BACK in February 1998, when a 26-year-old Matt Proudfoot pitched up at the Greenyards to play for Melrose and pursue the prospect of becoming a full Scotland cap, it was the wild-west days of professional rugby.
The frontier had been opened up two and a half years earlier when, on 26 August 1995, the International Rugby Board declared the sport an “open” game, which effectively removed all restrictions on payments and benefits – but things had still not settled down, especially in Scotland where the governing body was scrambling frantically to create a domestic structure suited to the rapidly changing demands of the brand-new reality they found themselves in.
Proudfoot, who qualified to play for Scotland through his Kilmarnock-born grand-father, was so big that Melrose reportedly had to commission their kit-suppliers to produce a specially made, super-sized strip to encase his 50-inch chest and 48-inch backside. The 21-stone prop was just the sort of specimen Scotland were looking for to bolster their lightweight pack.
He was promptly taken on by the Border Reivers pro side, which soon became Edinburgh Reivers after a merger during the summer of 1998 as the SRU tried to rein in rapidly escalating costs.
Around about the same time, Proudfoot was making his international debut in Scotland’s humiliating 51-26 defeat to Fiji in Suva. He picked up two more caps on that tour against Australia [a 45-3 loss is Sydney and 33-11 loss in Brisbane], but then a couple of months into the 1998-99 season he suffered a serious neck injury playing against Toulouse in the Heineken Cup. Subsequent knee and ankle injuries severely limited his game time over the next three years, and he returned to South Africa at the end of the 2000-01 season after failing to secure a new contract with the Reivers.
These were turbulent times for the player and for the game in Scotland, but Proudfoot insists that he has nothing but happy memories of that period of his life – although he also acknowledges that it was a massive of culture shock at first.
“I was recruited – with Jim Telfer’s okay – through Melrose,” he recalls. “In South Africa everything was up in the air – we carried high, tackled high, scrummed high, mauled high – so I came here and Jim wanted me way down low. I was 20 stone and I looked at him and said: ‘Are you mad?‘ He said: ‘Get down there, boy!‘ It took me right out of my comfort zone.
Bus trips to Wales
“Back when there were still four franchises and it was just as they set up the Celtic League. We were travelling up and down to Wales on the bus. It was the real, real start of the real professional era – and it was really enjoyable.
“They were special times. I came over with memories of a grandfather who brought me up on Five Nations rugby – I have fond memories of the David Sole side, with Tony Stanger scoring his try on the right wing – those were my memories as an English-speaking boy in South Africa at that time.
“So, when I came here and got given my opportunity it was like living a dream, living an adventure. That’s what made it special. Even though you were on a bus for 12 hours, you were on a bus with your mates.
“Rugby is about memories. You spend a very short time of your life doing what you love with your best mates. It was an adventure, something new, and that’s what was great about it.
“I’m actually catching up with Carl Hogg [his former Melrose and Reivers team-mate who is now head coach of the Scotland Under-20s team] tomorrow, heading down to Melrose, and I’m looking forward to that. Melrose is still special to me and I have a picture in my house of the Eildon Hills.”
Proudfoot returned to Scotland during the summer of 2003 at the age of 31, picking up his fourth and final cap as a replacement against Ireland in the World Cup warm-up match at Murrayfield that September, and making ten appearances for Glasgow Warriors during the 2003-04 season. While it is clear that he is very proud of the time he spent in the Scottish game, there is also more than a hint of regret that he did not quite manage to deliver fully on his potential.
“I wish I could have been here longer, but I treasure the happy memories and the good people of Scotland. I wish I could have given more in the time I was here,” he reflects.
Scotland’s golden thread
15-years on and we live in a very different rugby world. Proudfoot says he is full of admiration for how Scotland have managed to harness the professional game to suit the country’s very specific requirements.
“Anywhere in the world, we’d want more teams and more players, but can you sustain that?” he asks, before answering his own question. “Scotland have reached a point where the model is sustainable.
“Speak to the players and a lot of the coaches, you see how ex-players are utilised, the production line is working. Back then, they always spoke about the golden thread – can a player anywhere in the Scottish system get into the national set-up? I think that is working. And, if you just look at how Edinburgh and Glasgow are competing on the European stage, that proves it.
“Back in South Africa, we’re really struggling with the format at the moment. Are we going to get bigger or smaller? I think Scotland and Ireland have definitely got it right,” he adds
“The idea of the amateur game is still healthy. Club rugby needs to be viable but it’s a different model to the professional game. They’ve managed to separate the two and make it sustainable.”
In recent years, South Africa has increasingly looked towards Europe as it has tried to build an effective structure for their own game – most notably with the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings joining what is now called the Guinness PRO14 during the summer of 2017 – and Proudfoot believes that process of assimilation is only going to gather pace as we move forward.
“I think the two hemispheres are going to effectively disappear in the next ten years,” he predicts. “The whole world will shake up in the next two World Cup cycles, because there is more benefit from having cross-hemisphere competition.
“As a coach, I like that two of our franchises are playing in Europe. Technically, you learn different lessons as a player, so I think it’s very healthy for the South African game. I think other franchises are definitely looking at what the Cheetahs and Kings are doing. I know for a fact that some of them have spoken about it and mentioned it. I know the Sharks and the Stormers have both been sitting there [saying]: ‘Why didn’t we take the opportunity when we had it?’
“I don’t think SANZAR [the association which runs the Rugby Championship between South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina] will ever disappear – I think it’s entrenched in the south and it works for the four nations – but looking at a level down, the franchise format, that’s where Europe has us beaten at the moment.”
Focus on Saturday
Those are concerns for another day, however, because the priority at the moment is going to be Saturday’s match, and as the man in charge of preparing the Spingbok forwards, Proudfoot knows he has to make sure his players are ready to get parity or better at the breakdown, otherwise a long afternoon awaits chasing Scottish shadows.
“The difference [to France last week] is Scotland are probably technically a lot better,” he concludes. “The French are very physical at the breakdown, but the Scots are a lot sharper and more intelligent about where they pilfer.
“They apply pressure to your kicking game and then counter from that and keep the continuity going. I think the pace of their attack is very, very good. Their real strength is their continuity, in attack and defence. To break their defensive set-up you actually have to crack them open. If you don’t have big moments it’s pretty difficult to break them down.”