BYRON McGUIGAN found out less than half an hour before kick-off that he would be getting his first start for Scotland against Australia this afternoon, after Stuart Hogg pulled out of the game during the warm-up with a hip-flexor issue.
On the evidence of the winger’s performance in a historic and emphatic hammering of the world’s third ranked team, it might be worthwhile for head coach Gregor Townsend to consider using this technique of breaking the big news to rookie players more often.
“Maybe if I had known I was starting last night I might have thought about it a bit more. Instead I was quite relaxed and the news was just sprung on me, so I was pretty calm,” the player conceded after his two-try, man-of-the-match performance.
“It was pretty late in the warm-up, but during the week we had prepped just in case because Hoggy had felt a couple of niggles. So, we knew if he went down, this is how we would fall into shape. We were ready.”
McGuigan had a couple of powerful carries early on and then grabbed the opening try of the match in the 16th minute when he hacked ahead after an Australian mix-up in midfield, then lost control of the bobbling ball in front of the posts and ended up chasing it sideways along the try line before eventually getting the score seven yards in from the touchline.
“It came off my knee! The kick was so bad that was how I scored it. He [Australian defender Reece Hodge] just ran straight past it. But I’ll take it,” he laughed self-deprecatingly, although, in reality, he did very well to finish off the score when in the midst of a furious foot-race after a ball which is not designed to bounce regularly.
It nearly got an awful lot better two minutes later when a Ryan Wilson turnover and a Fin Russell break put him in a great position on the left wing. He kicked ahead and came within centimetres of getting the score, but Will Genia manged to get there first.
He had to wait until just before the hour mark to get his second and almost grabbed his hat-trick at the death, only for Kurtley Beale to swoop in and illegally slap Russell’s kick through out of play before it had crossed the try-line. McGuigan was diving for the ball at the same time and may well have managed to ground the ball once it had crossed the whitewash – although that is by no means a foregone conclusion, which is why a penalty try was not awarded.
“To come away with man-of-the match was an awesome feeling. I’m really happy,” said McGuigan. “The longer you play in rugby the more you realise you just need to enjoy it, so to play in front of a sold-out Murrayfield, you just have to enjoy every moment, enjoy the crowd and feed off the energy.
“I was lucky to get myself involved early on. I had a good carry and from there the confidence just grew. I’m very lucky with the ball players we have in the back-line. It’s quite easy as a winger to play when you have guys inside you doing their job.
“It’s such a great environment to be in and it makes you more hungry to be involved and work hard. There are quality players which makes you increase the level that you train at. It’s been very enjoyable. I’ve came in here very open minded and worked hard. They are such a great bunch and they have made everything much easier.”
“There’s definitely something special brewing here. Over the years, Scotland has just been getting better and the last few years since the World Cup has showed that. It’s great to be involved in this set up. From the management down to the players, everyone is working very hard. It’s very good.”
McGuigan – who was born in Namibia, raised in South Africa and qualifies for Scotland through his Glaswegian mother – played for Glasgow Warriors between 2012 and 2014 but struggled for game time. Gregor Townsend was head coach when he moved on from the club after only 20 appearances in two seasons. He initially joined Exeter Chiefs and is now at Sale Sharks.
“It’s not easy being a coach,” he jovially replied when asked if he had forgiven Townsend yet for not fully appreciating his ability at that time. “I was young, I wanted to be playing every week but it didn’t happen. Gregor is a great coach. His results speak from themselves. He’s won the PRO12 and he’s doing well with Scotland. It’s great to be working underneath him.”
The 28-year-old added that despite not quite cutting it with the Warriors and having to find his own way south of the border, he never gave up on the dream of wearing the dark blue jersey.
“I was always hopeful, worked hard and waited for the opportunity. My mum is Scottish. Growing up, I’ve always watched Scotland play and that’s been the dream to play with them. It’s been a focus at whatever club I’ve played for,” he explained.
“I learned a lot at Glasgow and then we had a very good coach at Exeter called Ali Hepher who helped me to think and get in scoring positions.”
Those lessons certainly paid off this afternoon. It seems like half of the West Stand was populated by the McGuigan clan – “mother, auntie, uncles, grannies, everyone” – and they will all have gone home high as a kite after seeing their boy grab his opportunity.