The mighty Hulk who could turn Ed­die green with envy


There are ado­les­cent growth spurts, and then there are mighty surges like the one that launched Ex­eter Chiefs and Scot­land lock Sam Skin­ner into the in­ter­na­tional strato­sphere.

At 16, Skin­ner, who made a man-of-the-match Scot­land de­but against Fiji this au­tumn, was a 5ft 8in fly-half or cen­tre for Top­sham RFC, the Devon grass­roots club he had played for since his Scot­tish dad, Pe­ter, in­tro­duced him to mini rugby there when he was five.

He loved the game from the out­set, play­ing full back or wing ini­tially, and later showed even greater ver­sa­til­ity by play­ing in the No.10 shirt for a full sea­son for Top­sham Colts while at the same time play­ing in the back row for Torquay Gram­mar School.

How­ever, when Skin­ner fin­ished school in 2013 with­out be­ing spot­ted by an academy any­where in the coun­try, he thought his dream of a pro­fes­sional rugby ca­reer was over.

What the young­ster had no means of know­ing was that over the next three years an ‘In­cred­i­ble Hulk’ trans­for­ma­tion would get un­der­way, in which he would grow nine inches and beef up by over three stone (21kg) to turn into the 6ft 5in, 17st 7lb elite se­cond row for­ward he is to­day.

Skin­ner, who will be 24 at the end of this month, and will be call­ing the li­ne­out shots for the Chiefs in their cru­cial fourth round Euro­pean Cup pool clash against Cas­tres at Sandy Park to­day, does his best to ex­plain his ex­tra­or­di­nary ger­mi­na­tion.

“I had planned to go on a gap year af­ter school, but Taun­ton showed an in­ter­est and I de­cided to give it an­other last try. I loved play­ing the dif­fer­ent roles in the back­line at Top­sham, and it gives you a valu­able per­spec­tive that you wouldn’t oth­er­wise get – I even played scrum-half for one game – but I re­ally en­joyed the move to the for­wards at Taun­ton, and re­alised it suited me more. Rugby be­comes eas­ier as you get big­ger, and by that stage I had shot up­wards.”

Skin­ner gave an­other clue to his switch to the pack with a knock­about re­sponse to my en­quiry about whether, when he played cen­tre, he was in­side or out­side: “I was the cen­tre that al­ways ran the ‘car­rot line’– the one on the dummy switch that never got the ball!”

Since then he has en­sured that he gets more than his fair share of ball by be­com­ing one of the best front five for­wards in the Premier­ship.

The jour­ney to the top started in earnest when Chiefs for­wards coach Rob Hunter saw him play­ing for Taun­ton, and af­ter ten matches in Na­tional League Two South he was of­fered an academy con­tract by Ex­eter dur­ing the 2014-15 sea­son.

The gap year was put on longterm hold as the Ex­eter strength and con­di­tion­ing team set the tem­plate to get some meat on the bones of the 14st (90kg) hope­ful, while Skin­ner de­cided to com­bine his rugby stud­ies with the aca­demic va­ri­ety, win­ning a place at Ex­eter Uni­ver­sity to do a Busi­ness and Eco­nomics de­gree.

Train­ing and play­ing for the Chiefs saw him not only put on al­most two stone over the next two years, but saw him make his first team de­but against Glouces­ter in the LV Cup (Novem­ber 2014) and make his Premier­ship de­but against Northamp­ton later that sea­son.

It also put Skin­ner on Eng­land’s radar for the first time, and he was part of the Eng­land U20 side that lost to New Zealand in the 2015 World Ju­nior Cham­pi­onship fi­nal.

He re­calls: “I was mainly on the bench dur­ing the tour­na­ment at No.8, where I was back up to James Chisholm, and at se­cond row, where Char­lie Ewels and Will Witty were the start­ing pair.”

How­ever, that dis­ap­point­ment was re­placed by an early ca­reer high when he cap­tained the Ex­eter Uni­ver­sity side that won the BUCS Cham­pi­onship ti­tle in 2016, beat­ing Lough­bor­ough in the fi­nal at Twick­en­ham.

