Late learner loving the cut and thrust of Leicester life
Wing Scott Hamilton tells Chris Hewett how happy he is that the head-spinning pace of playing for Tigers is filling All Blacks void
Saturday 09 April 2011
Most professional rugby players are men in a hurry: they want it all and they want it now, if not earlier, before the weekly physical trauma takes its toll and they become ex-professional rugby players overnight. Scott Hamilton? He's different.
If the All Black wing from Christchurch ever rushed anything, no one noticed. A third-team nobody in his senior year at school, he did not play for pay until he was 23, was still uncapped at 26 and spent two long years mulling over his future in New Zealand before heading for England. Hell, he does not even run fast. "I'm not the quickest," he acknowledges.
It is, therefore, just a little ironic that since joining Leicester at the back end of 2008, he has found himself sprinting from one big occasion to the next with barely a pause for breath. A Heineken Cup final and two Premiership finals in a single 18-month span, with the possibility of another of each over the coming weeks... no wonder his head is spinning. "I often think how bloody tough I'd have found the English season if I'd joined a different club," he says. "This is full-on, but at least it's fun."
This evening in Dublin, the reigning Premiership champions and two-time European title holders face Leinster in the kind of game that has made the Heineken Cup the great success story of the modern rugby era. The Irish province will field a significant number of the players who made England's life such a misery on Grand Slam night last month: Cian Healy and Mike Ross, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip, Eoin Reddan and Jonathan Sexton, that O'Driscoll bloke. Leicester? They will offer what they've offered since time immemorial in the shape of a pug-ugly, mean-minded, profoundly aggressive pack of forwards, supported by backs who tackle like the clap of doom.
Yet they will also play the Hamilton card, and it is this that makes them less predictable and more dangerous than they once were. "We like the way he anticipates – the way he reads the game, the way he feels it," said Graham Henry, the All Black coach, when he first picked him for a Test against Argentina in Buenos Aires, a tight match, edged New Zealand's way by the newcomer's debut try. These intangibles, qualities that cannot be taught, are at the heart of Leicester's resurgence as an attacking side. Indeed, the Midlanders are this season's leading Premiership try-scorers, the only team to have reached the half-century mark.
Hamilton, who turned 31 last month, was born in Christchurch, in New Zealand's South Island. His parents farm land a few miles to the north, but he has grandparents and an aunt still living there, all of whom survived the earthquake that struck the city in February. He owns a little property there, some of which was damaged.
As a boy, he idolised the All Black wing John Kirwan, who made a serious name for himself during the inaugural World Cup in 1987. "John played for Auckland, but I was too young to understand that we were meant to dislike Aucklanders," he says.
As his interest in rugby grew and he started showing a talent for the game, he joined the famous Glenmark Club, which had spawned a number of celebrated All Blacks, including Robbie Deans and Alex "Grizz" Wyllie, a back-row forward with a well-earned reputation as the meanest son of a gun in international rugby. "Grizz still watches Glenmark," Hamilton reports. "He has a spot on the hill above the pitch and casts an eye from his four-wheel drive. No one else is allowed to park there. Anyone who tries tends not to get very far."
The youngster was good, and people knew it. Yet in his final year at Christchurch Boys High School – he was a contemporary of Aaron Mauger, who would go on to win nearly 50 caps as an All Black midfielder – he found himself slumming it with the down-and-outs in the third XV. "I'd been in the A teams all the time I was growing up, but that year I didn't push myself and that was the result," he recalls. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me, because just for once, I had to stand up and be counted.
"When I was playing alongside the best guys, like Aaron, I'd be content to give them the ball and let them get on with it. Down in the third tier, I was the one people looked towards. I'd never taken responsibility before then. When I found I could do it, it was a 'hey, I can actually do this' moment."
It might have been revelatory for Hamilton, but it did not lead to any accelerated ascent of the rugby ladder. Progress was incremental: first-team game time with Glenmark, followed by a provincial breakthrough with Canterbury and, finally, the offer of a Super 14 contract from the Crusaders, then firmly established as the best non-Test team in world rugby. He played in three finals – two against the Waratahs from Sydney, one against the Hurricanes from across the Cook Strait in Wellington – and won the lot. Pretty much his last act in New Zealand rugby was to help Canterbury to the domestic title in October 2008.
"Had I still been in the All Black running, I might have stayed," he says. "I remember Robbie Deans, one of the great heroes of Christchurch rugby as a player and a coach and someone who'd taught me a hell of a lot, telling me that I'd been picked for the squad. It was after the Super 14 final in '05, and my parents were there when he gave me the news. It was awesome. When I first made the Canterbury team, I looked at the players around me and thought how lucky I was to be on the same field. To make the ABs was something else. To feel that proud ... I can't describe it.
"But after winning a couple of caps in '06, they gave me the flick. Sitiveni Sivivatu was back fit, and that was that. I'd always imagined myself playing overseas at some point in my career, and this seemed a good time to see what was out there. But I also wanted to get to three figures for Canterbury and the Crusaders, so I signed for another couple of years. That gave me time to think things through. Once I made it to 100 appearances, I felt ready to move on, not least because I wanted to go when I was still capable of offering something, rather than simply negotiate a good wage and sit on it. That was when Leicester came calling."
To be precise, the call came from Mauger, then playing at Welford Road, at the behest of the South African coach Heyneke Meyer, who had succeeded the ill-fated and wholly mistreated Argentine strategist Marcelo Loffreda and whose stay in the Midlands would be every bit as brief. "I guess Heyneke liked me from what he'd seen during his time in Super 14," Hamilton says. "I didn't expect him to leave so soon after I'd arrived – that kind of thing goes to show how fickle this game can be – but looking at it now, the style of rugby we play suits me better. Heyneke's way was very structured. Under Richard Cockerill and Matt O'Connor [the current coaching duo], there's more individuality about what we do. We're not flash, by any means, but we're scoring tries."
With another 18 months of his English idyll ahead of him – he lives in, and plays cricket for, the Leicestershire village of Kibworth – Hamilton has never been happier. "There's a part of me that likes the idea of playing in France or Italy, but if I get to this time next year thinking the old legs might have another season in them, the urge to stay here will probably be quite strong," he says. "The thing is, I've grown to love the rigmarole, all the fuss and bother, that surrounds rugby in this part of the world.
"We love our sport, us New Zealanders, but we're pretty reserved when it comes to following our teams. Here, it's different. There are more travelling supporters, they make more noise, there's more banter, the sense of occasion is much greater. It took me by surprise at first, but I wouldn't be without it now. This weekend is a perfect example. I've never played in Dublin, so rocking up to the stadium on the bus, with thousands of people around and that Leinster back-line waiting for us...you have to love it, and I do."
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