JAMIE HODGSON was the obvious choice to take over leadership of the Scotland Under-20 pack when captain Robbie Smith was ruled out of the team’s final match of this Six Nations campaign against Italy due to an ankle injury picked up against Ireland last weekend.
The Watsonians second-row has been one of several outstanding young performers in the BT Premiership this season and has carried that form into the age-grade campaign as an ever-present in the dark blue engine room as the team have built from a pretty dispiriting opening few weeks against Wales and France, to claim an excellent victory over England and then push Ireland all the way in Dublin.
The Scots are currently bottom of the championship table, but they could climb to fourth if they beat Italy this [Friday] afternoon [kick-off 2pm GMT] at the Stadio della Vittoria in Bari and Wales fail to pick up anything from their home match against current table toppers France.
A combination of intelligence, an excellent work-ethic, a generally positive attitude and controlled aggression makes 19-year-old Hodgson a natural leader, and as a late developer he perhaps has a keener appreciation of what he is involved in than some of the players alongside him who have been on rugby’s fast-track for a bit longer.
A growing proposition
Hodgson played mainly second team rugby at school [Stewart’s Melville College in Edinburgh] before experiencing a growth spurt when he was about 16, after which he established himself in the 1st XV during his fifth year and captained the side the season after that.
“I always loved my rugby. I played on Saturday for the school and on Sunday for the club, and I would always be infuriated when I had to come home and tell my mum I was in the twos again, so I always wanted to play as high a level as I could – and luckily I grew into it,” he recalls.
“Being asked to be captain the school side was a big thing for me – a big confidence boost. That year I got my first taste of representative stuff with a couple of games for Edinburgh Under-18 and was then thrown into the mix for Scotland Under-18s. It was a bit of a surprise – being chucked in at the deep-end – and it has just gone on from there.”
After leaving school, Hodgson had a year playing National One rugby with Stewart’s Melville, while Watsonians head coach Stevie Lawrie – who had taught Hodgson at school but didn’t coach the player directly – quietly charted his progress.
Hodgson decided to try his hand in the Premiership at the start of this season when he signed up at Myreside, and his progress as a player has continued, helped by the influence of a handful of senior players who don’t naturally fit into the mould of what the SRU seem to be looking for from their Super Six enterprise.
“I felt like a little boy out there in the first game of the season against Melrose,” he recalls. ‘But the boys there have helped me find my place in the team. It is great to learn from the older guys like Craig Borthwick, Euan Dods and Rory Drummond.”
“It has been great to come into a more professional environment. The Premiership is an excellent standard of rugby – it is definitely a lot faster than National One, more physical and the set-piece is a step-up as well.”
Hodgson was entrusted with calling the line-outs for Watsonians at the start of the season, and took it all in his stride.
“That’s impressive for a guy so young,” says Lawrie. “He just needs to keep developing the physical edge to his game – more dominant carries and clear-outs, more dominant hits, and so on.”
Hodgson studied maths and economics at Edinburgh University for a year before taking a break from studying to concentrate on rugby as a stage three member of the BT Sport Academy.
“Being in the Academy during the day you have that sort of professional environment, then going to the club to train at night you meet these guys who are old school rugby – who like to play hard … and hit hard,” he reflects.
Ready for Italy
It was those ‘old school’ rugby principles which provided the Under-20s with the platform for that excellent victory over England last month, and a similar approach will be needed against Italy this afternoon, when they take on an Italian outfit flying high after picking up an away win against Wales last weekend.
“The heart and desire was something else. Whether we are away or at home we have to bring that and I think looking back to the first 20 minutes in Ireland we were caught a bit off guard. We need a good start in Italy,” agrees Hodgson.
“We are well aware that they are not going to be an easy team to beat. They are pretty big and physical, with a really strong maul, so they will come pretty direct at us, so we are definitely not taking them lightly at all.”
Scotland’s forward power has been their main strength during this campaign as well, so an almighty clash at the pit-face appears to be on the cards. The onus will be on the leader of the away pack to set the tone.