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FEATURE Josh MacLeod: 'We may come from a small town but we have big aspirations and dreams'

Josh MacLeod: 'We may come from a small town but we have big aspirations and dreams'
11 months ago

When Donnie Macleod, a hardy fisherman from the Outer Hebrides spotted an opening for a skipper to guide yachts around the turquoise Mediterranean waters of billionaire’s playground, Monaco, he didn’t need a second invitation. Out went the cable-knit sweater, wellies and beanie, and in came flip-flops, shorts and a year round tan. Life was sweet. When back on land, in a chance meeting, he met Emma Martin, who hailed from Caterham. Martin was working as a chalet girl in the French Alps, but had found some summer bar work in Prince Rainier’s well-heeled principality. When Donnie and Emma’s eyes locked, the rest, as they say, is history.

Out of their union came a son and daughter but when the strains of having two young children cooped up in the densely populated nation state became burdensome, despite having grandparents on the genteel shores of Lake Geneva, the decision was made to up sticks to West Wales, where Emma had family. Within months, they pitched up in Newport, Pembrokeshire. They reasoned that the relaxed pace of life, rugged coastline and proximity to the sea would benefit son Josh, then four, and baby sister Lucie. Over time, their tans faded but their hearts swelled as they were welcomed into the tight-knit community.

Josh was a lively child, who, while intelligent, preferred the rugby field to physics lessons and spent his formative years, ensconced in the bosom of Crymych rugby club, after a solitary outing for Cardigan RFC was cut short on account of his father’s friendship with a Crymych coach. The switch of clubs was accepted without question by the impressionable seven-year-old.

Rugby consumed him, and while he studied physics, maths and history at A-Level, his singular dream was to pull on a beloved Scarlets jersey and represent Wales.

Josh McLeod
Josh McLeod gets to grips with Tate McDermott in the Autumn Series clash in Cardiff (Photo by David Davies/ Getty Images)

As we now know, Donnie’s son would get his wish, and he has turned out to be one of the best backrows in Wales. At 6ft 2in, and 110kgs (17st 3lbs), Josh Macleod is a mainstay in the Scarlets pack and were it not for some atrocious luck with injury, would have donned a Wales shirt on more than two occasions. Still only 26, Macleod has time on his side, and he knows that putting in an eye-catching effort against Glasgow Warriors in the Challenge Cup semi-final may add an extra furrow to the brow of Wales coaches attempting to pick a wider World Cup squad on Monday.

Macleod has recently become a father to nine-month old Imogen, with his partner Caitlin, but despite the sleepless nights, it hasn’t hindered him. On the contrary, his importance to the Scarlets has flourished, a point borne out by the fact he will lead them into the fray against Franco Smith’s men. A highly-skilled burglar in the darkest recesses of the breakdown, Macleod is near the top of the jackal turnover lists in the URC (United Rugby Championship) and his tackle count and work rate to piledrive into rucks, casts him as a relatively unheralded member of the Scarlets first XV.

2017 was amazing. I was only 20 and a travelling reserve in those latter stages. It felt like we were never going to lose.

When he leads his team out at a pulsating Parc Y Scarlets, with near 13,000 fans clad in red, it will be hard for the native Welsh speaker to keep a calm head. After all, 15 players, including Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Patchell and Sione Kalamafoni will leave the region when the Scarlets Cup run is halted, while Aaron Shingler is retiring completely, so emotions will be running over in the inner-sanctum, a point not denied by Macleod. “It will mean the world to reach the final. If you can’t get up for a game like this, in front of this crowd, then I think you’re in the wrong career. Ken (Owens) spoke at the start of week and said, in his 20-odd year career, there haven’t been many times when he’s had the chance to win silverware, so we have to take our opportunity. We may come from a small town but we have big aspirations and dreams. This is a big moment for us.”

Indeed, these have been barren years for Welsh regional rugby, with belts tightened and political turmoil off the field affecting the very players who feed the national team but Saturday will prove if they are still capable of magic, and the Scarlets’ 2016-17 Pro12 final win still drives Macleod. “2017 was amazing. I was only 20 and a travelling reserve in those latter stages. I have some very solid memories of those magical few weeks. That semi-final and final in Dublin were incredible. It felt like we were never going to lose. That experience was invaluable because it rubbed off on the younger boys in the squad and drove them to be part of the club’s legacy.”

A shining light from the Class of 2017 was James ‘Cubby Boi’ Davies, who was an arch proponent of the jackal and Macleod is fast-emerging as his worthy deputy. “I’ve been pretty fortunate in my career to play under some very special players. Cubby, John Barclay and of course, Tadhg Beirne, who was simply amazing over the ball. Those boys are a lot more qualified than me to speak about the art of the breakdown but if you’re willing to stick your head in those dark places, you just gotta hope the ref gives it your way. I’ve been lucky to get a few calls, but equally, I’ve been on the receiving end of a fair few pens as well.”

Macleod says that expertise of when to commit improves with age. “I’m only 26, but from when I started with the Scarlets, I soon realised that if you’re dipping your head into too many rucks, you’re costing your side from a defensive system point of view. That’s when you gain that experience of knowing when to go in and when not to.”

The Scarlets had a very narrow three-point loss to Glasgow 15 days ago, when a controversial Vaea Fifita long distance try was chalked off and Macleod knows the Warriors will be fiendishly difficult to beat. Well-placed in the URC, after 13 wins from 18, they have a backrow that is fully loaded with Scotland internationals in Rory Darge, Jack Dempsey, Sione and Matt Fagerson and a human wrecking ball in the form of Sione Vailanu.

