STAFFORD MCDOWALL marked his first Glasgow Warriors start of the season with a solid all-round performance topped off with a key role in the second of his team’s three tries in last Friday night’s 1872 Cup victory over Edinburgh at Scotstoun. 

Now the 24-year-old centre has his sights set on holding on to his place in the match-day squad through to the end of the season, although he knows he is going to have his work cut-out given that Sam Johnson and Sione Tuipulotu have both now returned from international duty. 

The former national under-20s captain – who was once regarded as one of the brightest prospects in Scottish rugby and a potential ‘bolter’ for the 2019 World Cup having been called into Gregor Townsend’s Six Nations training squad earlier that year – has had a frustrating couple of years during which time he has struggled to command regular game-time at club level. 

After an impressive 2018-19 breakthrough season in which he started 11 games for Warriors, including the team’s Champions Cup quarter-final defeat at Saracens, McDowall’s career stalled partially through injury but mainly through non-selection.  

He managed just 12 starts and four bench appearances across the next two seasons and then two more bench appearances at the start of the current campaign before finding himself back out in the cold for three months.  

Then the Six Nations brought Scotland call-ups for Johnson and Tuipulotu, and with Nick Grigg having moved to Japan in December and Pete Horne having retired at around the same time, McDowall finally got the opportunity he had been waiting for. 

“Towards the start of the season the word was that the team was going well – Sam and Sione had formed a good partnership – so I had a couple of games off the bench, but it was just tough to break into that team when they were in form,” he reflects. “Then the Autumn international games came and there weren’t really any Glasgow matches during that period whereas in years gone by you’d look to use that window to get a footing in the team and get some game-time. 

“So, I’ve had to wait until the last couple of weeks when I’ve made a few more cameos off the bench – 15 to 20 minutes here and there – and then I got the chance to start the game on Friday night. There was a lot of nervous energy beforehand. It was a big game in which to get your first start of the season. I was happy with how it went and getting the win was the main thing.” 

Standing 6ft 4ins and weighing just over 16 stone, he might, at first glance, look more like a burly blindside flanker than a fleetfooted midfielder, but anyone who suspects that McDowall might be too cumbersome to be an effective operator in the Warriors backline should take a look at his assist for Tom Gordon’s second try against Edinburgh. There was game awareness, an injection pace and a well-timed pass. It wasn’t spectacular but it was exactly what the team needed at that moment. 

“It’s tough,” McDowall responds, when asked about the psychological toll of effectively being a full-time trainer for large chunks of the last three years. “I’m not going to sit here and lie and say it’s not. The inner competitor inside you wants to play every week and you train as hard as you can. I tried to look at it as a chance to develop areas of the game that the coach was telling me to work on and do specialist work in the gym. So, I just tried to channel my anger and frustration into training well and working on things.” 

McDowall was tight-lipped on the specifics of what he has been working on, but insists that he does now feel in better shape to take on the challenge of breaking up the Johnson-Tuipulotu midfield axis. 

“Hopefully, if I get a chance to play a few more games, I’ll be able to show that,” he concluded. 

Glasgow head to Wales this weekend for an appointment with Cardiff on Saturday evening, then it is a home match against Zebre on Friday 1st April, and positive outcomes from both those games will keep the pressure on United Rugby Championship top dogs Leinster and Ulster, who are, respectively, seven and six points ahead of Danny Wilson’s third-placed side at the moment.