The boys are back in training after a long break, with some new faces in attendance and a few old friends moving on elsewhere.
Before the team went off on their holidays Matt Merritt went to Hazelwood to speak with some of the squad about how the season went and their expectations for the future. Now, after a few weeks delay here is the first of those interviews as Matt chats with Luke Mclean.
It came as a bit of a surprise to us all when you announced your retirement after such a strong season.
Yeah, it was the right time. I’ve got a few things going on and I’m looking forward to them. I’ll be in the city for a few months, doing an internship at Citibank.
I really enjoyed the season, it’s been fun, lots of victories which is good!
A good season for you too, I think. Your performances have been impressive, and you seem to have really gelled with the young outside backs.
A bit of the old codger out there trying to keep the young boys in check!
No, I ‘ve enjoyed that role too. Some of the young lads coming through are real talents, I won’t name them in case I forget someone but you all know who they are! They’ve been exceptional, the speed, their work in contact, the athleticism… they’ve pretty much put it together already and once they get to the Prem and get a bit of experience at that level it will only benefit them in the future. You can only imagine how good they’ll be in four or five years!
So, when you made the decision to retire was that based on an opportunity that came your way or was it always part of the plan?
A bit of everything really. The opportunity to come to London and play here was a rugby decision but made with one eye on life after rugby. With what I wanted to study and get into it was a good middle ground where I could look after both things.
There’s always a life after rugby, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time playing but you’ve got to look after the next phase too and it felt right.
I guess the chance to go out on your terms must be good too, a lot of players don’t get to make that call.
Yeah, definitely. I’ve been fortunate in that regard.
We’ve seen you most this season on the wings, you came over and started games at 12 and you’re probably best known as a full back. Do you think versatility is an important part of the modern game?
I think lots of players specialise and if you can that’s a good thing but there’s always a role in the squad for someone who can cover three or four positions. With the way the game is going – players are faster, stronger – there are more injuries so if you can cover a few positions you can guarantee yourself a decent amount of game time or at the least a spot on the bench.
When I was growing up and getting into rugby I was warned against it because you become a utility back rather than specialising in anything but the way it has gone for me, any time a coach has asked if I would have a go playing a position I’ve said ‘why not’, if I feel like I can offer something… even this year I had to play 12 a couple of times and fill a role as a short term thing. If you can help out you’ve got to do that.
You started out for Italy as a 10 and obviously played a lot at full back, two positions that require a good grasp of what is happening across the pitch so playing different roles must help that understanding too?
Yeah, when you’re a 10 you want to take it to the line and pick the right option at the last minute, then you drop back to 15 and you’re yelling at the fly-half to give you the ball early because there’s space… it gives you more of a feel of what you need, what the other positions are doing and how you can communicate that.
For young players if you can do that early on, even if it’s just fullbacks playing on the wing, it will add something to your game and give you a different perspective on how you can support your teammates.
You’ve spent a lot of time in an Italy shirt throughout your career so what position do you think the team find themselves in heading into the World Cup?
It’s a weird one actually, tough to predict. You look at the pool they’re in (Italy have drawn New Zealand, South Africa, Namibia and Canada) and it will be tough to get out of. That’s the goal, just to get out of the pool.
I played in two world cups and both times we didn’t make it out, that was a disappointment… you put in so much work to get there and you just want a little bit more.
You look at recent performances and wonder if it could happen, they’ve been a little off internationally. But then when you look at Treviso you think ‘hang on, there’s some decent players there’.
For the first time ever, an Italian team is in the quarter final of the Pro 14 so if you can harness some of what they’ve done you can get results. When Italy was successful, beating Ireland and France, it was when Treviso were successful.
There’s crossover there, but it’s a case of putting it together for 80 minutes. World Cups come down to 80 minutes sometimes. 4 years ago, in the opening round we had France and it was pretty much do or die. We knew Ireland were next up and they wouldn’t make mistakes, so we had to beat France to go through. Unfortunately we lost…
As much as a player you try not to think about it, after that we knew… It’s tough to predict though and you never know what might happen on the day so hopefully there will be some crossover from Treviso’s success.
People point to Italian rugby and their place in the Six Nations and accuse them of not progressing, but looking at Treviso you really can see how much the Italian game has improved, but of course other teams improve too…
Yeah, people talk a lot about relegation or going down to 5 teams, but if you do that it will just be a different team losing every week.
There would be so many complexities to relegation and even if it came in Italy reasonably comfortable beat Georgia in November I thought, without really ever having to play well. You think that would squash it…
I’m a massive fan of relegation in domestic leagues, look at the Prem or the Top 14, if it was to be brought into the Pro 14 that would be good too, but in internationals, I’m not convinced.
Thanks for your time Luke, last question from me: You’ve been here a couple of years now as the club has finalised the move to Brentford and it feels like real progression for those of us looking in, does it feel the same for the players?
Yeah, I think once everything moves to Brentford that’s a natural progression and one that had to be done. For the supporters, the players for the future longevity of the club…
There’s no short cuts but it feels like things are on the right path. Hopefully we’ve laid the ground work this year for the boys to build on next season in the Prem. The only objective is to save yourself. If you can do that, get to Brentford and build a bit of buzz the club can really kick on and do something special!
Huge thanks to Luke for his time, to @RugbyLI for carrying out these interviews and of course to the club for their continued support.