Matt Scott: Edinburgh centre on 'personality changing' concussion and getting back to his best
Matt Scott is talking about fantasy football and Sergio Aguero and that hat-trick he scored against Aston Villa last weekend, a sweet 20-point haul for his owners, Scott among them.
In his pursuit of the title of Edinburgh Rugby's fantasy league champion, Scott needed those points so desperately that he was prepared to make a vow to get them. A few days before the game he told his fellow fantasist, Damian Hoyland, that if Aguero got a treble then he'd dye his hair again. Remember the shock of peroxide blonde? He'd go back to it, despite the ridicule, if the Man City man did the job, which he did.
"Come on, then," said Hoyland. "Dye it!" Scott prevaricated. "Coward!" laughed his pal.
It was a light-hearted moment, but Scott's recent story is the opposite of that. Last week he was named in Gregor Townsend's training squad for the Six Nations, a just reward for his excellence with Edinburgh this season, a campaign that has seen him play the kind of attacking rugby that made him such a prospect in the first place, all those years ago when he played in a European Cup semi-final in Dublin as a 21-year-old academy player on twelve grand a year and thought he was richer than Croesus. "Cock of the walk," as he puts it.
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The call-up was also a reminder of his last call-up, autumn 2018, and the horrible things that happened to him in the aftermath. We're going back to a moment just before half-time in a game against Toulon in late October. Scott took a ball off nine, caught an accidental flying arm and was shaken by it.
He went into Scotland camp a day later, starting doing some weights and felt sick. He thought the concussion might clear in a week or two, but it took five months. Those five months, he says, were brutal in so many different ways.
"I had headaches pretty much every day," he said. "My personality changed. I became really insular and anti-social. I didn't want to go out, didn't want to meet people. I lost a lot of confidence, lost a lot of personality. It was very difficult for my missus. We'd just got married and for a large part of our first year I was on migraine medication and was drowsy and I was going to bed at eight o'clock. I'd put the headphones on and completely shut myself off.
"I couldn't really see it. I thought I was acting normally. My patience was so thin. When I got angry I thought it was because my wife was nagging at me for no reason, but it was completely me."
Scott lives near Murrayfield and was kicking his heels that Christmas. "The streets around my house are really busy when the 1872 Cup game is on and I could see people going past my window on the way to the match and I just sat there and felt so low," he said. "I still had the headaches."
In pursuit of the kind of form that would add to his 39 caps, the last of them coming two-and-a-half years ago in the fantastic win over Australia in Sydney, he hit the gym, day after day. He'd normally do two weights sessions a week, now he was doing four and five. That was his way of dealing with the stress, but it was only adding to the problem.
In his early years he was coming in at 100 kilos but as the game became more attritional and the need for power became more important his weight creeped up. At 102 103, 104 he was fine. He could still be the player he wanted to be, a mix of physicality and evasiveness. All that work in the gym during the concussion months, all that desire to stake a claim for Townsend's World Cup squad, saw him hit the 110 kilo mark. That's over 17st. He couldn't operate at that size.
"I thought that doing all that gym work was the right thing to do," he said. "I'd become a player that tried to run over people instead beating them with my footwork and by running good lines, which was what I used to do. Towards the end of last season I was knackered on the pitch. We played Ulster at home to get into the play-offs and I had a bad game. I got a really hard time from Cockers (Richard Cockerill, Edinburgh coach) afterwards about my work-rate.
"What Cockers said really shook me. He said that if I continued to play like that then come contract renewal time we were going to have some awkward conversations and that I wouldn't be part of his plans. You never know if your ship has sailed, do you? I knew I was working hard but I was doing the wrong stuff, I wasn't working smart.
"I told him that I wanted to get down to 101, 102 kilos and reinvent myself as a player. I promised him I would."
He kept his word and ended the nightmare A good pre-season and some influential performances for Edinburgh and he's back in Townsend's thoughts. He's quicker now. More agile. His power hasn't diminished despite shedding weight.
"My wife is saying that the old me is back again, that I'm the person that I used to be," he said.
Reluctant to turn pro & growing at Gloucester
There's a story in the person he used to be as well. Scott was capped at most levels on the way to the top, but never had any confidence in his own ability. He says he hated his time with the Scotland U-20s because he was only playing fleetingly and also because he didn't really want to be a professional rugby player.
He was studying law and playing for Currie and was happy to be a recreational player. "When I stepped up to Scotland U-20s I felt I was out of my depth," he recalled. "I didn't like the environment. I turned down a Glasgow academy contract in my second year at university because I wouldn't have been able to carry on law full-time and having studied so hard I wasn't giving it up for 10 grand a year.
"In the back of my head, though, I was scared. I didn't have the confidence or the desire to commit to rugby. I didn't think I was good enough. The following year Edinburgh offered me an academy contract and said that I could carry on the law degree no problem. So I took it. I was on 12 grand a year and living at home. I played in a European Cup semi-final and then won my first cap against Ireland in 2012. It was all very quick. I loved it."
Scott stayed with Edinburgh until 2016, when the dull, forwards-driven rugby under Alan Solomons became too much for him and he left for Gloucester, a move that hammered home "how sheltered my rugby brain had been." Gloucester played ambitious stuff and he revelled in it.
In his first game he scored two tries against Leicester, in his second he scored again against Worcester. He got eight tries in his first 13 league games and scored four in six in the group stages of the Challenge Cup, where they went all the way to the final, back at Murrayfield, only to lose to Stade Francais.
He was flying, then he got injured. Seven weeks out and everything changed. The management at Gloucester had to make big calls on new contracts while he was out of action and he was a victim of it. "It's a brilliant club, an old school rugby place that's full of history," he said. "Pictures of former players on the walls, beer-stained carpets in the clubhouse. There was a great feeling there.
"I scored tries and made breaks that first season, but got injured in the third game of my second season and that was the beginning of the end. I wasn't ready to leave, but Gloucester didn't want to keep me. As it turned out, the move back to Edinburgh was a great thing."
He's 29 now and is acutely aware of the competition around him for a place in Scotland's midfield. Getting into the wider squad was the easy bit. Now the real test comes. After months of torment last year he's back in the hunt, though. A contender. His old self again."