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The outsized underdog trying to make Scotland's World Cup

By Bryn Palmer
Glasgow Warriors' Stafford McDowall celebrates after scoring the opening try during the ECPR European Challenge Cup semi-final match at the Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli. Picture date: Saturday April 29, 2023. (Photo by Nigel French/PA Images via Getty Images)

If there was a surprise in Scotland’s Rugby World Cup training squad announced earlier this week, it was that there were no surprises. Or very few.

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Sure, the omission of the experienced Fraser Brown and his fellow Glasgow hooker – and try-scoring machine – Johnny Matthews among the four named raised a few eyebrows.

But on the Richter scale of Gregor Townsend squad announcements, this one barely registered for shock value. The ‘Toony Tombola’ was nowhere to be seen.

Only two uncapped players made the 41-man party, and both had featured in squads before. Leicester lock Cameron Henderson, benefitting this time perhaps from the untimely injury suffered by Jonny Gray, was part of this year’s wider Six Nations squad.

As was Stafford McDowall, who had also been involved in the autumn. In fact, the Glasgow centre first appeared in a Scotland squad as a 20-year-old in 2019, when there was talk – premature, as it turned out – that he might be a possible World Cup ‘bolter’ later that year.

Now 25, McDowall’s career has been something of a slow-burn so far, but it has belatedly caught fire this season. He may still be uncapped, but that could change in the coming months.

Not that you’d get a sense of it from the man himself, modest as they come. But it is not hard to imagine his burgeoning talents, unleashed this season by Franco Smith, flourishing on a higher stage.

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His call-up to the World Cup training squad “wasn’t something I was thinking about too much”, he says, until he got the call from Townsend. “I just wanted to focus on playing as much as I could for Glasgow. But to get that reward is pretty special and something I am really looking forward to.”

Stafford McDowall
Stafford McDowall has been training with the Scotland squad after impressing with Glasgow (Photo by Ross MacDonald/Getty Images)

Playing – and starting – for Glasgow is something he has done more than any other centre at the club in this most uplifting of seasons at Scotstoun. No mean feat when you consider the other four players to fill the midfield shirts are all Scotland internationals – Sione Tuipulotu, Huw Jones, Sam Johnson and Kyle Steyn, the latter a Test wing but also a more than handy operator at outside centre.

The much-heralded ‘Huwipulotu’ combination of Jones and Tuipulotu started all five of Scotland’s Six Nations matches, while Chris Harris was largely a fixture at 13 for the previous three years. The other centre in the World Cup frame is Cam Redpath, whose fleeting Test career to date has featured moments of high promise, sandwiched by injury misfortune.

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It is likely only four of them will make the plane to France, so McDowall knows he has his work cut out when the squad gathers for the first of a series of summer training blocks on 29 May.

“Obviously the competition is pretty tough,” he acknowledges with a wry smile. “You have got Huw and Sione who were unbelievable in the Six Nations and are both unbelievable players. Then you have got Chris Harris who’s a British Lion, and Cam Redpath who’s played really well for Bath and another massively talented player who can cover a few positions as well.

“Maybe for most people I’m the outsider from that group to make the final squad but all I can do is go in, get my head down, work as hard as possible and if I get a chance to play, try to take that opportunity and make a push. I know the competition is tough but I’ll just give it my best shot.”

If the increase in World Cup squad sizes from 31 to 33 players for the forthcoming global gathering gives coaches slightly more wriggle room, versatility is still likely to be a prized asset.

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McDowall started his Glasgow career at full-back, with the occasional outing at centre. This season he has started 18 of Warriors’ 26 matches, eight in the number 13 jersey – all alongside Johnson – and 10 at number 12, with Tuipulotu (seven times), Steyn (twice) and Jones (once) outside him. His adaptability has served Warriors well.

Allied to his powerful running in attack, a finishing prowess which has yielded nine tries, a cultured left-footed kicking game and rock-solid defence, McDowall’s 6ft 4in frame has also been cannily used at times as a front lineout jumper, confusing the opposition and leading to several well-crafted tries.

If that all-round package was not enough, last week he added another string to his bow. When Tom Jordan was sent off 25 minutes into their URC quarter-final play-off against Munster and with no fly-half among the replacements, McDowall slipped into the pivot role in a six-man backline.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d played at 10, only that “it would have been a while ago”. It was the first time he’d done so for Glasgow, even if with a six-two split on the bench, he knew he would be the one covering the role if the situation dictated.

“It wasn’t like I got chucked in there unknowingly, but maybe 55 minutes was a bit longer than I expected going into the game!” he said.

“Obviously it was tough having to go in there with a man down, but the backs around me are all international players with a lot of experience and they helped me through the game, especially the scrum-halves [George Horne and Ali Price] who took a lot of the pressure off.

“The system we run, you are jumping in and out of 10 a bit anyway in phase play, so that wasn’t too new. It was more trying to get hold of the set-piece stuff, what to call in what areas of the pitch, especially with a man down in the backline limiting our options of what we could go to. That was probably the toughest part.”

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Such adaptability in adversity may prove invaluable down the track. Glasgow’s URC hopes may have bitten the dust against Munster, but they still have another shot at glory to crown their re-emergence under Smith.

With Jordan banned for Friday’s European Challenge Cup final against Toulon in Dublin, the head coach has decisions to make on his midfield trio.

While McDowall says he would “happily” fill any role asked of him at the Aviva Stadium as Warriors aim to become the first Scottish side to win a European trophy, at 10 Smith will more than likely turn to Domingo Miotti, the Pumas playmaker who has only started six games this season but impressed when given his head. Duncan Weir, a peripheral figure this term, is the other option.

“Domingo is a great guy and a massively talented player,” said McDowall. “He runs the game really well, has a good kicking game, great skills. If he ends up at 10, everyone will have massive confidence in his ability and what he brings. Hopefully if he gets a chance, he will take his opportunity.”

It is what McDowall has been doing all season. Being handed the captaincy in Steyn’s absence, ahead of more experienced alternatives, was another boost to his growing confidence.

“To be part of the leadership group, have a say in decisions that are made and get the chance to captain the club as well has been special. It gives you a bit of belief that the coaches do believe in you. When you’re on the pitch too, it gives you a bit extra, knowing you’re the one maybe some of the boys are looking to, to lead.”

McDowall, a Dumfries-born son of dairy farming stock, has started Warriors’ last four games at the business end of a breakthrough campaign, only a year after he was considering whether he may be forced to return to the family business before Warriors offered him a new contract.

If a final spot in Dublin is no guarantee, should Smith opt to re-deploy the ‘Huwipulotu’ combo, increased exposure has already bolstered McDowall’s hopes of a belated first cap when Scotland’s warm-up Tests begin against Italy on 29 July and, just maybe, a World Cup come September.

“This is probably the first time I’ve had the chance to play regularly in these kind of knock-out games, back to back,” he added. “I have relished the opportunity so far and I guess it does give you a bit of confidence that if you do make the next step, you have got games like these under your belt that will help you in situations like Test rugby.

“I grew up watching Toulon winning those Heineken Cups on the bounce with [Jonny] Wilkinson, [Matt] Giteau and those guys. It is a special club and I couldn’t think of anyone you’d rather play in a European final. They have individual talents who can light up a game, but we have got enough confidence from what we have done this season that we will take on anyone at the moment.”

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