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Jacobsen retirement raises question of morale in camp

Allan Jacobsen's arrival on the international scene in 2000 has gone down in legend, even though he would like us to believe it may not be entirely true.

For the man known as Chunk, Test rugby had become a chore . . .
For the man known as Chunk, Test rugby had become a chore . . .

Something of a surprise inclusion in a Scotland squad for that summer's tour of New Zealand, the portly-looking little lad from Prestonpans found himself on a team-building session in the Lake District.

On the first evening each player, established or otherwise, was invited to stand up and introduce himself to his new colleagues.

Come Jacobsen's turn he shuffled to his feet and – with apologies to the more easily offended – declared: "Mah name's Chunk and nae **** kens me," before swiftly returning to his chair.

"I think it's been misinterpreted over the years," he protested when I reminded him about it yesterday. "It sounded similar to that but I don't know if the exact wording is correct. Don't print that, my mum will go mad!"

Jacobsen had actually been around the professional scene for a season or so with Edinburgh, but with no league structure, professional rugby was all a bit rough and ready. That should have suited him fine, admittedly, coming as he did from the decidedly unpretentious Preston Lodge club that had been put on the international map just a few years earlier by Scott Murray.

In many ways, though, the prop, who has had his moments with the authorities on the field and otherwise, better suited the image of the club in the former mining town of Prestonpans, for all that he protests: "Scott talks posher but he's not".

He did not exactly seize his chance in the Test arena, making an uncapped appearance against the Barbarians that summer and featuring in provincial games in New Zealand, but failing to win a Test cap until Scotland's next summer tour two years later.

Nor did that go terribly well as, in a match in which Mike Blair also made his Test debut, an experimental Scotland side were shocked by Canada in Vancouver, making up for it a week later by handing the USA a thrashing.

During the next few years he hovered around the international scene, his career surviving a bizarre episode when Ian McGeechan declared that he believed the out-and-out loosehead specialist had the capacity to become a "world class tighthead prop", without him ever establishing himself in the squad.

By 2006 he accepted that his lifestyle was playing a part in that and he improved his nutrition and conditioning to establish himself as Scotland's first-choice No.1 by the 2007 World Cup.

A nasty calf injury, suffered just minutes into the opening match of that tournament, cost him his place, but with better habits now established, he battled back to win the majority of his 65 caps during the next five years when he became an automatic choice in Scotland's No.1 jersey. His honesty in his assessment of Scotland performances was often searing, adding to the respect in which he was held throughout the Scottish game in spite of that very evident mischievous streak.

All of which had only added to the strangeness of the way his Test career has ended. Having started all four of Scotland's previous Six Nations matches earlier this year, he withdrew from the meeting with Italy in Rome just minutes before kick-off.

Jacobsen was not to start for his country again, missing the summer tour during which Ryan Grant, his former Edinburgh understudy, seized his chance to make the position his own.

The senior man rightly dismissed suggestions yesterday that disappointment at failing to be reinstalled in the starting XV for the first autumn Test against New Zealand, in which he made his final appearance as a replacement, had contributed to his decision to quit. However, since he withdrew himself from consideration for last Saturday's meeting with South Africa, this is the second time this year that a long-standing member of the squad has retired after the first match of a campaign, Dan Parks having departed immediately after the Six Nations opener against England.

With questions already being raised about morale in the camp, Jacobsen's own explanation did not exactly suggest it is the happiest place to be either.

Clearly a decade or so of being cooped up in hotels has taken its toll, but set against his assertion that he still loves playing the sport itself and remains committed to doing so for Edinburgh, his description of Scotland duty as seeming like "the biggest drag in the world" does not speak well of the environment.

In fairness, it would also be wrong to try to over-analyse the plain-speaking prop's words since he merely seemed to be seeking to give as honest an explanation as possible of why he, personally, no longer felt he could give what he believes he should for the cause.

His candour was commendable, just as his determination, particularly in the second half of his career, to make the maximum of his ability has been. As he focuses now on playing for his club, what is certain is that anyone in world rugby who no longer knows who Chunk is just has not been paying attention this past decade or so.

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