On the morning of Scotland’s irrepressible Calcutta Cup triumph, George Turner paused for a beat. In his solitude, he considered the enormity of the task before him. He thought about the people who matter most to him in life. He thought of everyone who had toiled to help put him here, through years of criminal underuse at Edinburgh, injuries at Glasgow, and being cemented at third place in the international pecking order.
He thought of his parents and their unwavering encouragement. He thought of Madeleine, his wife, and the three little children at home in Ratho. And he thought of his schoolfriends from Stewart’s Melville, each one of whom would give an arm, a leg, and a couple of vital organs to be standing in his shoes at that very moment.
“I was quite good throughout the week, but on the day, before the game, I was really nervous,” Turner tells The XV. “It was such a big occasion.
“I thought about my wife, my kids, how much Madeleine supports me and believes in me. My parents are my biggest fans. I do have this great friendship group who are almost like superfans as well. They always rate me, are always very proud. I know it’s important to them as well. I got a bit emotional in the morning.”
I made a good hit on Itoje – he was running straight at me with two blokes around him – and I will always remember that. I love the loose play and I love defence.
The tension lasted until Andrew Brace’s whistle pealed out across an empty Twickenham. Then it was all business. Scotland were rampant, a potent concoction of snarl, incision and streetsmarts and Turner was at the forefront.
He entered the season as the country’s number-three hooker and with Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally invalided out, began 2021 in the starting jersey smashing a 38-year hoodoo in London.
Turner’s point of difference is, undoubtedly, his visceral dynamism in open prairie. He carries like a rabid bison and smithereens far heftier opponents in the tackle. In the lead-up to Saturday, there was a little anxiety about his throwing, and how it would hold up with Maro Itoje leaping, bellowing and molesting at the line-out. All 15 of his darts wound up in Scottish paws.
“In the past I might have been a little bit distracted by their defence or who we were against,” Turner says. “But, the work we do, the calls are all structured around how they defend. It sometimes doesn’t work or they change something up, but I was pretty confident in the line-out.
“Luckily, or thankfully, Scott Cummings called the first line-out to the front to maybe make it easier for me. I felt good. I didn’t feel nervous at all before that first throw and managed to hit them all, just about.
“I made a good hit on Itoje – he was running straight at me with two blokes around him – and I will always remember that. I love the loose play and I love defence and I was really happy with that. When the final whistle went, I was on the bench by then and I nearly fell down the stairs trying to run on to the pitch. I will hopefully remember most of it forever.”
Exactly a month earlier, Madeleine gave birth to the couple’s second child together, baby Elizabeth, or Lily as she will be known, two years after rambunctious William came along.
William didn’t sleep for maybe nine to 10 months. I don’t know how we survived that in a tiny little house.
The pair got together when the hooker was 22. Madeleine had a two-year-old boy, Campbell, from a previous relationship, and Turner doted on him. Suddenly, rugby didn’t seem so important. Parking the game at the door was a hell of a lot easier when home meant so much more than a place to crash.
“[Getting together with Madeleine] helped me mature a bit earlier, having someone I was responsible for, to look after and take care of. It was good for me. It was a cool experience, and he’s a great kid.
“I was more immature than others. I hadn’t been to uni; I lived at home quite a lot. It definitely kickstarted me growing up.
“I signed for Glasgow four years ago, but I had Madeleine and Campbell and I always stayed in Edinburgh and ended up commuting the whole time. It was a big change to my lifestyle. I was now a father figure, a guardian, and commuting to work, which was a whole new life experience.
“William is a lunatic, he’s a bit more like me. Cam was quite clever early doors and probably outsmarted me a few times. He’s part of my family; I love him.
“I can’t go to my room and strop. Madeleine, so selflessly, will let me lie in even though she’s not had any sleep. I’ve got better with dealing with things and when I get home, I’m a dad.”
As Madeleine and Campbell came on the scene, Turner was labouring away at Edinburgh, trying and failing to erode the established pecking order that featured Ross Ford, Scotland’s most-capped male player, the brilliant McInally, and canny Neil Cochrane.
It is head-wrecking to consider how little he played in his seven years at the club, that in all those seasons, despite his obvious quality, he made a single start and 13 substitute appearances.
Throughout the ordeal, Madeleine was his rock, his sounding board and his hype woman. Her engine and patience in wrangling this maelstrom of children borders on the superhuman.
“Before we moved to Ratho, Campbell had a room, and me, Madeleine and baby William slept in the same room,” Turner says. “William didn’t sleep for maybe nine to 10 months. Or if did sleep, he had to sleep on Madeleine – I don’t think she slept for a year.
“I don’t know how we survived that in a tiny little house. We moved to a bigger house with more rooms for more babies. We got so close as a family over lockdown, especially William’s connection with us and both of our sets of parents.
“I’ve gone back a couple of times from camp to help Madeleine out because I can’t imagine what it’s like – getting no sleep, trying to home-school Campbell, look after a baby and stop William running away or jumping down a flight of stairs. She’s incredible; I don’t think I could do it.”
When Richard Cockerill took charge of Edinburgh in 2017, he was keen for Turner to stay. In fact, prior to his arrival, the coach had made it very clear how highly he rated the hooker and how ridiculous he considered his chronic lack of game time.
By then, Turner was already in talks with Glasgow. He chose to move along the M8, and in Dave Rennie, found a coach who could showcase his talents. After so long and so fruitless a grind, the change of scene reminded him that, actually, being a professional rugby player is a pretty cool job.
We know a lot of people are having tough times and we are trying to lift a nation. If we do it just once, it will be a classic Scotland moment
“Dave, for me, had a brand-new look at professional rugby,” he says. “Structures around play that I hadn’t even thought about.
“If you were on your own try line and there was an overlap on the edge, he’d be like, ‘Why aren’t you playing here? Why are you kicking it? It’s on, it’s on.’ We were always looking for the quick tap, the quick line-out, to keep going and outplay our opposition.
“It was a new experience. and it was a great environment, everyone bought in to it, was really positive and it was good, fun, enjoyable rugby.
“Everything from my past was forgotten – rugby is fun, rugby is great. I got to play again, my confidence returned, and I had a crack. I even put a kick in.”
Turner speaks about punting with a sheepish grin, but he is so skilled on the ball that you wouldn’t bet against him dinking one in behind the Welsh defence on Saturday.
What he – and Scotland – must do now is back up the rip-snorter at Twickenham with victory in Edinburgh. Turner was not in the squad when Scotland won in Wales for the first time since 2002 last October, but he has watched Wayne Pivac’s transition period keenly.
This Wales team does not seem quite sure what type of side it is or what kind of rugby it wants to play, but it is still packed with Lions and champions. In the Six Nations era, Scotland have beaten them at home three times. It would be painfully, maddeningly Scottish to follow the marvel of round one with a shocker in round two.
“They are changing slightly how they play,” Turner says. “Their scrum is a little different now. They are more direct, trying to go through the middle, with some of their props who are going well.
“They play a wider game because they’ve got deadly backs. They are trying to play a little bit more. That’s a little different to what they’ve done in the past. We’ve got to stick to our game plan and bring the energy and attitude we did last time.
“The weekend was so amazing. We know a lot of people are having tough times and we are trying to lift a nation. If we just do it once, it will be one of those classic Scotland moments. We were talking about that after the game – this is amazing, but it’s the beginning, we still made mistakes, we could have been better, we could have scored more points. We are really excited. We want to push on further and we know that we can be better.”
The nation is lifted, alright. And so is Turner, a loving brood in his heart and a white-hot fire in his belly.
More stories from Jamie Lyall
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