SAM SKINNER is a big a man at 6ft 5ins in height and weighing just over 17½ stone, but the 23-year-old Exeter Chiefs second-row says he felt like a little boy when he met up with the Scotland squad for the first time two weeks ago.
“I didn’t know what to expect, a little posh boy from England walking into the Scotland camp,” is how he explained it, before adding that he was made to feel very welcome. “I know a few of them from the English Premiership. I couldn’t have asked for better support from them.”
If there were any doubters remaining within the squad as to his suitability for the role he was taking on (presumably because they hadn’t bothered to check out Skinner’s performances for Exeter Chiefs since fully establishing himself as a 1st XV player midway through last season), then they have surely been put at ease after his man-of-the-match performance against Fiji at Murrayfield yesterday [Saturday] afternoon, which combined rugged determination with ball-playing ability and athleticism.
Skinner’s seven tackles was more than any of his team-mates apart from open-side flanker Jamie Ritchie, and the 44 metres he carried for was more than any member of the pack other than Josh Strauss, who came on as an early replacement for the injured Matt Fagerson. He also put in a huge shift at scrum, line-out, ruck and maul time.
“It was a fantastic performance from the boys and I just feel privileged to be part of the whole thing,” he said afterwards, during an engaging press conference in which he showed himself to be a down-to-earth and thoroughly likeable character. “It was a really emotional experience for me before the game and during the national anthems. I was just trying to keep a lid on it. But, once you get into it, you realise it’s just another game of rugby.”
He qualifies to wear the thistle through his fiercely patriotic father, Peter, who comes from Ayr. When naming Skinner in Scotland’s training squad back in mid-October, head coach Gregor Townsend explained that the second-row had initially been approached about touring the Americas last summer but had decided that the time wasn’t right – not because of any ambivalence towards the opportunity he was being offered but because of respect for what he was taking on.
“We’d known about his Scottish qualification for a number of years as he was involved in the Exiles programme as a youngster, but it was a message from someone who was speaking to his dad [telling us] that nothing would make his dad more proud than Sam playing for Scotland [that alerted us]. So, we’ve been tracking him really closely [since then],” explained Townsend at the time.
“We’d have liked to have taken him on tour but Sam didn’t think it was the right time. He wanted to start the season and earn his place and he’s done that. He’s a line-out leader for one of the best packs in Europe, his decision-making is excellent, and he runs really good lines, so we’re delighted he’s committed to Scotland.”
Making a big commitment
Having already represented England at Under-20 level, it was not an easy decision to throw his lot in with Scotland because it means he loses his English Qualified Player [EQP] status, which can have a significant effect on his market value and general attractiveness to Premiership clubs.
“It was a tough decision [to commit to Scotland] in one sense, but also not tough at all in another sense because I wanted to make my family proud. I’m honoured to do it,” said the player.
“All my family are so proud. I’m just so grateful to be able to give them the opportunity to experience these kinds of moments and days like this. It’s what life’s all about.
“I spotted them briefly in the stand before the game, which was pretty emotional for me. It has been a nervous few days, so it’s just pure elation to experience this as a family.
“My Dad is just a classic Scot,” he continued. “I remember being in the living room watching him watch Scotland matches in the Six Nations and Autumn internationals – walking in and out, stressing about the game. I didn’t know what to think. So, I’ve grown up supporting Scotland and England, which is very rare I suppose! But that’s the modern world, isn’t it?
“But my Dad took a massive step back in relation to me making the decision [to commit to Scotland]. I play in the English Premiership and I’ve now lost my English qualification status, which is a really big thing, but Exeter [Chiefs] were brilliant about it,” he added.
“They want their players to keep that English qualification because it makes it easier for them but at the same time they want players playing international rugby. I have had the most incredible support from players and staff. I am grateful to them for making this decision as easy as possible.”
A later developer with a flair for academia
It was the Chiefs who offered Skinner a professional rugby lifeline after he left school without having secured an academy contract. He had been planning to take a year out to travel the world and then go to Loughborough College, but a late growth spurt encouraged him to give rugby one last go and he joined Taunton Titans.
He played ten matches in National League Two South during the 2014-15 season and was then offered an academy deal at Sandy Park, which was later upgraded to a three year pro deal which he juggled with studying for a degree in business and economics at the University of Exeter – before graduating with first class honours last year.
“I trained and played for Exeter Chiefs alongside the university team [captaining Exeter to the BUCS Championship in 2016] and studied full-time,” explained Skinner. “They [the Chiefs] were brilliant. If I needed a week off for exams they were excellent at giving me that time. I was a late developer, I signed for Exeter at 90kg so for a year they allowed me to develop, to put on another 5-10kg and get my size up to Premiership and international level.”
It is still early days, but Skinner is now firmly in the mix for Scotland’s World Cup campaign which kicks off next September, especially as he has the versatility to also play in the back-row as he proved during the final quarter of yesterday’s match when he slipped into the number six role without missing a beat.
Before that, there is the small matter of South Africa rocking up at Murrayfield next Saturday. The visitors are currently the ranked fifth in the world, but are the only team to have beaten mighty New Zealand in Wellington this year (becoming the first individual nation to beat the All Blacks on their own path since 2009). South Africa defeated France in Paris last night, and lost narrowly to England at Twickenham last weekend. An almighty challenge is in store.
“This is my first cap and I’ve just focused my energy into proving why I deserve to be here,” concluded Skinner. “Scotland have a lot of top-class second-rows, with the likes of Jonny Gray, Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist, so I want to develop my game alongside these guys.
“We know what to expect from the Springboks,” he added. “They are a big physical team and it will be a tough encounter – but we want to be a top side in world rugby and we’ll take a lot of confidence going into next week.”