. Which shows at the weekend. They practise how they want to play.”
What does Hidalgo-Clyne bring? Pace certainly, as someone who played full-back for Scotland U20. He runs with the ball in two hands and has a good offload. He kicks goals too if needed; growing up he was a stand-off, switching to scrum-half only at 20, when he and Finn Russell went to New Zealand on a scholarship and used to bomb around the South Island on mopeds.
He has been excellent, fitting in so seamlessly at Sandy Park that you would never know he only recently arrived. Along with the blind-side snipes and try assists, the eye was drawn to a superb jackal turnover at Northampton, where the Scot marshalled a back-line in which he was the only capped player. “He’s been an absolute revelation,” said BT Sport’s Ben Kay.
He says he’s largely a self-taught nine, although he learnt a lot off Chris Leck at Edinburgh – “He had an incredible pass and an incredible box kick”. The Scot views Aaron Smith as the world’s best but long before he went to Quins said he’d like to play like Danny Care.
“Danny has a really good tempo and creates a lot off his kicks. It’s different here because you can’t play those 50:50s off the boot in the 22. Danny gets a lot of success from it but Exeter prefer to keep the ball in hand and maybe score two or three phases further down the line.
“So that side of my game is having to get reeled in a bit. It’s something I’ll have to work on and learn from other players here, because I like to transfer a lot of pressure whereas they like to hold the ball. But trying to keep the tempo is one thing I’d like to do. And if you’re holding the ball for longer periods it’s going to be tough to keep that tempo up. That’s where fitness levels come in.”
Last capped on the 2018 summer tour, his Test aspirations still burn bright. “I’d love to play for Scotland again but only when I’m confident I can make an impact. I don’t want to just get through, I want to make a statement.” Only just 27, he has time on his side.
Exeter won six games on the trot after the resumption before a second string succumbed at Saracens last weekend. With a home Premiership semi-final on 10-11 October secured, they can park that and focus full bore over the next two weekends on trying to reach their first Champions Cup final. They’re huge favourites to beat Saints in Sunday’s quarter-final.
Hidalgo-Clyne is part of a heavyweight replacements bench for the match (5.30pm), with Jack Maunder getting a start at No 9. Tom O’Flaherty returns after injury and there’s a 50th Champions Cup appearance for Irishman Ian Whitten in the centre.
Should Chiefs succeed, domestically or in Europe, a winner’s medal would be a fitting way for Hidalgo-Clyne to draw a line under the upheaval of the past two years.
“Yeah, but it’s a bit of an awkward situation,” he says. “I feel pretty bad for players like Nic White who have left the club after doing all the hard work all season but don’t get to finish it off. That’s pretty brutal and unfair for those guys. Not just at Exeter, across the board.
“I guess my job is to come in and try to make a statement. To get some game time and help the club lift some silverware.”
This is an updated version of an article published in the September 2020 issue of Rugby World. Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.