ROBBIE NAIRN came late to rugby. He was initially a track and field athlete, and played a bit of football, before deciding to give the oval ball game a bash at local club Currie when he was 14. It didn’t take him long to decide that this was the route he needed to follow if he wanted to fulfil his dream of making a living out of playing competitive sport.
“I went along one night to training and realised I could thump guys,” recalls the 22-year-old Glasgow Warriors winger. “I enjoyed the physicality of it more than anything, plus the humility of guys, not diving and things like that which you got in football. The guys were tougher and were better blokes.”
While football quickly fell by the wayside, Nairn carried on with athletics for a couple more years before deciding to go all-in with rugby.
“I was a sprinter and shot-putter at school, I was able to do both at a relatively high level, I wasn’t too bad, but then I got to the age of about 16 and I had to make the choice between athletics and rugby,” he explains. “I thought: ‘I’m probably not going to make much money doing athletics, whereas I can maybe make a career out of rugby’. So that was a motivation along with the fact that I do really enjoy the team aspect of the sport as well.
“With the athletics, I would travel out to Grangemouth where I had an individual coach. I did enjoy it because, as an individual sport, it teaches you to take responsibility and you can’t blame someone else if you make a mistake.”
Putting rugby first
It was that single-minded determination learned in athletics which drove his next major sporting decision” to enrol at one of Edinburgh’s big rugby-playing private schools.
“I was at Currie High School and playing for Currie Rugby Club and we had a good team, but when we moved from Under-16s to Under-18s level the private school guys in the side went back to play for their schools and Currie lost quite a lot of our best players,” he says. “This was around the time I made the decision that I wanted to make rugby my career and I thought to myself that I need to be playing at a high level so I have to make a change.
“So, I went around and looked at schools like Edinburgh Academy and Merchiston Castle, but I had a lot of friends at George Watson’s College and when I went to visit the school I knew straight away that those were the guys I wanted to work with. I knew they could guide me and mentor me.
Nairn wasn’t a scholarship pupil, so he recognises that he was very fortunate that his family was both able and willing to support him in this step. “It was also the cheapest option, that was another aspect,” he laughs. “And it was also closer to home where I live in Balerno.”
He played two years at Watson’s, winning the Scottish Schools’ Cup both seasons (in 2013-14 and 2014-15), and having represented Scotland at Under-16 and Under-18 level, he was then called up to the national Under-20 team for the Junior World Cup during the summer after he left school, before moving to London to join the Harlequins Academy at the start of the 2015-16 season.
“I went from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a big pond,” he reflects. “I was a bit out my depth when I first went down. I found it quite difficult and it was definitely a learning curve for me as a person. I had to lose my ego and develop a bit more humility. I learned a lot about myself during that period.”
Nairn’s circuitous route to rugby has been a benefit in terms of the athleticism and speed he was able to develop during his early teenage years, but it also meant that some of his basic rugby skills were pretty raw for the standard he was operating at.
He played two seasons at The Stoop and picked up 22 Scotland Under-20s caps in total, before returning home to join the SRU academy set-up and play club rugby for Ayr in the summer of 2017. His first full season back north of the border was a frustrating, injury-ravaged experience, but he managed to do enough to persuade Glasgow Warriors to offer him a 12-month full-time deal for the current campaign.
With three starts and three appearances off the bench for the Warriors so far – and two tries scored against Connacht towards the end of February – he is cautiously optimistic about how things are shaping up.
“I’m happy with the way things have gone so far but not content, if that makes sense,” he says. “As the season’s gone on, I’ve been able to play a bit more due to injuries and a few other things, but I still feel like I have a lot more to give. I can still display a bit more of my skill and athleticism. I’ve just not quite been able to give 100 per cent yet. With a bit more game-time over the next few weeks, I’ll hopefully be able to do that.
“In some ways, it has been similar to when I went to Harlequins when I found useful surrounded by guys who were England internationals, whereas up here it’s Scotland internationals,” he continues. “You can be star-struck but after two or three training sessions you realise they are human, and you realise you can actually go and speak to them and ask questions.
“That was a big thing for me, realising that when you make a mistake you can go to a certain player and ask them things about how you can improve. It’s not up to them to come to me; it’s up to me to take responsibility, chat to these guys and pick their brains.
“It’s an ongoing process. I’ve learned that I need to be patient and learn from my mistakes, whereas I maybe got frustrated and threw my toys out the pram when I was younger.
“I’ve got a lot of rugby-specific things that I’m working on with the coaches. We’re doing analysis week by week to improve. But, ultimately, it’s just about getting game-time to show the improvements you’re making. You can do it all week in training. But all the fans see is the game on a Friday or a Saturday, so you need minutes on the pitch.”
Nairn is hoping to be involved again on Saturday night when Warriors return to Guinness PRO14 duty after the international window with a against Toyota Cheetahs at Scotstoun. Dave Rennie names his team for that match at lunchtime today.
“We have so many good wingers at the club, it just shows the depth of the squad that guys can step up,” he concludes. “As a young guy, you have to fight tooth and nail to get your shot in the jersey.”