SOME players who were raised elsewhere need time to get up to speed with Scottish attitudes when they join the national squad, but Simon Berghan was on the same wavelength all along.
Although Christchurch, where he grew up, is known as the most English of New Zealand’s cities, the tighthead prop was nonetheless well aware of the particular enthusiasm that Scotland’s players bring to games against our southern neighbours. In part that may have been because other countries also see England as their arch-rivals, but a Stirling-born grandfather was also surely part of the explanation too.
When he graduated to the Scotland side in 2017, three years after joining Edinburgh, Berghan therefore needed no schooling in the special relationship between the two countries. “I knew all about the rivalry with England, of course,” the 27-year-old said with a smile on his face on Friday before the national squads public training session in Galashiels. “I sort of knew that everyone hates England, basically, because we did, but when I came over here it was made more obvious to me, and the reasons why, the history and that.
“It will be brilliant to get one over them next week, if I can say that. I certainly am aware of the rivalry there.”
Lest anyone misinterpret the lighthearted nature of those remarks, Berghan returned after a subsequent interview to insist to journalists that he was motivated by good-humoured rivalry rather than by any genuine animosity. It remains to be seen whether England coach Eddie Jones opts to view his remarks in that way or whether he sees them as more material with which to indulge in mind games, but the fact is that Berghan respects Saturday’s opponents at Murrayfield, and knows very well just how good they can be. If he was unsure while watching them from afar, he got first-hand experience on coming on as a replacement in last year’s 61-21 humiliation at Twickenham.
“They’re a good squad and are really well drilled,” he said when asked to assess his team’s next opponents in the Six Nations Championship. “I remember coming off the pitch last year and thinking ‘Far out, that team was really well drilled’. It felt like they didn’t seem to put a foot wrong, which basically tells us you have to take every chance against them; you have to play well, make chances and take them.
“But against any top team that’s what you’ve got to do. They’ve got this thing about being a big tight five, but the French have that as well and we played well against the French, so that’s not really a concern for us. It’s about us putting our game out there and imposing ourselves on it.”
Willem Nel and Zander Fagerson resumed training with the national squad last week after being sidelined by injuries, and a decision will be taken in the next day or two on whether to include them in the matchday squad for Saturday. But their lack of any match practice since returning from a broken arm and a foot injury respectively, plus the fine form Berghan showed against France, appear likely to persuade Gregor Townsend to allow the incumbent to hold on to the No 3 jersey for the Calcutta Cup match. The Edinburgh forward, who missed the game against Wales through suspension, is certainly desperate to be involved again, despite last year’s sobering experience.
“Any game against England’s brilliant. Last year the result wasn’t great, but I think we’re in a better place this year. We’re at home, and it would mean the world to me if I got the opportunity.”
The opportunity to play for Scotland at all in this year’s Six Nations was one that Berghan feared might pass him by when he was suspended for six weeks just before the turn of the year for a stamp on Glasgow hooker Fraser Brown’s head during the first 1872 Cup match. That not only ruled him out of the trip to Cardiff – something that might now seem to have been a blessing in disguise given how poorly Scotland played in the 34-7 defeat – but dashed his hopes of going into the Championship on a solid run of form.
“It was brutal, to be honest. If I go back to the Six Nations last year I didn’t perform really well back at Edinburgh afterwards, and so it was a really big thing for me to go into the autumn and play well and then build on that, and the Glasgow game then put a big curve-ball in there.
“It was the worst timing ever. I got a bit of luck with other front-rowers being injured, and got my opportunity against France, but it was terrible timing because my plan had been to have good form off the back of the autumn, play well for Edinburgh to run into the Six Nations, and it didn’t work out like that.”
While still a few years shy of the age at which front-row forwards tend to reach their peak, Berghan has matured quickly since making his debut a year ago – when, he admitted, he was not prepared for the magnitude of the occasion.
“This time last year I was a new face and it was a tough Six Nations for me actually. The whole thing was quite overwhelming for me, and I wasn’t aware of how much I’d be affected by everything around it, the media, the build-up and everything.
“I was just overwhelmed. My first game was in France and I hadn’t played in front of a crowd bigger than at Edinburgh, which compared to the French crowd was nothing, and I just felt a bit like a boy in a man’s world.
“Being a bit unknown, coming into a settled squad, was probably part of it, and maybe I didn’t deal with the pressure of playing for Scotland too well. But after a while it becomes a bit easier, and it’s made it easier for me this year to put my front foot forward and put my hand up with a bit more confidence. Hopefully, now I’m getting some traction.”