Scotland: Duncan Taylor puts injuries behind him to return to prominence

Saracens' Duncan Taylor
Saracens' Duncan Taylor is a two-time European Champions Cup winner

This time last year everything was just about perfect in Duncan Taylor's world.

The Saracen had just won his second Premiership title and his first Champions Cup, he had become a key man with Vern Cotter's Scotland and had flown to Japan for the summer tour with the praise not just of his international coach ringing in his ears, but also that of his club coach, Mark McCall.

McCall was then, and still is now, in charge of the Champions Cup winners. His lock, Maro Itoje, had just won the European player of the year award for 2015-16, his number eight, Billy Vunipola, had won England player of the year and his full-back, Alex Goode, had won Premiership player of the year.

When the gongs were being dished out, Taylor was not forgotten. Despite a stellar cast, the Scot was named Saracens' players' player of the year.

There's a thing called TSPDS at Saracens - The Stuff People Don't See. They have another 'S' word instead of 'Stuff', but you get the drift.

"Duncan is one of the best in the club at his contribution off the ball," said McCall. "That's why the players and staff really appreciate him."

In short, Taylor was flying. Then, he was stricken. A torn hamstring in Japan set off a freakish run of injuries.

"It took three or four weeks for that to heal and then in the first game of this season I damaged my ankle, so I went for surgery and was out for two months," recalls the 27-year-old.

"I came back and the ankle still wasn't right, so I had more surgery and that was another two months.

Duncan Taylor and fellow Scot Jim Hamilton hold the European Champions Cup
Duncan Taylor and fellow Scot Jim Hamilton hold the European Champions Cup after helping Saracens defeat Clermont Auvergne at Murrayfield last month

"I got fit again and in my first game back I got a knock on the head and that threw me out completely. I was getting bad headaches and I couldn't focus. That was about five or six weeks. I got over that and after two games my hamstring went again - another four weeks.

"I recovered, played one game, and did my shoulder, which was four more weeks. I managed to make it back for the European Cup final [his second winner's medal]. It's been a mental battle all season."

He says all this from the midst of the Scotland squad getting ready for the summer tour to Singapore, Sydney and Suva to play Italy, Australia and Fiji.

Missing most of Saracens' season was bad enough, but missing the November Tests and the Six Nations made it even worse.

Watching the team beat Ireland and Wales was tough, watching them lose to England tougher still.

He says: "It's funny, when you're playing week in, week out it becomes a bit of a slog. Your body is sore and you're desperate for a break but when you get a long break, like I've had, you don't want a break anymore.

"Very quickly you get hungry for it again. You get a craving. It gets a bit lonely being in the gym all the time."

'It's a cruel game'

Twelve months ago, Taylor would have been a contender for Warren Gatland's squad. That dream went up in smoke months ago. He says it's frustrating not to get a chance to see how close he might have come, but he never dwelt on it.

"Rugby is cruel," states Taylor. "Billy [Vunipola] is man of the match in the European Cup final one minute and he's injured and out of the Lions tour the next. There are no guarantees.

"I spoke to Billy when he was forced to withdraw and he said, 'It just wasn't meant to be, mate. I just have to accept it and get myself right for next season'. He took it unbelievably well. He's somebody I really look up to."

Duncan Taylor makes his Scotland debut in 2013
Duncan Taylor made his Scotland debut in a defeat by Samoa in Durban in 2013

Taylor has 18 caps to his name after appearing on the Test scene in the summer of 2013. He's not a marquee act, but he's ruthlessly effective.

He can attack, he can defend, he's a leader, he can play centre, wing and full-back at any level you care to throw him into. For his exploits with Saracens, he's become one of the most decorated Scottish players of modern times.

He was born in England to Scottish parents, was raised, in part, in Australia and wanted to stay there. He had it all planned out. He was 16 and had been in Sydney since the age of 13. He wanted to get out of school and do an apprenticeship in carpentry. His folks had other ideas.

"We lived in a place called French's Forest, a lovely spot," he tells BBC Scotland. "Living there was one of the best experiences I've had in my life and it'll be nice to go back to Sydney on tour. I didn't want to leave.

"Everything happens for a reason, doesn't it? I came back and did my A levels and rugby became very important to me.

"I was brought up in a Scottish family and there's a funny picture my dad showed me the other day. It's me and my sisters with our faces painted with Saltires and we're holding Scotland flags and we're on our way to watch Scotland play Australia in Sydney. It was 2004.

Ruaridh Jackson, Stuart McInally, Duncan Taylor, Sean Maitland, Ryan Wilson, WP Nel and John Hardie
Ruaridh Jackson, Stuart McInally, Duncan Taylor, Sean Maitland, Ryan Wilson, WP Nel and John Hardie sing Scotland's national anthem before their match against Japan last summer

"From an early age it was drummed into us that we weren't England, we weren't Australia, we weren't anything but Scottish. My whole family would have tried to kill me if I tried to play for any other country."

'Special' Saracens

The notion that he would get the chance to play rugby at the highest level never dawned on him in the early years. He was turning out for Bedford in England's second tier and didn't believe he was good enough to climb higher.

He was a bit of a free spirit, admitting that if we think his hairstyle today is a bit quirky then it's nothing compared to what it used to be like. At Bedford he was cutting about in dreadlocks.

He went six or seven years without troubling a barber. His locks flowed halfway down his back. "I didn't brush it, cut it or wash it. I just let it crack on.

"I never believed I'd play Premiership or higher. I was happy in the Championship. I didn't have high hopes. All of a sudden, everything started rolling. I joined Saracens and my debut was at Twickenham against Wasps. I came on with about 10 or 15 minutes to go and ran around like a headless chicken, but I didn't feel out of my depth - and I just didn't expect to feel that way.

"I was mesmerised by guys who were playing for Saracens - Charlie Hodgson, Schalk Brits, David Strettle. I can't ever see myself leaving now. It's such a special place. Everybody is always striving for more.

"We won the European Cup, but because we lost the Premiership semi-final [against Exeter] it left a real hole in me at the end of the season. I still haven't got over it. Although we'd won Europe, it still felt like an anti-climax."

Taylor's ability and mentality are at Gregor Townsend's disposal now. The Scotland coach is keen on testing out combinations on tour and nowhere is the competition more acute than in midfield. He has Taylor and Matt Scott, Nick Grigg and Alex Dunbar. Peter Horne is also on this trip. Recovering from injury at home are Huw Jones and Mark Bennett.

The Saracen might not be the man in possession, but he's one who's expected to come roaring back into the picture in the coming weeks. His hamstring and his head, his shoulder and his ankle have done their worst this past year.

He's come through. He's ready to roll again.