WATCH an exclusive interview with David Denton and Peter Horne, as David Ferguson travels with the Scotland team on their South African tour.
THERE are two ways to look at Scotland’s thinning resources on this South African tour. On the negative side of the equation, the decisions to add one-cap prop Jon Welsh and hooker Fraser Brown after little rugby, with the possibility that both could be involved in Saturday’s matchday squad against the Springboks, points to a worrying paucity of Test resources. On the positive side it hands opportunity to players to begin the process of learning how to cope with international rugby earlier than they might have expected.
One man who is champing at the bit to kickstart his Test education is David Denton, and there could be few places more appropriate for the Zimbabwe-born, blond-haired back row to move into his second period of international exposure.
Denton was hailed as a great prospect when he exploded on to the international scene last year with a Man of the Match display in his first Test start against England, in much the way that Richie Gray quickly drove himself into the wider consciousness. But Denton then suffered a run of injuries and his form dipped. He tried to put it right by working harder and pushing harder but, with opponents now aware of him, made some obvious errors in games that served only to dent his confidence. In fairness, his club Edinburgh were not exactly finding their rhythm either in a season to forget.
So, Denton is back home, having been born in Zimbabwe and grown up in Durban, South Africa. He had to watch the opening Test in his former home city but, with Kelly Brown now ruled out of the tour, there is a conundrum for the coaches as to who to play at openside flanker.
Injuries to Chris Fusaro and Roddy Grant ruled them out of the trip, and Scarlets’ decision to order their new flanker John Barclay to undergo an operation, rather than tour, left Scotland with no genuine opensides.
Alasdair Strokosch could be a French type of openside, that is essentially a blindside operating on the open, with Ryan Wilson and Denton the other candidates. For all Johnnie Beattie’s skills, getting down and dirty at the breakdown is not the most obvious.
Denton, however, is happy just to be involved again and determined to prove that he is worth selection this week, wherever in the back row that is deemed to be, to begin to put the past year behind him.
“Yeah, it has been a frustrating season,” he said. “I started the season with an ankle injury and finished it with a knee injury, and haven’t played since the 1st of March.
“That last one was a complete freak accident. I was chasing back with Richie Rees in the Scarlets game. He tripped, I flew over him at full speed and my leg was planted in the ground and he hit me on the outside of my knee and it buckled in.
“There was a bit of inexperience of youth because I was having quite a good game and wanted to get back into the starting team, so I stayed on for a wee bit longer than I should have. Now, 14 weeks down the line is a longer recovery than I hoped for or would have expected to need, but that is just the way the games have gone.
“You just want to play, and to play for Scotland you need the momentum to pick up form again, and that’s been tough this season. Every time I felt I have gained momentum I have picked up another niggle and I’d never experienced that before.
“But, hopefully, that is now the end of the bad injuries. I actually feel great now, refreshed. I feel I have had some time off to get my body back to where I should be. It has been a hard graft these past couple of years but I am feeling as good and strong as I have ever been and I just want to play now.
“I will be one of the freshest guys in the squad seeing as I have not played and it will be interesting to play a Test match. I can’t wait.”
The Scotland team announcement has been postponed until tomorrow as the coaches keep their fingers crossed for good news on those carrying injuries but, whatever team South Africa name today, Denton believes that Scotland will know what to expect.
“Look, South Africa have a pretty simple gameplan. They will play a physical game, especially after watching us at the weekend, and, basically, we cannot let that happen.
“If we do not front up physically, we won’t win the game but we have a group of players who are more than capable of doing that. I am very confident that we can front up.
“And that’s part of my responsibility. If I am on the park there is no question what my job is. It is to make sure we are in the game physically and that they are not bullying us, which could have happened at the weekend. And I love that. That is why I play rugby.”
Denton is an undoubted talent and he speaks with refreshing candour. He has been open in the past year about his need to learn to open up the one-dimensional style of game he grew up learning in South Africa in order to offer more to a Scotland side that needs to have many tricks up its sleeve to compete with sides as physically dominating as those they are facing here.
But, if there is a criticism of the youngster it is that he has allowed the weight of expectation that followed his fine early form to weigh him down when consistency is probably the most elusive trait for a young sportsman feeling his way in the international game.
That is wholly understandable, however. As a person and a player, Denton may come across as confident, cocky even, but he has a terrific drive to please.
The fear this week could be how that plays out in his home country, where a wealth of family and friends are inside the Mbombela Stadium, not to mention some interested onlookers who wondered whether he had made the right choice in leaving the Republic for Scotland as a promising teenager.
He nodded, but said that he was hopeful that that would work in his favour rather than against.
“It sounds like I am piping [being disingenuous] but, whenever you pull on a Scotland jersey, it is huge and it is the same whoever I am playing against. The opposition doesn’t matter.
“It is great for me as I have lots of friends and family who can come and watch which they can’t usually do when we are playing at Murrayfield. I think my parents have been to see me play twice in Scotland but here I will have aunts and uncles also coming down. I don’t think it is an added pressure, but nice to have people here to see you and the best thing I can do for me and them is play well.”
Incidentally, after being chased by a lion and an elephant while on a walking safari in Zimbabwe last year, Denton is returning to do the same after this tour, with Edinburgh team-mates Matt Scott and Greig Tonks along for company.
It highlights one other thing about Denton – he likes an element of danger, and is not afraid to return to the scene of some hairy moments.
That could apply to his international career to date as, after a rollercoaster journey, Scotland seek to bring out a new, battle-hardened and more schooled back row able to help the squad find a new pride.