Just get to the breakdown, Scott Steele would tell himself, as his lungs burned and his thighs screamed and his breath rasped in great, wheezing gusts. Just make it to the ruck.
For an age, the Harlequins scrum-half lumbered around rugby parks in a state of perpetual exhaustion. He’d try to deceive himself about his swelling weight, construct excuses for coasting through too many aspects of professional life, but in his heart of hearts, he knew he was blunting his considerable talents.
It wasn’t until his very existence in the game was placed in grave jeopardy that he resolved to shape up. In spring last year, London Irish informed Steele that he would not be offered a new contract, ending a happy six-season spell at the club. Several days later, with the loathsome tendrils of coronavirus snaking through the country, Britain was plunged into lockdown, and rugby into a state of indefinite suspension.
Club budgets were eviscerated; the market creaking beneath the weight of unattached players. Back home with his parents in Dumfries, Steele scrabbled about to find a new team and retirement at 27 became a very real and terrifying prospect.
“It crept into my head that I might actually have to just can this and find what I want to do, and not exactly have the best platform to do that with Covid,” he told RugbyPass.
“I didn’t really take my nutrition seriously; I was overweight by at least 5-6kg. I wasn’t pushing myself as hard as I could in the gym, ghosting through sessions.
“I do enjoy going out and having a few beers, but I was doing it every weekend, going out and getting pretty drunk after games and not realising the effect that has going into your training and recovery the next week.
“It was a shame that it took something so serious as Covid and lack of employment to wake me up to that but I’m grateful it happened when it did. It was that panic that really made me think: no-one knows how long they’ve got left, so you might as well work your arse off now.”
At his worst, 5ft 9in Steele’s weight ballooned to a beefy 94kg – a single kilogram lighter than Ardie Savea. He had lost all of the explosiveness and dynamism that propelled him to age-grade honours with Scotland Under-20s and got him to the Premiership in the first place.
“Back then, I was absolutely flat-out the whole game, always worried about getting to the breakdown,” he said. “I had little time to scan, to make decisions, to look at kick space. There was no tactical stuff going through my head – it was just, get to the ruck and pass the ball.
“I’d even tell myself, right, if I snipe now, even though it might not be on, I can get tackled because that means I can sit on the floor for two or three phases and not worry about getting to the next breakdown!
“I’ve always been good at getting over ball and I remember justifying it to myself – if I want to be strong over the ball, I need to be bigger – but it was all just lies so I could eat Deliveroo and burgers and pints. It was good fun, but it was a big wasted opportunity.
“I used to go in to training every Monday and make sure no-one was looking at the scales when I was weighing in. Now, I’m feeling fitter, faster, getting on the end of tries and supporting play rather than just hoping my team-mate finishes it because I’m nowhere near the next play if it is a ruck.”
In many ways, being jettisoned by Irish was the making of Steele, the reason he is where is now, a new international and a bristling cog in the Harlequins machine. Last summer, he trained like a beast at home, ate sensibly and trimmed down to 83kg. The physical transformation was laudable, but the mental resilience far more compelling. Steele had to trust that the toil would not be in vain, that in these most strained of days, rugby would grant him an opportunity to get back in the game.
“I could have gone, right, the world is against me, let’s throw the toys out the pram, let’s get steaming every night,” he said. “I chose to work really hard, grafting for months not knowing if something was going to turn up.”
In late June, Harlequins offered him a year-long contract. He would be third-choice behind Danny Care and Martin Landajo, two immensely experienced internationals, and his earnings would fall off a cliff. The money was irrelevant. Quins were Steele’s salvation – a top-flight club with progressive coaches and an array of attacking weaponry.
In the tumultuous early throes of the Premiership restart, he won his place in the team with a series of snarling, nuggety performances. Gregor Townsend hoisted him into the Scotland squad and in madcap circumstances, amid a spate of broken bodies, Steele made his debut as a replacement wing in his country’s first win on Welsh soil for 18 years.
“Playing on the wing wasn’t how I pictured it,” he chuckled. “I’ve done it once; I want to get a proper crack playing in my position.
“If I get another cap on the wing I won’t be complaining, although I wouldn’t be half as nervous at scrum-half. After getting one experience in playing for Scotland, it is definitely something I want to do again and again.”
That opportunity may yet be forthcoming. Steele was one of four scrum-halves used by Townsend in a busy autumn programme, but that raucous triumph in Llanelli remains his only cap.
The Six Nations curtain-raiser, an enthralling Calcutta Cup showdown at Twickenham, is looming, and Steele is making a robust case to feature.
In the here and now, he is arguably the form man at Scotland’s disposal. Certainly, he is among Harlequins’ finest performers in the fledgling campaign with three tries in five matches, a clutch of telling jackals and defensive involvements. These are attributes Townsend and his staff prize as they look to sculpt a more measured game plan.
“When I was with Scotland, the coaches really liked my defensive game,” Steele said. “Now, a nine defends a lot more in the line where before you could probably get away with not being a great defender. [Defence coach] Steve Tandy mentioned that to me – that’s what he liked about me.
“In terms of getting around, playing fast and at high tempo, that is something Scotland have wanted to do over the last few years, and moving to Quins has definitely helped me with that.
“They mentioned support lines as something to improve, so that I’m always on the shoulder if we do make a break. That’s something I’m continually working on in training and looking back on games, noticing and getting better at. There have been a few instances where I’ve managed to pick up tries off that support line.”
Steele has stability in his life now. Quins, sufficiently taken with their marauding Scotsman, offered him a two-year extension in November which he promptly signed.
“From day one, the coaches seemed to back me and that builds confidence,” he said.
“Looking back at those dark days, it’s pretty astonishing how it turned out for me. I’m grateful for everyone involved in that journey – my parents and my brothers in my little support bubble at home.
“It made me realise how lucky I am to do the job but also how I took it for granted in the past.”
This has been a year of discovery and despair, anxiety and exaltation. In those long months of blackness, a man of Steele was forged.
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