|World Cup warm-up: Scotland v France|
|Venue: Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh Date: Saturday, 24 August Kick-off: 13:10 BST|
As recently as 10 months ago, Alex DuNBAr was one of Scotland’s leading Test centres. But by June, he had failed to make even the 41-man training squad for the Rugby World Cup, was out of contract, and wondering about a future outside the sport.
A frustrating 2017-18 season with Glasgow Warriors – one scarred by injury and a lack of game-time – seemed to have been consigned to history when the 29-year-old was trusted by Gregor Townsend to start in midfield in Scotland’s first two Autumn internationals.
But while his international team-mates are in Japan, DuNBAr will be in France, having signed a one-year deal with Top 14 side Brive.
Here, he talks to BBC Scotland about coping with the prospect of unemployment, removing himself from the spotlight, and his hopes of reigniting his career.
‘I wasn’t ready for a proper job’
DuNBAr’s 2018-19 season is encapsulated by the way it ended. On loan at Newcastle in a bid to play the matches necessary to keep him in Townsend’s thoughts, he played the second-last game of the season against Gloucester and injured his shoulder after 20 minutes, curtailing any chance he had left of impressing potential suitors and the national boss.
“When I was getting the operation, that’s when it sunk in most and it suddenly hits you that you need to work on a Plan B,” he says. “Obviously you’re a little bit stressed because it’s your career, it’s what you want to do. I wasn’t ready to finish and go back into a proper job if you like. I still feel like I’ve got an awful lot to give.
“You kind of need someone to want you. You get little bits of interest but until it gets beyond interest and you get a bit more serious there’s a little bit of doubt in the back of your mind.”
‘You’re not scrutinised as much away from Glasgow’
The stint at Newcastle was not as successful as DuNBAr might have hoped – a groin injury made sure of that – but the change of scene ignited a desire for a fresh challenge. He found a new environment refreshing, a release from the expectation of playing for Glasgow for nine years.
“It felt you weren’t under as much pressure; you just enjoyed Rugby again a little bit more,” he says. “I’ve been speaking to a few other guys and they say the same as well. When you move away it’s obviously a big challenge but they always relish the challenge and the opportunity of doing something different – you don’t feel like you’re being scrutinised as much.”
The pressure, at least partly, must have come from the desire to reassert himself in the Glasgow side, as the rise of Kyle Steyn, Stafford McDowall and Sam Johnson increasingly restricted his minutes on the pitch. DuNBAr credits the ability of his former team-mates but he still struggles to understand his demotion to the wilderness.
“It wasn’t like I was having a shocker or anything,” he says. “But any time you would speak to coaches or ask them why you’re not playing, you’d just get told they were picking on form. But then you’re coming in, having a couple of good games, going away to play international Rugby and then coming back and being told you’re not playing again. So I found it a bit weird and a bit odd.”
‘I wasn’t surprised to miss World Cup’
At his best DuNBAr provides strong, direct running, solidity in defence and a threat over the ball in the loose. It is arguable that Scotland, despite the wealth of talent in the centres, do not possess another player with his particular attributes.
Nonetheless his lack of minutes and absence from the Six Nations squad meant his omission from the 42-man World Cup training group came as little surprise. Least of all, to DuNBAr himself.
“I’d have been very, very, very surprised if I’d even been involved,” he says. “In my head, I kind of knew. It was obviously disappointing the way last season went and not to be involved in the World Cup squad after the heartache of last time [in 2015] when I did my knee and didn’t manage to come back in time. I’d kind of dealt with it.”
So while DuNBAr will not begin his season in Japan as he may have hoped, he faces the exciting prospect of a new life in France and the opportunity to reignite his career. Having signed a one-year deal, he knows he faces a fight to earn another contract at Brive or elsewhere. But DuNBAr’s priority is far more simple, yet fundamental.
“It’s a great opportunity to come and play against some of the best players in the world and test myself. If I can get back fit and being on the field, the way I play, and with my strength, I could do well.”