Sam Skinner (centre) wants to cement his place in the Scotland second row
Sam Skinner has won half of his eight Scotland caps in the second row and the other half in the back row. That versatility is, he accepts, one of his trump cards, yet it also a source of frustration.
“I don’t want to be bracketed as a jack of all trades, master of none,” he said. “I’m trying to push for the second-row position. Obviously, the guys ahead of me are playing really well and there’s a lot of competition, but I’m looking to go for the second row. Gregor [Townsend] says he’s happy with me, and I’m happy where I am in the squad, but I want to push myself as much as I can.”
Skinner’s preference for the boiler room over the back row will inevitably bring him into direct competition with Jonny Gray for both club and country. Gray moved from Scotstoun to Exeter after lockdown ended and quickly cemented himself alongside Jonny Hill as the Chiefs’ first-choice lock pairing. Gray started both the Champions Cup final and Premiership final, while Skinner had to settle for a cameo off the bench.
“To be honest, I’ve really enjoyed having Jonny down at Exeter and we’ve got on really well,” Skinner said of his rival. “I guess we kind of are competing for the same position, but it’s never really felt like that. We’re always wanting the team to do as well as possible. I can’t honestly sit here and say I feel like I’m competing with him, even though technically I am. It doesn’t feel like that. I’ve definitely learnt from his game and I’d like to think that we’ve had good discussions that have helped us both to push forward.”
That Exeter connection has, Skinner believes, helped strengthen what was already a hard-nosed winning mentality among the Scotland team. Against Italy, after Skinner replaced Nick Haining in the back row when Scotland were trailing, the Scots ended the match with four Exeter players on the pitch, with Sam Hidalgo-Clyne also coming on to join a side led by Stuart Hogg.
Nowhere was the Exeter influence more obvious than when, with Scotland trailing 17-14 and 15 minutes remaining, the visitors were awarded a kickable penalty. Rather than giving the ball to Duncan Weir in the hope of drawing level, Hogg went for the corner and was rewarded when Scott Cummings muscled his way over shortly afterwards, with Skinner playing a prominent part in the line-out drive that set up the score. This tactic may have become Scotland’s most dangerous attacking weapon, but the decision-making was classic Chiefs.
“Hoggy has come down to Exeter and it’s been a big part of Exeter’s game to kick to the corner,” Skinner said. “It was ultimately his decision to kick to the corner against Italy. We backed it and it worked out.”
Skinner said the decision to go for the corner was not just a function of Scotland’s new self-belief and calmness, but also a nod to the quality of forwards they have at their disposal.
“Our ability to close out the game, get the win and the bonus point showed maturity,” he said. “There was a time we could have taken the points, but we backed our set-piece quality and showed an ability to get the job done. It’s exciting that when it comes to those important minutes, we’re a team that knows how to get across the whitewash. I feel great about the quality of the pack we have.”
As well as being a serial winner with his club, Skinner’s record in a Scotland shirt is impressive. In eight Tests, he has lost just once, a tight 26-20 defeat by South Africa, and apart from that classic 38-38 draw at Twickenham he has won every other game, including against Sunday’s opponents France in March. After five wins in succession, he believes that Scotland are finally enjoying the burden of expectation.
“If people believe and have confidence in us, that’s a good thing,” he said. “We’ll take it in our stride. I don’t think we shy away from it or be nervous. The more expectation the better. We want to demand more of ourselves and we want to give back to the Scottish family as much as possible.”