Scoring tries, has historically never been an issue for us, but we had to nail down our D, that’s what wins you silverware.

Macleod, for his part, doesn’t expect many surprises. “We learnt lessons, as I’m sure they did from that game in the rain. It was hard for it not to feel like a dress rehearsal for this semi but they have a very shrewd coach and we expect the weather to be better, so both teams will want to play an expansive brand of rugby. The breakdown is arguably where the game will be won and lost.”

Back in December, after a soul-sapping run in which they posted only one victory in 10, dark clouds enveloped the region. Since then, an upturn in results has seen shards of light lifting the squad’s mood, and they’ve become one of Europe’s form sides. Macleod, says he is unsure if there was any one factor at play. “It’s tough to figure out how exactly we’ve turned things around, but even from the start of the season – and I know a lot of people would question this – we knew the direction we wanted to go in as a team. It was just accuracy. We knew where we wanted our defence to be and I could see exactly what Babs (Gareth Williams), our defensive coach wanted to do, it was just we weren’t going out and executing his ideas. Since we were well-beaten by the Ospreys over Christmas, leaking five soft tries, we’ve have had massive growth defensively. Scoring tries has historically never been an issue for us, but we had to nail down our D, that’s what wins you silverware.”

Josh MacLeod
MacLeod says he would like to improve his ball-carrying and link work to become the full package as a backrow (Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

As he approaches the middle-chapter of his career, Macleod says he will not get complacent in how he approaches his game, saying he is far from the finished article. “Attack is always a work on for me, and that’s not me saying my defence or breakdown is perfect, even though they’re two of my favourite parts of my game. I’m still working on it but want to be better linking up with the backs and ball-carrying. There are so many things I could get better at, seriously I’d be here all day.”

Despite his humility, Macleod, who has been part of numerous Welsh squads, and played in the 2022 Autumn Series, is in the conversation for a Wales backrow berth. The smart thinking is that Justin Tipuric, Jac Morgan and Taulupe Faletau can rest easy, with Tommy Reffell not far behind, but a glut of gifted backrows, in James Botham, Ross Moriarty, Christ Tshiunza and Thomas Young may have to battle it out for one, or two spots.

If you forced me to choose, my preferred position is openside, but I’ll do whatever I have to for the team. I’ll just step up wherever I’m needed.

For the first time in the interview, MacLeod, says he needs to choose his words carefully. “I just focus on the day-to-day and match to match. I’ll leave anything outside my control to people that control it. Whatever comes my way, comes my way.” When pressed, the Macleod says he would be over the moon to receive a call from Warren Gatland. “It would be an amazing experience to be called up and a massive honour.”

What may sway the decision is his versatility and size. Able to play across the backrow, in the same way as Josh Navidi, he is bigger than Reffell, Young and an option at No 8. Morgan and namechecks Richie McCaw, David Pocock and Sam Warburton as players he idolised coming through, though the one player above all he revered is telling for his selfless ‘team first’ attitude. “I always thought Juan Smith was an awesome player. He didn’t seem to care about his body, he just put it all out there. If you forced me to choose, my preferred position is openside, but I’ll do whatever I have to for the team. I’ll just step up wherever I’m needed. I’m happy at 8, it’s where I grew up playing but because of my breakdown skills, they decided 7 was my best route. As long as I have a shirt on my back, I’m happy.”

Macleod missed the Six Nations, after picking up a PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) injury over New Year, which put him out for nine weeks, but he says that’s the nature of an attritional position. “If you’re a backrower, you can’t be concerned about going out and picking up a knock. That’s our job, to be stuck into the middle of everything. My timing has been pretty unfortunate in the past, but all I can do is do everything in my power to prevent them from happening and leave everything else in the lap of the Gods.”

I live down in deepest, darkest West Wales. I actually moved back after living on the North Dock in Llanelli but I found I just couldn’t switch off from rugby.

It’s apparent that Macleod prefers the country life to the hustle and bustle of big towns, and you’re more likely find him indulging on bracing coastline walks rather than inhabiting less salubrious nightspots ‘down West’. “I live down in deepest, darkest West Wales. I actually moved back after living on the North Dock in Llanelli but I found I just couldn’t switch off from rugby and I was missing out on family-time.”

With the end-of-season dinners coming to a close, and clinking of glasses more in sorrow than celebration, it will soon be time for reflection, after a painful season of budgetary cuts that will see more than 50 players leaving Wales or hanging up their boots. Macleod is aware that planning for post rugby is no longer an option but mandatory. “It is in the back of my mind to find something outside rugby, especially in the middle of the night doing night feeds. The little one is ready to start running round and causing havoc and when you have a child, it puts things into perspective. I know rugby is a short career. We won’t earn the millions of the Messis and Ronaldos of this world. Only the one per centers can do that, especially in rugby.”

Josh MacLeod
MacLeod has grown into captaincy material for the Scarlets and is a key player in their renaissance (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

As a young man, Macleod considered a sports science degree at Swansea Uni but lasted only half-an-hour before realising it wasn’t the path he wanted to take. He doesn’t regret it. “I know I’ll have to activate the brain sooner than later. My parents have never been pushy. They’ve always backed whatever I wanted to do and given me free rein to make whatever decision I want to make. They have pretty much shaped me and shaped my life. They’re the most supportive parents I could ask for.”

If the Scarlets can emerge victorious, led by Macleod, many fans should raise a glass to the chance meeting of Donnie and Emma on the Côte d’Azur. Their petit garçon has done good.


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