'When I told him that Gregor Townsend had called me, my dad was a bit quiet and taken aback'
Little Josh Bayliss clamped himself to his father’s legs and wept, arms straining in the forlorn hope that through sheer will alone, he could stop his old man from getting in the taxi that had drawn up outside.
The car’s arrival meant it was time for Peter to leave, to head to the airport and fly back to Indonesia, where he worked in tropical agriculture. Not yet out of primary school, watching his hero depart was like a dagger to Bayliss’ chest.
“It would be heartbreaking every time he left,” the Bath back-row, now 23, tells RugbyPass. “I can remember that time up at my grandparents’ farm really vividly, grabbing on to his leg and crying while he was trying to get out to the taxi.
“Because we are such a close family, it was really tough to start with, having him in Indonesia and me, my mum and my sister in England. But as we got older, it just became the norm and it just is. The way that we deal with it is by spending as much time together when he is back and we’d go over and visit during school holidays.
“There were never really, really long periods we’d go without seeing each other but as a young kid, I would look up to my dad massively, and he couldn’t be there to watch all my games at school. It was tough, but there are a lot of people in much worse positions.”
Peter Bayliss works in palm oil. He moved to Papua New Guinea upon graduating from agricultural college, where he met his wife, Frances, teaching in a school. Plug Peter’s name into a search engine, and your screen swiftly populates with links to Bloomberg, investment opportunities and business pages, hallmarks of a successful career. He is now based in Borneo, and while recovering from shoulder surgery a couple of years back, his son was able to fly out for a precious summer-long visit.
It was Peter’s profession that allowed Josh and sister Emily to spend their early years in Indonesia. After being born in Devon, the flanker lived in Southeast Asia from a few months old to the time he was nearly eight.
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“My dad was working a lot and still does, and so me, my sister and my mum spent a lot of time together,” Bayliss says. “We became very close as a family because it was almost like it was just us four; everyone else had a different way of life and culture.
“We embraced that, and my mum and dad were very keen that we weren’t insular. As kids, we would go out to islands on the weekend on a tiny little boat and take a banana leaf full of rice which was wicked, those are some of my fondest memories.
“But the overriding thing was that we became very close as a family. Only my dad spoke fluent Indonesian, so there was that language barrier and we spent a lot of time together.”
Despite the distance, Peter has watched each of his boy’s 59 games for Bath, since Bayliss joined the club from the prestigious Millfield School at which he had earned a rugby scholarship.
A versatile customer with searing pace and a shrewd rugby brain, Bayliss has dazzled this season, even when filling in at lock with Bath’s second-row options gravely depleted. Only Will Evans of Harlequins has topped his haul of 11 turnovers in the Premiership. Few loose forwards possess his speed of thought and of deed, and fewer still have the leadership credentials to captain a top-flight club on numerous occasions, the first at just 20 years old.
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Still, when Gregor Townsend rang him up last month and offered a place in Scotland’s training squad, he was dumbfounded. Bayliss always knew he was eligible through Frances, Peter’s mother, who hails from Aberdeen, but even as he helped England U20 win a grand slam and reach the Junior World Championship final, he never dared believe Test rugby was within reach.
“When I told him that Gregor Townsend had called me, my dad was a bit quiet and taken aback,” he says. “He wrote down how proud he was later that day and sent me a message.
“My grandmother is over the moon. She told me it’s my decision and that she’d be delighted if I chose Scotland, but that she understands it’s a hard decision. For me, it wasn’t hard. It’s an unbelievable opportunity and having spoken to Gregor and the rest of the guys there it made a lot of sense to go for it.
“I’ve been focused solely on making my way at Bath and it’s almost been a blessing how hard I’ve had to fight for games in my position. We’ve had a great back-row ever since I’ve been here. The competition is great, it’s made me have to get that hunger to fight for the shirt and for my position. And also, it’s meant I’ve been able to learn a load from all these world-class players. I’d dreamt of playing international rugby but never even thought it would be a possibility so it was all a bit of a surprise and a shock when Gregor called me.”
At the heart of a much more public international tumult was Bayliss’ Bath colleague and dear friend, Cam Redpath. The centre’s tale is well-documented – the son of Scotland skipper Bryan, raised south of the border and on the cusp of England honours at various points in his fledgling career, before finally plumping for Townsend’s team and helping propel them to a glorious Calcutta Cup triumph at Twickenham.
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“I’m really close with Cam and spoke to him quite a bit, mostly before Gregor had even called me, around his decision,” Bayliss says. “He came to me without knowing I was Scottish-qualified and asked me what I thought about it.
“After he’d been up there, he told me what it was like, how he fit in and the style of rugby they want to play, and it just sounded like it would suit my game. After Gregor had offered me that opportunity, I was pretty comfortable with the decision I was going to make.”
Bayliss might have had the opportunity to make a similar splash against France, had the dreaded coronavirus not rampaged through the French squad, and more pointedly, had he not suffered concussion in the lead-up to the postponed international.
The timing of the brain injury is maddening, but it is not his first of the season, and he understands the importance of rest and the risk of rushing back. The blow is all the more brutal since he has had a tantalising flavour of Scotland training.
“Gregor spoke around what they want to do as a team and how they like to play and train and a lot of it was around speed, how quickly they can play the game, and he saw me and my skills as fitting into that style and system.
“That’s definitely what I noticed training up there – it’s very quick, very transition-based, which sort of suits my game, and while I was up there I had a number of conversations with him, and he was just keen for me to get stuck in and get into their way of training which was huge because I like to get stuck in to a week’s worth of sessions before feeling comfortable. Training is the only way you adapt to new things and throwing yourself in at the deep end is the way I like to learn things.”
In Borneo, all those miles away, Peter still acts as confidant, counsellor – even coach.
“I always get a message from him after a game saying well done and areas to improve, which I love. Me and my dad are incredibly close, but we don’t necessarily show emotion in ways other people would. If he texts me after a game and says, ‘well done, I’m proud, mate’, for me, what that actually means is, ‘that was amazing, you did really well’. All I need to hear is that well done, and that he’s proud.”
From Indonesia to Edinburgh via the West County, the past has been colourful. The future, though, is more riveting still.
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