It riles Sam Hidalgo-Clyne when he sees people frown at the sheer number of jerseys he has donned these past two years, a list of clubs so long you could bridge the Seine with it.

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The obvious implication is that there is something wrong with the slick little scrum-half. He can’t be good enough. He must be unfit. His attitude is shoddy and no coach wants to keep him around.

But this odyssey of loans, medical joker contracts and short-term deals was a voyage Hidalgo-Clyne embraced. It was a bold quest for game time and fulfilment when his outlook was bleak. It took him to exhilarating places and some of Europe’s premier rugby teams… and his experience is all the richer as a result.

In the summer of 2018, he left his boyhood side Edinburgh for Scarlets where he soon found himself underused and unhappy. He wasn’t in the picture for Scotland’s World Cup squad and even had he been, missing valuable pre-season time would have wrought perverse damage on his prospects of finding a new club. 

In short, he could sit and stagnate or get out and play. You shudder at the phone bill Tom Beattie, his agent, must have racked up in piloting moves to Harlequins, Racing 92, Lyon and now Exeter Chiefs where he has finally found a lasting home and a two-year contract with Rob Baxter’s English juggernaut.

(Continue reading below…)

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“I hear people saying, ‘Oh, he has had five clubs in 18 months’ but at the same time, it was my decision,” said Hidalgo-Clyne to RugbyPass. “I could have stayed at Scarlets and done the second year of my contract, but why would I if I wasn’t playing and wasn’t enjoying it? I knew I was going to Harlequins short-term, I knew I didn’t have a contract once I finished at Racing. I knew the risks of loans and short-term deals.

“But I have gone from Harlequins to Racing to Lyon to Exeter – four incredible top teams – when I could have been stuck at Scarlets playing club rugby for Llandovery. People don’t take that into consideration. Where would I be if I’d stayed? Would I be better off playing for Llandovery every weekend? Most likely not. It’s not like I have joined bottom six teams. My agent has done really well and I’m glad it has worked out how it has.”

Life in France has been hard, but rewarding. Hidalgo-Clyne’s stint in Paris during the World Cup opened his eyes to lavish riches he had never encountered before. Racing have a new arena of lights and music and mayhem, a cryotherapy chamber and a wine cellar stocked with bottles produced on the vineyards of billionaire president Jacky Lorenzetti on site. 

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“Jacky works at Racing’s training ground every day and if you have a couple of losses, he is in the head coach’s office putting pressure on. We lost once at home and drew the next game, and Jacky called for every player to go in and have a one-on-one with him. It was the head coach, him and me in a room, and I had to get Juan Imhoff to come and translate.

“He grilled us. ‘This is the worst start we have ever had to the Top 14. What’s going on? Where do you see the club going?’ If it wasn’t for the head coach being there, Jacky wouldn’t have had a clue. No disrespect to him, but he knows absolutely nothing about rugby – unless he sees you scoring tries, he wouldn’t know if you had a good game or not. We were missing a lot of key players to the World Cup, our average age was very young, but the expectations at Racing are still very high.”

Things aren’t so glitzy at Lyon where Hidalgo-Clyne has spent the past three months and earned more precious minutes, but the club sits proudly in second place in the Top 14. Pierre Mignoni, their truculent coach and ex-France scrum-half, has a voracious thirst for victory and an even more visceral hatred of defeat. As punishment for the beating they took from struggling Brive last Saturday, the squad had their week off ripped away. Instead, they have scrubbed the club gym and are facing a brutal spree of long sessions.

“If you win, it’s awesome. If you lose, it’s like somebody died. If we had beaten Brive we would have had the whole week off. Instead, the boys are in at 7am until late just to put pressure on and p*** them off. That just wouldn’t happen back home.

“The Top 14 is a tougher league than the PRO14. No disrespect, but when you come up against the Kings or Dragons, you are expected to win. Here, Brive are eleventh and came out and comfortably hammered us – anyone can beat anyone. 

“As a nine, you have more ownership of the game plan and you’re more of a big boss. There are a lot of mistakes but it’s the ambition of wanting to play. You make a poor off-load, they can be under the sticks and the game is gone. That’s the risk factor, but it makes it so exciting because you pretty much know you can score from anywhere or off one little error.

Hidalgo-Clyne Scotland

Sam Hidalgo-Clyne high fives school children after receiving his 2015 World Cup cap at Gloucester Cathedral (Photo by Richard Stonehouse/Getty Images)

“Back home, it’s more of a grind and defences are better. So many people fear they will get lost in France, but the lifestyle, the weather, learning a new language, the style of rugby – everything ticks a box for me.”

At Racing, of course, Hidalgo-Clyne joined another Scot blossoming in France. Finn Russell’s messy spat with Gregor Townsend, the apparent strife over the two-beer limit imposed by the much-vaunted squad leadership group and his exile from the Six Nations camp has not dimmed his domestic brilliance. 

Mercifully, it appears some fences have been mended between fly-half and coach. “I spoke to Finn about it and ultimately he wasn’t happy with the decision the leadership group made,” said Hidalgo-Clyne. “He is part of the leadership group but he wasn’t consulted about that decision.

 

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“I don’t know if that was forced from the coaches onto the leadership group. He had his own opinions, they clashed and he stood his ground on what he believes. As a rugby player, you want to go wherever you’re happy and he obviously wasn’t. Hopefully, they can sort it out because he is playing awesome rugby for Racing.”

Happiness is a constant driving force in Hidalgo-Clyne’s narrative. It is why he left Scarlets and what he hopes dearly to find at Exeter. He has been living alone in Lyon, with partner Sarah-Jane and two-year-old son Hugo back in Scotland. At last, the three of them have some stability. 

He would love to add to his haul of twelve caps, the most recent of which came almost two years ago. But for now, it’s about repaying Baxter’s faith. Chiefs will soon lose their brilliant Australian Nic White and as one of six scrum-halves they were monitoring to replace him, the pressure is on Hidalgo-Clyne to deliver for the Premiership leaders. All being well, he will get started later this month, when his joker deal with Lyon comes to an end.

“Nic White was a massive asset to them but they have got some very good young nines there like Jack Maunder. I’ve got a bit more experience, I’ve got a good kicking game – I’m good at playing the game a little bit like chess, but knowing when to turn it on and have a crack. When you are behind a pack going forward, my attack game can be threatening.

“It’s hard to get consistency when you’re out of a squad or playing 20 minutes off the bench every week. I want to get that No1 spot, enjoy it and see what happens. I’m confident I can add value to the Scotland squad if I can get back in it. I want to become a better player, keep working hard, and see where that takes me.”

By the end of the season, come what may, Hidalgo-Clyne could conceivably finish up with a Top 14 or Premiership winners medal. The club-hopping is over. A circuitous route has ended in a seriously good home.

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