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FEATURE Stafford McDowall: 'I thought I was stopping rugby and going back to the farm'

Stafford McDowall: 'I thought I was stopping rugby and going back to the farm'
1 year ago

A year ago, Stafford McDowall sat in the Scotstoun offices listening to what sounded very much like the end of his Glasgow career. Al Kellock, the Warriors managing director, called him in for a meeting. In his deep, rumbling burr, ‘Big Al’ painted a bleak picture. An extension to McDowall’s expiring contract was unlikely.

Glasgow’s centre positions are fiercely competitive. Sam Johnson and Sione Tuipulotu were the established pair. Kyle Steyn switched ably between midfield and the wing. Huw Jones had been signed to return north from Harlequins, adding yet more Test pedigree to the mix. McDowall had made just eight starts in back-to-back campaigns. At 24, he was neither a pup in the ‘hot prospect’ bracket, nor an established first-team regular.

For several weeks, McDowall embarked on a frantic – and fruitless – job hunt. Returning to the family dairy farm in Dumfries became a very real prospect.

“I made it clear to Al I wanted to stay,” he tells RugbyPass+. “It was never, ‘we don’t want you’, it was just, ‘we’re not sure what’s going to happen when you haven’t played much’. I was told if there was an opportunity I wanted to take elsewhere, then to take it, but with not playing there wasn’t a lot out there for me to look at.

“I was looking all over the place, looking at the [semi-professional] Super6, looking at the English Premiership, but that league wasn’t in a good place. My agent was looking at Japan. Nothing ever materialised. There were never any offers. We needed to get a contract from Glasgow or I could be stopping rugby and going back to the farm.

“I felt I’d put a lot into it, always gave my best, and to think that could have been the end of it there was tough to take. I wouldn’t say I gave up hope but there was a period when I was telling my girlfriend, ‘We might not be here next season and we might be going down a completely different path’.”

In those moments, as with all of the major events in McDowall’s life, he spoke to his father. Fergus McDowall is a bear of a man, but his near-superhero status in the eyes of his son has nothing to do with his 6ft 7ins bulk. He played in the second row as high as the old Glasgow District team and now leads the gruelling farm life – brutal hours, cattle to tend, an endless list of jobs to see to.

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

“That wasn’t a fun phone call but my dad helped me get through it,” McDowall says. “He told me to keep going, that my chance will come, that I’d been in Scotland squads before and he backed me.

“My dad has been a farmer his full life, my mum was a nurse in Dumfries and worked full-time when she had three kids. My three older sisters are all hard-working. We’re a family who will get our heads down and get on with things.

“I try never to complain about how hard rugby is, because I think about my dad back at home, and I think, God, this life in Glasgow isn’t too bad, playing rugby for a living.

“My dad was my coach until I was 16 and got a scholarship to Merchiston in Edinburgh. Without him, I wouldn’t be here. It’s over two hours from home to Glasgow. He used to work from 5:30am to 5pm, get in the car, drive me to Glasgow for academy training, sit for an hour-and-a-half while I trained, drive home and get up at 5 the next morning. He never batted an eyelid. I look back now and I was never grateful enough at the time. To put in that effort just for me to go to rugby training was massive.”

“With Franco coming in, it was exciting for me. It was made clear to all the boys it was going to be a fresh start, he wasn’t going to listen to what had been said about us.”

The strife was mercifully short-lived. A few weeks later, Kellock was able to offer McDowall a new deal. After Glasgow’s URC quarter-final obliteration at the RDS, Danny Wilson lost his job and Franco Smith arrived with a clean slate and a new broom.

The upshot? McDowall’s finest season to date, a blistering campaign when his size, power and footballing skill have burned to the fore. He has scored seven tries in 14 matches, charged and hit like a bull and captained the Warriors when regular skipper Steyn has been unavailable. Only giant back-rows Sione Vailanu and Jack Dempsey have carried more ball for Glasgow. Only flying Argentine Sebastian Cancelliere has made more line-breaks. No back has made more tackles. On Saturday evening at Thomond Park, McDowall led Glasgow to a ruthless dismantling of a tasty Munster team chasing a home play-off.

“With Franco coming in, it was exciting for me. It was made clear to all the boys it was going to be a fresh start, he wasn’t going to listen to what had been said about us.”

Stafford McDowall
McDowall’s hard running has been a boon to Franco Smith’s side this term (Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Smith has yanked Glasgow back to the swashbuckling, intoxicating rugby on which the club built its name. But crucially, he has done so without discarding the ruggedness and set-piece efficiency that typified Wilson’s short reign. Glasgow score worldies, and plenty of them, but they are just as adept and just as happy to trample teams with their maul or splinter them with pick-and-jam brutality. The cocktail of ruthless attack and fearsome defence fired them into a 28-0 half-time lead in Limerick.

