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FEATURE Earning the right

Earning the right
2 years ago

It is late on a cold Saturday night in Cheshire, and Bryan Redpath is a little worse for wear on his landing, stupefied by a heady cocktail of fine single malt and intoxicating paternal pride.

Whisky never fails to scorch the consumer, but you get the feeling that joy burned brighter within the little former Scotland captain than even the peatiest elixir could.

Picture the scenes Chez Redpath that afternoon: Bryan’s boy, Cam, winning his first Scotland cap, the end of a long-running saga involving his dad’s old half-back partner, Gregor Townsend, who was desperate to play him, and the England set-up that seemed to already have their man.

Pitched in against the team who had come close to capping him, Redpath is immense. He swaggers around the place like a veteran of many Six Nations, not a 21-year-old playing in his first, steaming into contacts, ripping beautiful passes off either hand. His Scotland side conquers Twickenham for the first time since 1983, a decade before even Bryan had played the first of his 60 Tests, in a near-perfect blend of aggression and accuracy.

My sister sent me a photo of my dad passed out at the top of the stairs. I think enjoyed the whisky a little bit too much. My mum was looking after him – she can handle it a lot better

Cam Redpath

And at the end of it all, Redpath and Dave Cherry, the two Scottish debutants, are given the honour of hoisting the Calcutta Cup aloft. It is pure, raw sporting romance.

“Here’s a little story for you,” Redpath tells The XV. “I FaceTimed my dad after we’d won and he was really buzzing. He sent me a video later on that night – on his 50th cap he got a bottle of whisky. He started the video by saying, ‘this is the bottle of whisky I got on my 50th cap, and I’m going to open it now to celebrate’.

“About two hours later, my sister sent me a photo of him passed out at the top of the stairs. I think he enjoyed it a little bit too much. He was pretty happy. My mum was the same, looking after him – she can handle it a lot better.”

You fancy a few corks were being popped around Scotland that night, thousands unable to make the biennial pilgrimage to Richmond, witness the writhing euphoria or revel in the glory in bars and pubs afterwards.

Debutants Redpath and Dave Cherry lift the Calcutta Cup for Scotland (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

For weeks, the story of Redpath had been woven through the fabric of this championship curtain-raiser. The kid born in France where his father was playing, raised in England where Bryan would later coach. The boy who had played for England Under-18s and Under-20s, been called up for senior training by Eddie Jones while just a pup at Sale, and only missed out on a summer tour through injury. The burgeoning midfield play-maker who had, so far, rebuffed Townsend’s advances as he roared into form at Bath.

Up until that campaign, capturing Redpath seemed a forlorn hope. In a flash, it was reality. The press was full of it as the game loomed. The narrative thick with Redpath’s journey and his selection at inside centre opposite Ollie Lawrence, an age-grade colleague. Jones was asked about him during a press conference and curtly replied that he was only interested in speaking about players who wanted to play for England. 

“The best team to make my debut against would have been England,” Redpath says. “The way we won and the way I played it made me feel, ‘right, yep, I’ve definitely made the right decision’. It put the icing on the cake and put that Scotland-England debate to bed. That’s the best way to have done it.”

He is keen to stress though, that in his mind, it was never one nation pitted against another. He does not believe he would have played for England on that 2018 summer tour, even had he gone and trained well.

It wasn’t ever really England-Scotland, it was more, do I say yes or no to Scotland. It was a decision made over two days, to be honest.

Cam Redpath

He had declined Townsend’s offer in 2020 when the coach came knocking, because he didn’t feel he had earned the right to win a cap. He politely rebuffed Stuart Hogg, the Scotland captain, who had indulged in a spot of eyelash-fluttering around the same time. He spoke to those close to him, deliberately seeking the counsel of friends who had no interest in rugby and no involvement in the professional game.

It was a laudable display of maturity. Redpath bided his time and seized the right opportunity, rather than leaping through the gilded doors flung open by his considerable talent.

“Gregor spoke to me around the time of the Premiership semi-final asking me to come up to camp,” he says. “I said to him, ‘I don’t feel ready yet’. Hoggy texted me after the game saying ‘I’d love you to come and play for us’. I said to him and Gregor that I wanted to make sure I’d earned it, and feel that I’m respected.

“It wasn’t really ever England-Scotland, it was more, do I say yes or no to Scotland. It was a decision made over two days, to be honest. I didn’t speak to Gregor much until the Six Nations chats came up. He said he wanted me to come into camp, I had the weekend to think about it, I went home and spoke to my parents and on the car journey home I kind of made my decision.

“That was the right time for me. I was starting to play week in, week out for Bath, find a bit of form, and it felt right. Everyone made it so easy for me to fit in. The first thing Hoggy did was give me some banter about Scotland and England. Gregor and all the players made me feel like I can be myself within the structure and that’s all I wanted.”

Cam Redpath
Cam Redpath represented England at Under-20 level, scoring a try against Scotland (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

On his inside shoulder, Redpath had Finn Russell calling the shots and casting his spells. Scotland’s sorcerer is a fabulous talent and a leader in his own inimitable way. The prevailing opinion is that Russell is a maverick, delivering the maddening as easily as the magnificent. The truth is far more nuanced.

At Twickenham, he was sin-binned for tripping Ben Youngs, then unleashed a huge drop-goal attempt on his weaker foot with time almost up and Scotland leading by five points. But he also attacked and kicked with devilish brilliance; more poignantly, he empowered Redpath to affect the game.

