JAMES LANG returned to pre-season training with Harlequins two weeks ago as a fully-fledged internationalist, having been a surprise call-up to Scotland’s summer tour of the Americas, playing in the national team’s two wins, against Canada as a starter and Argentina as a second-half replacement, while missing the embarrassing loss to the USA.
He proved himself capable of operating at that level – albeit those matches were not of the same intensity as he will encounter if he is involved in any of the Autumn, Six Nations or World Cup clashes which are on the schedule during the next 14 months – and he knows he must now nail down a regular berth with his club team in order to consolidate his position as a genuine international contender.
The 23-year-old has 15 appearances and seven starts for Harlequins under his belt, accumulated over the last two seasons, flitting between stand-off, inside-centre and full-back. With national head coach Gregor Townsend keen on there being versatility in his 31-man squad at the World Cup in Japan, having more than one feather to his bow isn’t a bad thing – but Lang also appreciates that he has to a have a speciality if he is to have a chance of commanding more than a back-up role.
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“I came in as a 10 at Quins, and kind of moved around between there, 12 and 15 – but I was on tour as a 12 so I got to learn off the other centres there and having four weeks to focus on that means I have learned a lot in that position to take back to Quins for the upcoming season,” he said.
“Hopefully I can focus a bit more on 12 now, but they [Quins] are aware that I can cover those other positions, which isn’t a bad thing. I enjoy playing all those positions, really, and if it helps the team I am happy to do so.”
With English wonderkid Marcus Smith and experienced South African Demetri Catrakilis vying for the Quins number ten jersey, and with Mike Brown still chugging along at full-back, Lang’s best chance of nailing down a starting spot would appear to be at inside centre – although there is a bit of competition there, too.
Asked if Townsend had given him any ‘work-ons’ after the tour, Lang explained: “Just learning the position as a 12. Obviously, in international rugby it is a lot more physical, so I’ve got to be working in the gym a bit more to put on that extra bit of muscle mass which will allow me to be more physical – and that will, hopefully, stand me in good stead for the Premiership and for whatever comes after that.
“That is at the forefront of my mind: just making sure that I perform well, keep working on my skills and positioning at 12, and hopefully get the opportunities to play a bit more.
“Everyone wants to play in the World Cup and that is my ultimate goal for the year, but I can’t look too far forward. At the minute, I am concentrating on having a good pre-season and then going from there. All I can do is play well for my club, and whatever happens after that is out of my hands.”
The first small step on that journey to Japan 2018 could be in Perth next Saturday, when Quins take on Glasgow Warriors in their second pre-season friendly, on a specially constructed venue in the town’s North Inch public park. After a post Scotland tour holiday, Lang has only been back in pre-season training for two weeks and wasn’t involved in yesterday’s hit-out against Jersey Reds, but says he is feeling sharp and is hopeful of being involved next weekend.
“I’m just looking forward to the chance to catch-up with the lads from the tour after the game. But it is a good opportunity for me to put down a marker by going out there and performing – showing what we have been working on in pre-season for the Quins, and hopefully push on from there in to the new season,” he said.
The Quins had a disappointing 2017-18 campaign, finishing 10th in the Premiership table, which cost Director of Rugby John Kingston his job. Paul Gustard gave up his role as England defence coach to take over the reins at The Stoop and Lang believes the London side are now in a position to demonstrate more of the robustness required to compete at the top end of the English game.
“Gustard has been awesome. The mood in the camp has been really good. This is only my second week and I’m loving it, and I know the boys all were when I was on my holiday,” he said. “He is a great coach and I think this season is going to be really good for us with a different style of rugby he has brought in. His background is as defence coach of England, and he is bringing in a lot of good ideas for us, so I’m really excited for the start of the season and seeing what this group of players can achieve – getting Quins back to where they should be at the top end of the table.”
“We’ve worked a lot on our fitness. A lot of boys like myself coming back from international duty have had a lot of conditioning and fitness time, which the other lads had a few weeks ago. The sessions are really tough, but it will put us in good stead when the games start – hopefully we can maintain the level we have been working at and that’s where the wins will come from.”
Despite the surname, Lang’s father – also James – is from Wales, while the player himself was born within a few miles of Twickenham. He owes his Scottish qualification to his mother’s father, who is from Hamilton. He played for Scotland at Under-18 level.
- More than 5,000 tickets have been sold for The Famous Grouse Pre-Season Challenge between Glasgow Warriors and Harlequins in Perth on Saturday 18 August (kick-off 2pm) but tickets are still available from glasgowwarriors.org