“Out­side the LV Cup there were not too many first-team op­por­tu­ni­ties at the club, so it was a bless­ing that I could com­mit fully to uni­ver­sity rugby. I loved the uni­ver­sity league – it is a great cul­ture when you are play­ing com­pet­i­tive rugby with your mates in an en­joy­able en­vi­ron­ment.”

That workhard play-hard ethos paid off with Skin­ner leav­ing Ex­eter with a first class hon­ours de­gree, and there was also a div­i­dend from stu­dent rugby. It gave him the lee­way to de­velop the lead­er­ship skills that he has demon­strated this sea­son as a caller con­duct­ing an Ex­eter li­ne­out op­er­a­tion which is ar­guably the most lethal in the Premier­ship. Just how pow­er­ful a weapon the Ex­eter li­ne­out drive is was demon­strated graph­i­cally when they rolled over Sara­cens at Sandy Park just be­fore Christ­mas, with three un­stop­pable mauls in the fi­nal quar­ter re­sult­ing a 31-13 vic­tory. Skin­ner was at the epi­cen­tre, com­bin­ing call­ing du­ties with clean, quick de­liv­ery from the top of his jump, as well as strong leg drives and good body po­si­tion in the mauls when his feet touched the ground. He says he rel­ishes the re­spon­si­bil­ity of get­ting the li­ne­out maul work­ing like clock­work: “Given the op­por­tu­nity I like a lead­er­ship role, and I’m not shy to take it on. I will take it if it’s of­fered.” Skin­ner sheds some light on the de­mands of be­ing the big chief of the Ex­eter li­ne­out: “I am lead­ing the li­ne­out at the mo­ment, but there are a num­ber of our for­wards who can do it. “Li­ne­out call­ing is all about keep­ing it sim­ple as pos­si­ble. There are so many mov­ing parts that it can eas­ily get over-com­pli­cated. The key is to make sure that ev­ery cog works per­fectly, and for me to make the calls as sim­ple and clear as pos­si­ble, and also to make sure I re­mem­ber to do my role as well.” He adds: “Mis­takes will hap­pen be­cause we are hu­man, but when they do you must bounce through it and not let it get into your heads. As a li­ne­out caller it can be tricky not to let it get on your mind be­cause of the pres­sure, bu you must put any mis­takes be­hind you and con­cen­trate fully on the next task.” How­ever, Skin­ner says that when you get a driv­ing maul right, “it is 100 per cent sat­is­fy­ing”. He ex­plains: “You put a lot of ef­fort in dur­ing the week in train­ing, and it’s trick­ier than it

“When a driv­ing maul comes to­gether and you score you get a sense of huge sat­is­fac­tion”

looks. When a driv­ing maul comes to­gether as a col­lec­tive and you score you get a sense of huge sat­is­fac­tion.”

The im­me­di­ate task at hand is not only to beat Cas­tres at Sandy Park to­day to keep their Euro­pean Cup hopes alive, but to se­cure a bonus point against the Top 14 cham­pi­ons so that when they travel to take on Mun­ster at Thomond Park next week­end it is a win­ner-takes-all tie.

The Chiefs have made last eight qual­i­fi­ca­tion a much steeper climb than it need have been by los­ing at home to Glouces­ter, draw­ing with Mun­ster, and throw­ing away a big lead and a one man ad­van­tage at Cas­tres.

How­ever, Skin­ner only has eyes for the task ahead. “We are at a club that has great am­bi­tion in Europe, and we em­brace the pres­sure. There are huge matches this week­end and next, and you feel priv­i­leged to get the chance to be part of it.

He adds: “I was un­avail­able for the Cas­tres game in France, be­cause I was re­cov­er­ing from con­cus­sion from the Mun­ster match. Like most French sides they are very phys­i­cal, and at the li­ne­out Cas­tres have a lot of va­ri­ety. In Europe the li­ne­outs are more com­pet­i­tive be­cause the refs let things go a bit more than they do in the Premier­ship. There is more lee­way to chal­lenge, whether it’s at the li­ne­out or the break­down.”