As Scotland pummelled England onto the ropes in the first half, seeking an early knock-down, Russell told Redpath that the centre, rather than him, should make the cross-kick for a galloping Duhan van der Merwe. In the end, Redpath drew the English defence, put Russell into space out the back, and the kick that followed bounced just over Van der Merwe’s head in the unguarded in-goal area.

“Finn said, ‘if it’s on to kick, you kick it, and if you feel under pressure, give it to me and I’ll kick it’. I was like, really? Surely not. But he backed me, and he did from the start, him and Hoggy were telling me they’d get my hands on the ball early and give me a crack.

“I made my first carry in the first 10 minutes because Finn passed to me and said, ‘have a go’. A lot of the plays were around trying to get me into the game.

At Sale, I got caught up in sticking to the system, don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in that system. Gregor made me feel like I could do things within their system.

Cam Redpath

“I’ve been watching Finn for years thinking, God, this guy would be unbelievable to play with. You don’t think you actually could one day. Everyone says he’s so relaxed and plays with a smile all the time and I couldn’t emphasise that any more.

“He is that kind of player; he enjoys it; if he makes a mistake, he gets over it really quickly. That’s the one thing I wanted to be as a player – I wanted to enjoy my rugby, to be able to learn on the move and he’s probably the best I’ve played with at doing that.

“He’s one of the players who tries things, like a left-footed drop-kick in the last minutes when we’re five points up… but not once did I ever feel, what is this guy doing?! I felt very, very comfortable for a first game.”

Townsend, too, has created an environment where a player such as Redpath can flourish. He is a cerebral, meticulous coach who loves to develop those in his squad.

“That for me was massive,” Redpath says. “I’m 21, I know I’m not anywhere near perfect, I’ve got a long way to go. I’m not playing anywhere near as well as I was at school.

“He’s been really helpful and understanding of my situations in the past. He’s never forced me to make a decision, never made me feel bad if I said no. I didn’t want to go up to Scotland if I felt Gregor was going to put any pressure on me. He wants me to get better, and he still made me feel like I was a good player while telling me I had a lot to work on, and that he can help me get better. He made me feel like I would get that up in Scotland.

Cam Redpath
Bath paid a fee to sign Redpath from Sale Sharks in February 2020 (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

“Since been a pro, I’ve stopped my kicking game. Back when I played schoolboy and Under-20s rugby, I had a short and long kicking game and I’d back myself to do that. But as you come up the levels, at Sale I got caught up in sticking to the system, don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in that system. Gregor made me feel like, yeah, there is a system, but you can do things within it.

“Defensively, I’ve done a lot of work with Steve Tandy, he made it very easy for me to adapt to the way Scotland defend. It made me feel like I’ve got a driver to go and get better each day, which was good.”

Obstacles were lobbed in his path along the way. Redpath has long been earmarked for greatness, since laying waste to the schoolboy scene as a teen at Sedbergh, but only this season has he commanded a regular starting berth in a top-flight XV.

There have been two serious knee injuries to surmount, damage and lay-offs that made him think deeply about his path in the sport. He chose to leave Sale in early 2020, when Bath paid a six-figure fee to release him from his contract.

“I thought I’d come in to Sale and do what I did at school rugby, just with bigger players. There was a system they liked, they are a physical team and they have some very big players. Rohan Janse van Rensburg was a very different player to me, and I didn’t adapt myself, I tried to make myself too much like him. I only realised that when I left.

Joining Bath helped me move on from being a kid. I’m still 21, but I don’t get treated like a 21-year-old, I get treated as a senior player.

Cam Redpath

“Sale gave me a load of opportunities to play, and helped with my knee, but I was unhappy with how I was playing, which led to me not enjoying my rugby. It’s my childhood club growing up, everyone there treated me pretty well, and people were frustrated that I did leave.

“I probably looked to some people like I was a bit spoilt. It wasn’t that, and leaving was the right thing to do at the right time. In sport, you’ve got to be selfish and if you’re not, you’re never going to develop as a player. I wasn’t developing at Sale because I was trying to be something that I wasn’t instead of playing my game well.”

Typically, after the splendour of Twickenham, injury struck again. Nerve damage was discovered in Redpath’s neck, ruling him out of the rest of the Six Nations.

Sixty-two days after his Scotland debut, he returned to play for Bath last Friday, delivering a slick performance in a Challenge Cup castling of London Irish. He hopes that his body is done grumbling for a while.

“I’ve matured a lot because of these injuries. A lot of people have been through their first four years as a pro and had nothing compared to what I’ve had.

Cam Redpath
Redpath played for the first time since the Calcutta Cup match on Friday as Bath beat London Irish (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

“At Sale, I probably didn’t help myself, I played through them a bit to get those extra games and that led to me not playing well. If I can’t do certain things, I get it sorted, and I won’t play.

“Joining Bath helped me move on from being a kid. I’m still 21, but I don’t get treated as a 21-year-old anymore, I get treated as a senior player at the club. I feel like I’m valued enough to have a say.

“I’ve found form again, enjoyed my rugby again. That’s led to me playing for Scotland and the club are very supportive of that. I couldn’t really ask for much more.”

Days like Twickenham have come along so scarcely in Scottish rugby. Days when hoodoos are shattered and new ground broken. Days when grown men weep with happiness and black out on their staircases.

With a commitment made and injuries overcome, Redpath could be part of many more, at the heart of a Scotland team taking a sledgehammer to the bleak records of the past. Here’s hoping his old man has stocked up the whisky cabinet.

More stories from Jamie Lyall

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