IT’S the time of year for graduation ceremonies, and all being well, one will take place here tomorrow night – just a year after the dress rehearsal.
The man concerned is Lewis Carmichael, the Edinburgh lock who is set to make his Scotland debut if and when he comes off the bench against Canada. And the dress rehearsal? This time last year, Carmichael sat on the bench, and did not come off, in Sydney.
There may always be a degree of frustration about being an unused substitute, but for the 23-year-old, the positives far outweighed any negatives. He was largely called up for the national side’s first tour under Gregor Townsend because, being on loan to Western Force in Perth, he was in Australia anyway. Just being around the squad was a useful experience – one of many, including appearances for the Scotland under-18s and under-20s, which have taken him to the verge of his first senior cap.
“Gregor brought me over to Sydney for that week before the Australia game,” Carmichael explained as he looked back on that call-up in 2018. “I trained with them, watched the game on the bench with the boys, and then I flew back to Western Australia after the game.
“Gregor said ‘Right now we want to bring you into the squad just to get a feel of what it’s like and understand what they do’. So it wasn’t frustrating: I was just really happy that Gregor called me and thought of me when I was out there.
“It was great just to be in camp and see what it was like to be around the boys in Test week. I learned a lot about what it takes to play at that level and what you’ve got to do behind the scenes, so it was really good. I really enjoyed that.
“I just thought I was lucky enough to be a part of it the way I was. I wasn’t really frustrated -I was more happy that I got the call to come out and shadow the boys.
“I played two seasons for the 20s, and I played the year before the 18s as well. I really enjoyed that time. I think all that time was very valuable – they were like stepping stones to the professional game. You definitely need it. Without the 18s and the 20s it would probably be too much of a jump to the senior professional game. They were really valuable.
“It was definitely a bit of a learning curve going out and playing in Australia. It’s a different brand of rugby they play out there – it’s very fast, very attacking-based. It’s made me a more rounded player coming back. Just experiencing that was brilliant. It’s probably helped my game a lot with Edinburgh this season as well, so I’m really grateful to have had that opportunity to go out there.”
After naming Carmichael in his squad to face Canada, Townsend explained how much he had been impressed by the second row’s progress over the past year. “We were talking about that with the coaches, what a difference in 12 months,” the head coach said. “It’s worth remembering that 12 months ago he was playing Super Rugby, so he was doing pretty well, but I think that now physically he’s developed, he’s shown the athleticism that we saw when he played for Melrose – it’s now coming out at a professional level.
“He’s a very hard worker, he takes on information, and has a real desire and determination to improve. And we saw the aggression that’s required for his position in those last few games for Edinburgh. We’re looking forward to the impact he can make off the bench.”
If those caps for the 18s and 20s suggest that Carmichael has taken the conventional route to that impending first Scotland appearance, his origins in the sport were far from taking the stereotypical path of learning to play while at an independent school or thanks to rugby-loving parents. “I’m not from a rugby family at all,” he explained. “I’m the only person in my family that ever played rugby. I started playing in first or second year at high school. I played football before that, and then I just made the switch cos a few of my pals did. It just took off from there – I really enjoyed it.
“I wasn’t really into much else, to be honest. I went to North Berwick High School and played right through the years there. When I came out of school I didn’t really know what I was going to do – I just knew I loved playing rugby and I wanted to pursue that as much as I could.
“So I just stuck at it until it kind of happened. I was quite lucky, to be honest.”
Perhaps some aspects of sporting success – the avoidance of injuries being one – can be put down to good luck. But in Carmichael’s case, a far larger factor is surely the hard work which Townsend mentioned, and the small matter of quite a large amount of talent.