As a 15-year-old flanker growing up on the industrial fringes of Livingston, Luke Crosbie knew he could never match his Edinburgh rivals for wealth or opportunity. He didn’t have access to the rugby sessions, the lavish facilities or the international expertise of the private school lads from the city. West Calder, his own high school, didn’t have a rugby team.
What Crosbie did have was a work ethic that would make the average leaf-cutter ant blush. Even back then, he was driven by a ravenous hunger to make it in the game, an anxiety that the boys he was competing with for age-grade selection might be training more, could be edging ahead if he let his guard slip and spent a night on the PlayStation, not the weights bench. He couldn’t beat their relentless exposure to rugby, but he could damned sure work harder.
“It was a tough gig coming through to Edinburgh myself to give it a crack at Currie,” he told RugbyPass. “Those boys were at schools like George Watson’s where they were getting a lot of rugby training. I wasn’t, so what could I do? What work could I put in to try and do more than the training they’d do at school?
“I thought: if they’re getting the rugby, then I’m going to need to get something else. They might be doing more, so I need to keep doing more, keep on at it. I would cycle up to the gym in Livingston with my mate after school and we’d train for a couple of hours. I got proper into that.
“I had to get those sessions done or I couldn’t relax. Other boys were at boarding school where they were getting training all the time. That sort of work helped me get my foot in the door and I feel like I’ve stepped up and proved myself whenever I’ve had opportunities since.”
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In those days, nobody knew much about this gangling brute of a kid. The regional selectors, Crosbie still feels, weren’t willing to back him over players they had watched and coached all season. “You’re coming in, say, with a group of Watson’s players, the coach knows them and the coach wants to look good and pick a good team, so he goes with what he knows well. I used to get cut from U16s basically for that reason.
“The Currie coach Andrew Jones actually emailed in and asked, ‘Why have you cut Luke? We need some feedback; we don’t think that’s fair.’ And then I actually wound up getting back in. It’s all about having equal opportunity. I understand it is tough as a coach if you don’t have time to see all these boys play.
“But there are a few boys playing at West Calder now, some have moved on to Currie and I keep in touch with them. I make sure they’re working hard and give it a shot, make sure their confidence doesn’t get blown because that rejection can make some people go into their shells.”
In continuing his prodigious rise at Edinburgh, a soaring ascent that will surely culminate in a Scotland cap before the year is out, and helping the next crop of Livi lads along the same path, Crosbie is proving a wonderful antidote to the posh-boy stereotype that still pervades the Scottish game.
That edifice remains, but it is shifting thanks to the emergence of blokes like Crosbie, the ferocious West Lothian tearaway, salt-of-the-earth Borderers like Rory Sutherland, Finn Russell the stonemason, Jamie Bhatti the cow-slaughterer and Prestwick’s finest, Gordy Reid, however you want to bracket the uproariously entertaining prop. The team is becoming more representative of its people.
“That’s what rugby is,” said Crosbie. “There are so many different players, so many different body types. You’re getting so many different personalities from across Scotland. It’s important everyone gets a shot at it and gets to almost understand the concept of what rugby’s actually like. Rugby is a complicated sport, maybe you don’t understand the laws – you’ve got to dive into it, try to understand it and you might like it.
“I just came across rugby going for a walk with my dad as a kid, saw folk running into each other and thought, let’s give that a crack. It looks better than being stuck in goals. From there, I grew a love for the sport and you start to realise there is an actual community that you can meet all these people and all these connections through rugby.”
The coronavirus pandemic has placed an indefinite hold on Edinburgh’s charge for the Guinness PRO14 title. They top Conference B after 13 games and have a Challenge Cup quarter-final against Bordeaux-Begles to play at some point. When – indeed if – those matches will be fulfilled, nobody can say.
If the crisis eases and Scotland’s summer tour goes ahead, the safe money is on Crosbie winning his first cap against South Africa or New Zealand. He has been in and around Gregor Townsend’s camp for over a year now and has the frightening speed and snarl to fit the coach’s blueprint. Townsend, like Richard Cockerill, loves the aggression and dynamism he brings to the party.
With all that is looming, and all the riches that could await in the very near future, how tough is it to stay rooted in the present? Crosbie framed his explanation in terms so simple even a dense journalist grasped it. “If you were interviewing someone else in three interviews’ time, and you’re thinking about that and you’re not prepared for this one, then this one goes to s*** and you’ve got nothing to write about.
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“Your whole process to get to that interview is completely derailed. Focus on each job as well as you can. Every step is a building block on a path to where I want to be, and enjoy the process. If you look too far ahead, in the game right in front of you you play s***. Then you can be shipped out of a team. It’s too intense an environment – you’ve got to fight every week to stay in the team.”
This is a confrontation that Crosbie has loved since the days of slugging it out with the Watson’s lads for an age-grade jersey. He takes joy in heaving his huge frame about, stampeding around open prairie with a gait that suggests the grass on which he is running has mortally offended him.
He broke his jaw against Zebre last season but played on nonetheless, more annoyed that the injury prevented him demolishing the post-match pizza. At Edinburgh, the staff call him The Terminator. “When you’re coming back from injury, the physios are constantly asking you, on a scale of one to ten, how sore is it?
“Well, rugby hurts anyway. I just thought, I’ll be alright and I got on with it. And my facial expression as well – if we’re doing conditioning, the boys say it doesn’t change, even if I’m knackered. It’s the same as a resting b**** face, I suppose.
“The Scottish pack were at the heart of a rousing afternoon… Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson hunted and scavenged like wild dogs, Nick Haining thundered around with and without the ball,” enthuses @JLyall93 #SixNations #SCOvFRA ???????
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 10, 2020
“I’m not like that off the pitch but on the pitch, at this level, and the reason Edinburgh have gone well is that we play our game and if it comes to it, we’re happy to stand toe-to-toe and go to work. I just enjoy getting stuck in with my team-mates; it’s all a laugh winding a few people up as well.”
There is, of course, one unconventional wind-up that made Crosbie Twitter-famous last season. Way before Joe Marler and Alun Wyn Jones, in a Murrayfield rout of the Kings, he squared up to irate lock JC Astle and delivered a swift back-hand flick to a very tender area.
“They got a penalty and their second row was trying to wind me up, slapping my chest, and he was looking me in the eye, so I just gave him a wee pop to the balls,” Crosbie explained. “He wasn’t happy with that, looked straight to the touch judge. As soon as I saw him getting wound up I thought, I’ve got him here. Off the pitch, it’s nothing like that, we’re shaking hands. I might need to be a bit careful with that after all this Joe Marler stuff.”
Perhaps, in the current circumstances, that would be wise. Still, there can be no denying that Luke “The Terminator” Crosbie does not lack for balls.
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