FOUR years is a long time in international rugby. Long enough for a head coach to come and go, for young players to emerge and establish themselves, and for older men to be quietly discarded.

But four years were never going to be long enough to force Blair Cowan to give up hope of adding to his 17 Scotland caps. After so long away, the London Irish openside naturally saw it as an unexpected pleasure to be named in Gregor Townsend’s 40-man squad for the six autumn Tests, yet he had consistently kept faith in his ability to do a job if called upon.

“It’s always a pleasant surprise,” the 34-year-old says of being called up. “No matter how long you play rugby for, the feeling of actually getting that phone call never changes. To be honest, I’d never shut this chapter in my career, but as you get on a bit and the team evolves, you become realistic to the point that it was a really nice surprise.”

If he is called upon to play against Georgia on Friday – something that looks likely given the head coach’s hint that he would draw heavily on England-based players for this home game – Cowan will be sure to savour every minute of the occasion. He has had ample time to reflect on the first stage of his Test career and is convinced that he failed to appreciate it fully. Now, more mature and more relaxed, he is convinced that without enjoyment there is little point in playing.

“There were times, say at a sold-out Murrayfield, when you didn’t actually sit back and reflect on how special it was. Those are the hindsight moments where I wish I just enjoyed that and looked at it for what it was instead of worrying too much about the following week or training or the things I did wrong.

“The majority of the change in me has been off the field. I’ve got all my affairs in order off the field. After [the 2015] World Cup, there were some tough times mentally, but I’ve got such an amazing support base in my family

and the people around me. Once everything was sorted off the field, I realised how much I loved the game of rugby and just started enjoying it.”

That World Cup – more specifically, Scotland’s agonising quarter-final defeat by Australia – was both the pinnacle and the low point of Cowan’s international career. After not even being included in Vern Cotter’s squad for the tournament, he was first called up as injury cover, and then thrust into the starting line-up against the Wallabies.

“Yeah, I mean my career’s never been smooth sailing, that’s for sure. One minute I’m not in the World Cup squad, three weeks later I’m starting in the quarter-final.

“We should have won. At the time I probably let the emotion get to me and it probably disrupted my form a good few months after that. That wasn’t the one game in particular, it was the whole roller-coaster of what we do, especially when you get to international level. Not making the squad, coming back in – the ups and downs mentally.

“Luckily enough, I’ve had plenty of time to learn from those feelings and how to control them, and have triggers where I’ll get into a better space so I won’t fall into those traps, because there were some dark times that came after that. I think every player experiences it. It doesn’t matter at what level, there are those dark periods – just the big comedowns and not dealing with them well.

“I was probably too afraid to ask for help. I probably dealt with a bit of depression, and what I thought were the answers were the complete opposite and made things worse.

“That went on for a period. I’m not blaming anyone, it’s simply on me and how I was dealing with certain situations. I was lucky enough that some people recognised it. I was able to talk to the right people to guide me through it. It was nothing to do with Scotland. It was just the ups and downs, and I was in a young state of mind. It wasn’t anything directly to do with anything. It was just my own head space that I needed to clear.”

Learning how to clear that head space in the seasons that followed his last cap in the 2016 Six Nations can only have helped Cowan to cope with this most mentally and physically demanding of years for rugby players. As the national squad faces up to an onerous programme of six games in seven weeks, his sense of perspective and ability to enjoy his job will surely be a crucial attribute.