AFTER living off meagre rations in his first two games for Glasgow Warriors, Rufus McLean finally got the ball in his hands with a clear view of the line in the 42nd minute of last Sunday’s away clash against Leinster, and he grabbed his chance. The 21-year-old flicked on the afterburners as he streaked up the right touchline on his way to a try which sparked a brave 14-man fightback against the PRO14’s dominant side.  

Warriors ultimately ran out of steam after a yellow-card for flanker TJ Ioane, on top of the red card shown to Adam Hastings just before half-time, left them battling with 13 men for the final 10 minutes – but the performances of the young guns in the side meant the match didn’t leave the sort of bitter aftertaste we normally expect from a 19-point losing margin. 

Spurred on by that promising performance, Warriors head coach Danny Wilson has now named six players aged 21 or younger in his starting XV for this afternoon’s away match against Zebre, and for McLean – who will make his fourth appearance for the club on the right wing – there is no sense of pressure, just another opportunity to get some game time under his belt after a frustrating couple of months. 

“The real pressure I’ve felt this season was to get into the squad because I just wasn’t seeing any of it,” he says. “I think I must have gone half a season in the bibs, not hearing if I was going to get an opportunity, and then in conversation with the coaches I started to get reassurance that opportunities will come. The difficult part for me was not having an understanding of when that would be. 

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“It was a very pleasant surprise to hear I was getting my first game against Edinburgh [in mid-January] because the coaches kept it a secret for as long as possible so everyone could see my reaction in the team-meeting. If anything, I thought I would be on the bench, so when I found out I was starting I was a bundle of emotions.” 

The life of an emerging professional rugby player is not as glamorous as some might assume. The training is hard, the discipline required might best be described as monastic, and opportunities to put all your preparation to good use in a match situation can be few and far between. With that in mind, McLean is in no doubt that his double life as a full-time second-year student of Social Policy and Spanish at the University of Strathclyde has given him a valuable outlet away from the sport. 

“If I didn’t have that then I wouldn’t have anything to concentrate on outside rugby,” he concurs. “As much as rugby seems like everything at the moment because I am fit and getting games, I was out injured for about a year in total when I was 19 and that put serious perspective on the need to have something to fall back on because rugby is not a forever thing."

“The Spanish is massive for me,” he adds. “I think I’d like to go live in Spain when I’m older – beside the beach in the sun would be a nice change – so I’ll definitely try to keep that going for as long as possible. 

“The Social Policy was more to give the degree a bit of edge. Something a little bit more guided. Whether that means I go work in the social sector, I’m not so sure, but it is something I am interested in.” 

McLean, who recently signed a contract extension with Warriors, benefits from the university’s commitment to supporting elite athletes, which has led to a partnership being forged with Warriors involving the sharing of facilities and expertise. From his perspective, the most important thing is the flexibility built into his course which allows him to concentrate on his rugby career without compromising his studies. 

“Around the time I did my university applications, I spoke to somebody in the Scottish Rugby academy about how I would love to study in Glasgow and the advice I got back was that Strathclyde was hands-down the place I should be looking to go because they are so flexible and understanding of elite sports people,” he explains. “So, I got in touch with the elite sports liaison there and they sorted me out. 

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“I get a lot of leeway on deadlines and attendance when I just physically can’t be there because I am training or playing. My focus is rugby but I do try to make it work as best I can.  A lot of my classes are in the afternoon anyway, so I’ll come back from rugby about 1pm or 2pm, and my uni classes will start at about an hour later. It can be a bit of a juggling act, but I make it work. 

“The only downside to doing both is that you do have to sacrifice a little bit on the social side because a typical cheap student night out is on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and I’m training during the week, so I’m tucked up in bed at 10pm while all my mates are out partying – but that’s just the way it has to be, and at the end of the day, I get to do other stuff which is pretty cool.” 

 

Glasgow Warriors (v Zebre at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Saturday 1.30pm): O Smith; R McLean, H Jones, S Johnson, C Forbes; R Thompson, J Dobie; O Kebble, G Stewart, E Pieretto, R Harley, H Bain, G Brown, T Gordon, R Wilson (c). Substitutes: J Matthews, D Evans, D Rae, J Scott, L Nakarawa, S Kennedy, I Keatley, N Grigg. 

Zebre: M Biondelli; P Bruno, T Boni (c), E Lucchin, M Bellini; P Pescetto, G Palazzani; D Rimpelli, O Fabiani, E Bello, S Ortis, I Nagle, L Masselli, P Junior Leavasa, R Giammarioli. Substitutes: M Manfredi, P Buonfiglio, M Nocera, M Kearney, C Alaimalo, N Casilio, A Rizzi, G Di Giulio. 

Referee: Craig Evans (Wales)