George McGuigan was 18 years old, a pup at the bottom of the Newcastle totem pole, when the gauntlet was thrown down before him on a bitter North East morning.
The Falcons had little by way of a formal academy structure back in 2011. Kids, like McGuigan, fresh out of school were tossed in with gnarled Premiership veterans.
Lessons were stark; brutal at times. Respect was hard-earned. The young hooker had to prove he belonged.
“They put me in the middle of a contact drill continuously. I made about 20 tackles and carried the ball about 20 times in a row,” he says. “They were literally like, ‘you again, you again, you again’. They were seeing what I could do.
“Once you showed you were willing to do it and not complain, they respected you. They gave you a hard time until you proved yourself.
“I learned a lot in those first six months – getting stamped on by senior players, getting told to move seats on the bus. It’s changed a hell of a lot since then, people with that old-school mentality went out of it.”
That kind of visceral initiation belongs in the past, but it undoubtedly played a role in shaping McGuigan’s present. Eleven years on, he is a stalwart of Newcastle rugby whose consistent brilliance went largely unrecognised beyond the club catchment until now, as he perches atop the Premiership try-scoring charts.
My first year at Newcastle was a disaster. Alan Tait was head coach and I don’t think he really liked me as a person. I was a young, confident kid. I just think he didn’t like that side.
For as long as he can remember, McGuigan’s heart has yearned for this. Not for accolades and tries by the boatload, but simply to turn his calling into a profession. McGuigan is the second-youngest of seven siblings spread over 17 years, and the domestic chaos, squabbling and sport only strengthened his competitive resolve. Growing up, he never countenanced the notion of doing anything but rugby. Assembling a Plan B felt almost like an admission of failure.
“I was always telling teachers, ‘I don’t need to do this because I’m going to be a professional rugby player’. I was very driven. I never really considered any other options, which is probably stupid in hindsight, but I always thought I’d get a chance.
“From a very, very early age I thought I’d be able to [play professionally], but in reality, I wasn’t very close until I was about 18. My first year at Newcastle was a disaster. Alan Tait was head coach and I don’t think he really liked me as a person. I was a young, confident kid. I just think he didn’t like that side. It was very old-school then.
“Gary Gold took over, then Dean Richards came in, and things started to change. The first year, I was very much a bag holder. I didn’t enjoy it. My second was better, the third, I played for Ireland Under-20s and the year after, I got game time. That’s when I was like, ‘this is it’.”
Though born and bred in North Yorkshire, that Irish heritage has always burned brightly. McGuigan’s mother is from Tyrone, and his late father hailed from Derry. As well as the six brothers and sisters, he has an eye-watering 58 cousins scattered across the Emerald Isle.
Since his father died in 2016, shortly before McGuigan began a two-year stint at Leicester Tigers, the hooker has felt a deeper pull towards the north and a desire to succeed for his dad.
“It was one of the reasons I came back to Newcastle, to be closer to home,” he says. “I was always keen to come back, and hopefully make him proud.
I completely understand why they pick Blammy over me; we are very different, he is a lot faster, very good at the breakdown. I’d be more your set-piece hooker, and he’s a lot younger so has longer left.
“He never played but he was a big supporter of rugby, he used to come to all the games. He was an unpaid taxi driver, ferrying us around everywhere as kids.”
This season, McGuigan has plunged over for a dozen Premiership tries. A couple more between the Premiership Cup and Europe take his strike rate to 14 in 20 matches. There was a hat-trick against Wasps in Falcons’ most recent league game, doubles against Worcester and Saracens, and two in two matches against the mighty Exeter pack.
These haven’t all been in the classic hooker style – flopping over off the back of a maul when your hefty pals have done all the piano-shifting – either. McGuigan cuts such clever lines, moves with great dynamism, and when stampeding, low to the ground, is fiendishly hard to stop. He has claimed several man of the match awards, earned glowing write-ups, and was featured midweek on BT Sport’s Rugby Tonight programme.
All these tries and all these headlines, but not so much as a sniff of international rugby. Not since touring with England Saxons in 2016, or playing age-grade stuff with Ireland three years earlier.
Neither Eddie Jones nor Andy Farrell, it should be stressed, want for top-class hookers. Between Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ronan Kelleher and Dan Sheehan, each coach is lavishly resourced. Jones has preferred Nic Dolly, Jack Singleton and, more recently, Jamie Blamire, McGuigan’s all-action 24-year-old clubmate, as back-up.
McGuigan, modest and unassuming, actually reckons he played better rugby last season, in a Newcastle system which catered more to his rambunctious carrying. But it is put to him that a large helping of resilience, perhaps even stubbornness, is required when he is left in the cold while the bloke he has steadfastly kept out of the Falcons team all season is embraced on the Test stage.
“I’d love nothing more than for both of us to get picked. I completely understand why they pick Blammy over me; we are very different, he is a lot faster, very good at the breakdown. I’d be more your set-piece hooker, and he’s a lot younger so has longer left. It’s not frustrating, I’d love to get a chance at some point and show what I can do.
I spoke to Joe Schmidt before the World Cup in 2015 but that was the last time I’ve spoken to anyone in Ireland. I just want to play international rugby
“It would be a massively proud moment if I ever did get call-up for anyone. I’ve been in a few camps when I was at Leicester, went on the Saxons tour, but outside of that I’ve not really had any contact from any international coaches. I’d like some sort of contact to know what they’re looking for in me, or anything I can do to get a call-up.
“I spoke to Joe Schmidt before the World Cup in 2015 but that was the last time I’ve spoken to anyone in Ireland. I just want to play international rugby and if it doesn’t come through England, if it came through Ireland, I just want to play at the highest level I can.”
McGuigan is at peace with the harsh possibility it may never happen. The prospect doesn’t gnaw at him, particularly as he strives to pull Newcastle from a maddening run of form.
Dean Richards has constructed a squad rich in local upstarts, belligerence, and what the Falcons call a gritty, ‘true north’ mentality. But recently, near miss has compounded near miss, anguish piled on top of anguish. The error count has soared to stratospheric levels and winnable matches against Bath, Exeter, Saracens and Wasps were let slip. Newcastle have not won a league game since early November.
“The majority of the time, we’re making skill errors,” says McGuigan. “We do extra skills, more handling, we try and run these plays. It’s unnecessary bits of poor skill.
“We give the same messages about certain things every single week. And yet the same things keep happening. We don’t compete at the breakdown in certain areas, and someone will compete and give away a penalty. It’s very frustrating.
“Because players are a little bit worried about losing, we get to those last 10 minutes and it’s in players’ heads that we might actually win, they get a bit nervous and those skill errors come in, or they make a bad decision. They just need more composure.
“It is getting better, but it needs to be better again. We need to put in an 80-minute performance rather than a good 10 minutes, a bad 15, good 10, bad 10, and lose the game by three points, which is how it seems to have gone the past few weeks.
“But we’ve got a lot of young players playing at the minute and you think losing these games will only be good for them in future. They’ll learn not to take unnecessary risks. We’re just in a bit of a rut and all it takes is that one win, and you might win the next five.”