“You could look at the scoreline and think Munster didn’t touch the ball, but they were 5m out two or three times and the effort we put in, the little wins, the turnovers we got to stop them scoring gave us momentum,” McDowall says. “When we got chances, we were pretty clinical, our red zone conversion was up at 70-80%. We’ve built a number of weapons we can use this season.”

Glasgow’s pre-season began without a head coach and turned into a lung-rasping block of extreme graft. Players became leaner and more explosive. Vailanu, their most powerful ball-carrier and impressive summer recruit, has had 15kg torched from his mighty Tongan form.

Franco came in and the change in the philosophy in how we were going to play, going back to moving the ball around, if space is there we’re going to take it. It’s what the fans want to see and what the squad was built for.

“[Attack coach] Nigel Carolan ran the start of pre-season and told us, ‘we are going to work as hard as we can to make sure that whoever comes in sees this group is willing to do anything to right the wrongs of last season’.

“Franco came in and the change in the philosophy in how we were going to play, going back to moving the ball around, if space is there we’re going to take it. It’s what the fans want to see and what the squad was built for. A little change in letting the boys have a bit more freedom has paid massive dividends.

“The emphasis on our strength and fitness has been massive, you can see that at the end of games when we’re putting teams away and still playing to the 80th minute.

“Our Monday last season was more: come in, gym session, bit of clarity and skills in the afternoon. Now, Mondays are full-on for everyone, whether you played on Saturday or you didn’t. That’s made a massive difference, getting an extra session in the bank.

“You can see the repeat efforts boys are able to make. Franco does make us get up off the floor a lot in training, a lot of bag hits, down-ups, you do feel in the game that you are suddenly popping back up on your feet without even realising it.”

Glasgow can savour an exhilarating climax to their season now. They are heavily fancied to smite the beleaguered Dragons on Saturday, setting up a home Challenge Cup quarter-final against the Lions or Racing 92. The Warriors are genuine contenders to claim Scotland’s first European trophy.

Stafford McDowall
McDowall has become a trusted member of the Glasgow Warriors squad (Photo by Ross MacDonald/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Already assured of a play-off, they finish their URC programme by welcoming Scarlets and Connacht to Scotstoun. Win those decidedly winnable fixtures, and they’ll be back in Glasgow for the knockouts in early May.

“After that Leinster game a lot of people probably wrote us off, didn’t think this group had it in them to do what we’re doing now,” McDowall says. “To be able to play big part in it, feel like I’m contributing to where we’re going, being a part of the leadership group, is hugely fulfilling.

“You know, eventually, if you make the finals, you’ll have to go to Dublin and play a Leinster or a Stormers, so there are big games on the horizon, but we won’t look further than the next game. We say we’re a winning team but we’ve won nothing yet. We’ve not played any knockout rugby yet and we know it can change in a flash. We need to stay true to who we are and keep playing the same rugby. Franco keeps us very grounded and knows if we stick to our process, we can beat anyone on our day.”

McDowall’s own future is equally enticing. He recently signed improved, and longer, terms with his boyhood club, putting an end to any lingering anxiety. He has been in Gregor Townsend’s autumn and Six Nations squads, without quite forcing his way to a first cap. For all that those midfield berths, locked down by Tuipulotu and Jones, are immensely competitive, his opportunity should come.

It would mean everything to get a cap, especially for my family. My dad played to a high level and never got the chance to play for Scotland so he always says he’s living his dreams through me.

For McDowall’s armoury is compelling. At 6ft 4ins, he provides attacking gain line and defensive belligerence with his heft and athleticism. He offers a potent left-foot kicking option, soft hands, and the ability to play inside and outside centre. There are four World Cup warm-up Tests and on current form, McDowall deserves a run in at least one of them.

“I had a conversation with my dad after the Italy game in the Six Nations, which was the game I was most likely to play in,” he says. “He asked if I was really gutted that I didn’t get a chance. I said, ‘I’m devastated, but a year ago, I potentially wasn’t going to be playing anymore’.

“Not that I was just happy to be part of the squad, but in the year since I’ve been told that, I’ve changed a lot as a person and a player. To be part of back-to-back Scotland squads was pretty big for me.

“It would mean everything to get a cap, especially for my family. My dad played to a high level and never got the chance to play for Scotland so he always says he’s living his dreams through me. To be able to do it for him and my family would be special. I probably don’t thank him enough. If I got a cap, it would pay him back for all those car journeys to training.”

From thoughts of retirement, to thoughts of trophies, caps and dreams fulfilled. A player transformed.

Comments

2 Comments
g
greig 452 days ago

He’s really impressed me this season. A player that size with his skill set should be getting a tonne of game time. I see a bit of Alex Dunbar in him. Solid player.

s
stuart 452 days ago

Delighted for Stafford, looked a real prospect in 2018/19 when he broke through and was the club’s young player of the year. Like many I assumed his moment had passed, delighted to be proved wrong.

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