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 go...one 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
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