The chal­lenges will keep on com­ing be­cause no sooner will Ex­eter’s Euro­pean Cup fate be de­cided than Skin­ner will be back in the Scot­land camp to pre­pare for the­isr Six Na­tions opener against Italy, fol­lowed by the ar­rival at Mur­ray­field of Grand Slam cham­pi­ons Ire­land.

Skin­ner made a big im­pres­sion in win­ning the first of his three caps for Scot­land this au­tumn against Fiji, South Africa, and Ar­gentina, but his de­ci­sion to opt for the land of his fa­ther rather than Ed­die Jones’ Eng­land was not straight­for­ward.

When Gre­gor Townsend called to ask if he was avail­able for last sum­mer’s tour to Canada, the USA and Ar­gentina, Skin­ner was taken by sur­prise and told the Scot­land coach he wanted to com­pete for a place fully primed af­ter a proper pre-sea­son train­ing.

Townsend said in the au­tumn build-up: “He wanted to start the sea­son and earn his place, and he’s done that. He’s an ex­cel­lent player. Li­ne­out leader for one of the best packs in Europe, his de­ci­sion-mak­ing is ex­cel­lent, and he takes re­ally good run­ning lines, so we’re de­lighted he’s com­mit­ted to Scot­land.”

He re­vealed also that the tip-off Skin­ner was Scot­tish, “came from some­one who was speak­ing to his dad, to say that noth­ing would make him more proud than Sam play­ing for Scot­land”. Townsend added: “So we’ve been track­ing him re­ally closely. We’d have liked to have taken him on tour but Sam didn’t think it was the right time.”

Skin­ner ex­plains that he had a dual Scot­tish-English el­i­gi­bil­ity rid­dle to solve first: “My dad is Scot­tish, and he was al­ways cheer­ing on Scot­land – but I am born and bred Ex­eter and my mum’s from York­shire, so I sup­ported Eng­land and Scot­land as a young­ster. Dad was brought up in Ayr­shire, and moved down to Wilt­shire when he was 14, and then Devon – but his fam­ily is 100 per­cent Scot­tish. He is a clas­sic proud Scot, and be­ing in our liv­ing room dur­ing the Six Na­tions as I was grow­ing up it was ei­ther the best of days, or the worst, de­pend­ing on what hap­pened, just as with any pas­sion­ate sup­porter.”

He adds: “I did not take it lightly be­cause it also in­volved Ex­eter los­ing me as an English-qual­i­fied player, which has a fi­nan­cial as­pect. So, when the call came in the sum­mer ask­ing me to tour it was too soon for me to process.”

Now, hav­ing pulled on the blue shirt with the this­tle crest, Skin­ner says it is a per­fect fit: “I feel 100 per­cent pas­sion­ate for Scot­land now, and I want to do my best for my fa­ther, for my whole fam­ily, and for my late grand­mother, who would be so proud.”

He also tells of the warm Scot­tish wel­come he re­ceived in the au­tumn.

“I re­ally en­joyed it. I was ap­pre­hen­sive at first, but was wel­comed with open arms. It is a pretty re­laxed squad and there are no cliques. It is very sim­i­lar to the Chiefs with the em­pha­sis a lot on ball-in-play time, play­ing at such a high tempo that you out­work the op­po­si­tion.”

How­ever, Skin­ner has no in­ten­tion of tak­ing his promis­ing start for Scot­land for granted: “I would not say I feel es­tab­lished. Ini­tially I just want to make sure I am se­lected. Italy is a bril­liant op­por­tu­nity, and against them and Ire­land we have a great chance to put down a firm foun­da­tions.”

The big chief from Devon is ready for his next growth spurt, and Eng­land’s loss looks cer­tain to be a sig­nif­i­cant gain for Scot­land.

Tipped off: Gre­gor Townsend Au­tumn im­pres­sion: Han­dre Pol­lard of South Africa tries to tackle Skin­ner

PIC­TURES: Getty Im­ages

Strength: Ex­eter’s Sam Skin­ner, left, holds off Mat Protheroe of Bris­tol

Eng­land hope: Sam Skin­ner play­ing for the Red Rose dur­ing the U20 Six Na­tions Cham­pi­onship

First choice: James Chisholm was Eng­land’s No.8

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