Vernon's centre of attention

Date published: December 19 2013

In an in-depth interview with Planet Rugby's Jamie Lyall, Scotland international Richie Vernon discusses his midfield move.

In an in-depth interview with Planet Rugby's Jamie Lyall, Scotland international Richie Vernon discusses his midfield move.

The date is Sunday 27th December 2009. The venue is Firhill Stadium, Glasgow. The hosts, Glasgow Warriors, are taking on their cross-city rivals Edinburgh in what is effectively a Scotland trial for the forthcoming Six Nations tournament.

There are 50 minutes on the clock with the Warriors leading 15-12, when 22-year-old number eight Richie Vernon scoops up the ball from the base of a scrum 25 metres from the visitors' line.

Vernon speeds away from scrum-half Greig Laidlaw and flanker Alan MacDonald. He's too quick for opposite number Scott Newlands. The back-row wrong-foots Tim Visser with an astute dummy, before powering through a despairing cover tackle to dot down.

It was a display of flair, pace and balance indicative of Vernon's skill set.

There are numerous such instances on the Warrior's CV. The scything break he made in Scotland's 2010 victory over South Africa. The ease with which he ghosted past Wales centre Scott Williams in Cardiff two years later. The 50-metre try he scored against Harlequins during a two-year stint at Sale Sharks.

It is why fewer eyebrows were raised than may otherwise have been expected when the 26-year-old revealed last week he would be switching position, effective immediately, from the back-row to outside centre.

“A lot of people I've spoken to since the move was announced have said, “yeah, I always thought you could make it as a centre”,” Vernon told Planet Rugby's Lyall.

“It was always something I'd liked to have tried. I never had the opportunity before when back-row was going well, but it's been a tougher start to the season this year. I sat down with Gregor Townsend (Warriors head coach) and Scott Johnson (Scotland interim head coach), and it was they who suggested it.

“It was important that I was going to have the backing of the club. Doing it off your own back is a lot more difficult. The support they're planning to provide made it an easy decision for me.

“There are a lot of transferable skills from the back-row. There are certain parts of centre I was doing already as a back-row, running short lines of line-outs, midfield pick-ups.

“Defence is the biggest challenge, that's what I'm working the most on. Defence off set plays, in particular. Centre is more of a decision-making role too, that's quite difficult.

“At the moment, it's a matter of getting as many games, getting used to it in training, doing a lot of decision-making work, different backs moves.”

Indeed, standing at 6 foot 5 inches tall, and tipping the scales at over 100kg, Vernon's physique is in line with the increased muscle and ballast that now peppers most professional backlines.

The raw materials, you might say, are in place for the switch to be a success.

“My size is a real positive,” added Vernon.

“I've gone from a lighter-weight back row to a bigger back. It's good to be seen as that. That physicality you need as a back-row I can put into my game straight away as a centre. When I'm running those short lines and looking to get over the gain-line, my size will help me.”

Despite those attributes, Vernon won the last of his 20 caps some eighteen months ago, when Scotland narrowly saw off Samoa in Apia in June 2012.

With that array of skills, it may seem odd the now-midfielder has not featured for his country in so long, particularly given Scotland's dearth of pedigree Test players.

But if Scott Johnson does have the luxury of quality depth in one area of his squad, it is surely the back-row.

Conversely, the centre positions are among the most problematic for the coach, and have been for much of the past decade.

And while the physicality and go-forward of Kelly Brown, Dave Denton and Johnnie Beattie made waves at Murrayfield, Vernon struggled for form in Manchester.

“Honestly, I felt that if I played my best rugby, I could force myself back into that squad at back row,” revealed Vernon. “I hadn't done that at the start of the season.”

“I wasn't frustrated at the selection policy. I'd played my best rugby before the last World Cup (in 2011).

“Going down to Sale was a difficult transition, and I just didn't gain the consistency you need to push for Scotland recognition. I was in the squad a few times and I played for Scotland A, but I never managed to get back into the match-day squads. It was frustrating and it was a huge thing for me, but it spoke more about the levels the other back-rows were playing at and my own form.

“There are still some really good players at centre. There are lots of young guys coming through and guys that have played really well at Test level, but there isn't the same depth there that they've got in the back-row.

“It's a target for me to force my way back into squad; it'd be a great achievement to play for Scotland as a forward and a back. It's exciting for me, but it's a long way off at the moment.”

A long way off indeed, given Vernon sampled his first taste of competitive rugby in his new position on Friday in Stirling County's British and Irish Cup defeat to Nottingham.

Having returned “a much improved and more rounded player”, to the more familiar arena of the Pro12 from his time in the Premiership, what does Vernon feel is a realistic goal for the remainder of the season?

While he admits there is “no real time-frame” on the switch, the Dundonian has his sights set on featuring for the Warriors at centre before the curtain is brought down on the 2013/14 campaign.

“It's not something I've put down on paper yet, but I would like to play for Glasgow at centre at some point this season,” confirmed Vernon.

“That's going to involve a lot of improvement and playing well at club level.

“At one point, (former Warriors boss) Sean Lineen wanted me to convert to winger. I spent a few weeks there, but I didn't like it and went back to back-row.

“At the time, I was quite young; I hadn't really achieved what I'd wanted to as a back row. I feel like I'm in a different time of my life now – I've played back-row for a number of years, and I've got 20 caps for Scotland. This is a new challenge for me.”

by Jamie Lyall