MATT SCOTT’S bleached blond hair was never likely to go down well with Richard Cockerill, who is very much a crew-cut and black boots (with steel toe-caps) type of coach. The Edinburgh centre embraced the peroxide look a few weeks before Stuart Hogg in the west took the same option and he has been getting it in the neck since the day he turned up at training with his new look.
“Cockers has been asking me every day when I’m getting rid of it and I know if I do anything wrong it’s going to be a very easy target in the team meeting,” he smiles. “I think he just doesn’t want anyone to get too above their station… but I said to him: ‘Look, if I bugger anything up I’ll be an easy target, so it gives me motivation not to!’.
“Most normal jobs you couldn’t get away with stupid haircuts and I might only have a few years left of this,” he adds, by way of justification – which may seem a strangely retrospective thing for a 28-year-old to be saying, but given his recent spell on the side-lines struggling to shake off the lingering effects of a head-knock sustained playing for Edinburgh against Toulon in the Champions Cup last October, it is perhaps inevitable that Scott is feeling slightly reflective.
“It was horrendous,” he says. “It couldn’t really have happened at a worse time because it was just after the first round of European games and we were going into camp for the autumn Tests.
“Basically, I got a forearm to my head on the stroke of half-time. I wasn’t knocked-out, but I remember thinking that it was quite a big blow to my head. At half-time I felt a wee bit groggy, but thought I was fine and went out and finished the game. I came into the Scotland camp on the Sunday night and thought I was fine, but on the Monday in the gym we were doing really light weights and I felt sick and dizzy.
“I realised it must have been from that blow to my head. I was thinking then that I would be okay for the next week, for the next game, but next week becomes next month and it dragged on for five months with headaches every day.
“It is such an intangible injury. There are no scars and no broken bones. You’re ready when you are symptom-free. It was encouraging in a weird way to hear that a lot of guys like Dave Denton were going through the same thing. I’m close with him [they were flatmates during the early days of their professional career at Edinburgh] and it was good to know that I wasn’t the only one experiencing this.
“I did think: ‘Jeez, this is really unusual, I’m taking so long to come back’. But you find that a lot now, with the level of awareness and medical support, guys are not returning to play as quickly as they used to. They [coaches and medical support staff] are so big on you being honest with them about if you are still getting headaches.”
Despite the frustration and worry, Scott says that he didn’t consider the prospect of bringing the curtain down on his playing career at this stage.
He has a law degree but doesn’t want to go into the profession and anticipates his focus after rugby will be on developing his burgeoning property development business which he first dipped his toe into whilst playing down in Gloucester before returning to the capital last summer. So, there is plenty to look forward to – but he is enjoying the ride he is on at the moment too much to contemplate jumping off just yet.
“For someone like Dave [Denton], who is on his third or fourth bad one and has just had a kid, you do start to have those conversations with yourself,” Scott reflects. “For me, it was my first real big one and I feel sort of fine now. I wouldn’t say I got to the stage where I asked if it was worth it, but if you asked me after my second or third one – hopefully I don’t get there – then my answer might be different.
“There are guys who wouldn’t care, they just want to play rugby,” he continues. “Rugby is their life and that’s everything. I think I’m quite good at looking at the bigger picture. I’ve seen it in the professional game. Guys are saying they have a headache, but they just don’t tell them [the medical/coaching staff]. If it got to the stage where, if it was a real risk to my health, then I would probably stop.”
In good hands
It helps that Scott was conscientiously and sympathetically handled during his time out. Cockerill might be an old school coach in terms of work ethic and calling a spade a blood shovel, but he is clearly a more enlightened character than he would have us believe. His success in instilling some deep-water capability into an Edinburgh team which had floundered at the shallow end of European rugby for the best part of a decade is the most tangible evidence of that, and Scott gives an interesting insight into the coach’s man-management ability when he discusses how his extended time out with concussion was handled by the club.
“Cockers never once asked me when I would be back,” he explains. “It was always just: ‘Come back when you’re ready’. That was really good. I think with concussion our doctors encourage the coaches, even all the boys, not to keep asking us ‘How’s your head? When you back?’ So, there was no pressure.”
It sounds simple. Concussive symptoms – don’t play. But Scott recognises that it isn’t always that straight-forward.
“It is easy to say I would never play with a headache, but you’ve got guys who are perhaps coming to the last two or three months of their contracts, they don’t have a club for next year, and they’re thinking: ‘I’ve got a bit of a headache but I’m not going to declare that because I need to play for a club because no one will pick me up if I’ve not played with the concussion’,” he points out.
“In an ideal world you wouldn’t play with a concussion. But even coming up to World Cup time, if somebody picks up a head knock before they get on the plane to Japan…. do you mention it or do you not? It’s interesting.
“If you’re thinking about moving to France you do have to think … if I was in that situation in a French club I reckon they would be saying: ‘Play or we don’t pay you’. I don’t think I would have been given the same treatment as I have been here, although hat’s maybe a bit of a generalisation.”
Back in the thick of it
The good news is that Scott is now back, scoring the try which launched Edinburgh’s excellent fightback to secure the victory over Scarlets last Saturday which kept Edinburgh’s play-off aspirations alive.
“I can look at it and think: ‘I’ve missed all these big games for Edinburgh and for Scotland’ – but at this point of the season guys can be running on empty and hanging on by the skin of their teeth just to get through these games, while I’m coming into them mentally fresh and also physically feeling pretty good,” he says. “If I can get a few games in before the end of the season then it will be great and hopefully we can go far with Edinburgh. But there are some tough games ahead.”
And, of course, if Scott can play a big part in these big games coming up for Edinburgh, there is the small issue of the World Cup looming over the horizon. He has been capped 39 times by Scotland, but not since June 2017.
“I’d love to get in the wider World Cup squad,” he concludes. “When I was in the middle of my concussion, I wasn’t really sure when I was going to be back but here I am with hopefully enough time to prove myself. I feel like I’m getting sharper every week as every game goes by. I feel like I’m getting back to my best so, yes, there’s a lot of competition in that position with Scotland but all you can really ask for is to get the opportunity in the wider squad, train hard and see what happens.”