21 Feb LONG READ | Prop talk with Allan Dell
In today’s long read feature we catch up with Scotland prop Allan Dell who is enjoying his time in the Scotland spotlight – savouring every moment in his five caps to date and learning at every step. Yet even now, at 24-years-old (Primary School age in prop years) the Edinburgh Rugby loosehead has encountered much to reflect on.
Educated at Queens College in South Africa, Dell was eligible to play for Scotland through heritage, his grandmother – Joan Carmichael – who was born in Paisley and brought up in Edinburgh.
Despite growing up in a small farming town in the Eastern Cape – some 8000 miles south of Edinburgh as the Boeing flies – it was Grandma Joan, together with Welsh grandmother, Diane, who ensured that there was a continuous Celtic influence throughout his upbringing.
“Both grandmothers were really passionate about their home countries and where they came from. They always got that across to us,” explained Dell.
“My dad is really into our history and he loves the background to the settlers from Great Britain that came to South Africa in the 1800s; where the Dells went and where their first farms were, leading back to the UK.
“It was always prominent as we grew up and that’s probably why my brother and I were always mad about Scotland.
“We would always play them in PlayStation games like Rugby 2008. We would make a player of ourselves and put him in the Scotland team, obviously without thinking I could actually do it in real life.”
By the time he turned 21, Allan had made 13 senior appearances in the Vodacom and Currie Cup competitions with the Sharks, alongside his selection for South Africa Schools and every South Africa age-grade sides en route to lifting the Junior World Championship trophy with the U20 side in 2012.
“I first heard of the opportunity to move in 2013 when Scotland were in South Africa that year.
“That was when I met Scott Johnson [Scottish Rugby’s Director of Rugby] and it all came into the frame. I always knew I was eligible to play for Scotland but before that point I didn’t really know it could happen.
“I had just started a new, two-year contract at the Sharks – it was my third contract with them but my first as a senior player – but thankfully they were really supportive with allowing me an early release to come over.
“I went to [Sharks coaches] Jake White and John Smith directly. I didn’t want someone to do it on my behalf. I’d signed the deal and was happy to see it through but this was an opportunity I really wanted to pursue. They said no at first but, ultimately, they understood and I’m really grateful for that.
“As soon it became a reality I jumped at the chance. Once it was confirmed I wasn’t worried but it was a big move and a little daunting to leave family, friends and a small farm lifestyle.”
Competition for places
“I came over with a ruptured pec and Dicko [Alasdair Dickinson] was the main man and starting every game, with Rory Sutherland, who was on an academy contract at the time, on the bench most weeks,” he explained.
“I got my first start against Lyon after Dicko pulled out in the morning of the game.
“I started what ended up being a crazy game, with a lot of players injured. That was then followed by my first call up to the Scotland squad for the camp ahead of the 2014 autumn tests.”
Unfortunately for Dell, injury struck again at the most inopportune time, when he broke his leg in his club’s last Guinness PRO12 match before the 2014 autumn tests and the beginning of the season-long run-in to the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
To his and his club’s medical team’s credit, he recovered in time to be named in the extended squad for the RWC, though he is pragmatic in his acknowledgment that he had too much catching up to do fitness and selection-wise to make a realistic impact.
“It was maybe a blessing in disguise, which is a strange thing to say but compared to now I’m not sure If I was really ready, whereas I feel totally different now,” said Dell.
“Compare that to this season where I was playing well coming into the autumn, scrummaging against top quality, international front-rows, like Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler, English international calibre. That reassures you going into the Scotland set-up and before starting my debut against Australia.
“To be honest I didn’t really think much about who we were playing.
“All I was thinking about was that I was about to play for Scotland. I was going to start at BT Murrayfield, which growing up watching rugby on the TV was something I always dreamed of doing.
“You know all about the history of the team, the legends, the stories. The whole week I just wanted to soak up everything. I was really nervous and was never going to try and act like a badass and pretend I wasn’t nervous about making my debut.
“As soon as you see your name on the sheet, the excitement, the nerves, the butterflies come into you.”
Dell went on to start all three tests in an impressive autumn campaign, though admitted he was back to learning the hard way in the front-row once again when he returned to domestic duty.
He added: “Playing for Scotland was amazing but you don’t get much time to reflect on it. I was back in for Edinburgh against Ospreys where I wanted to back those performances up.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t do too well in that game. I think I was maybe overthinking it. Nothing came to me. It was a disappointing week as I was frustrated with myself after such a great month. I missed a lot of opportunities by trying to do too much.
“I possibly thought too much about what worked the previous week or weeks and tried to replicate that, whereas I’ve learned you need to play every game and every opponent as they come.
“I probably learned as much as I did from that game as I did the whole autumn. It put my performances in context.”
Back with a bang
Dell’s bump in the road was short-lived however and he went on to produce stellar showings in Edinburgh Rugby’s journey to the knockout rounds of the European Challenge Cup – defeating Stade Francais at home and completing a quarter-final and championship double-securing away win over Harlequins, the Englishmen’s first home loss of the season.
“By the time I was back in the squad I had taken a lot more confidence from the game time I’d had with Edinburgh Rugby, playing against international front-rows and British & Irish Lions, week-in, week-out – Italian teams, Irish teams, Welsh, French, and within those teams there are Romanians, Argentines, Georgians; there is such a vast variety of rugby styles.
“Getting the opportunity to play in the RBS 6 Nations the year has been another big step up.
“We probably should have put Ireland away in the first game and came so close to France in Paris, despite underperforming in key areas and times in the game. We have to look at the finished product and I think we still have a long way to go.
“That’s the lovely thing about sport. If you’re willing to learn there’s always room for improvement and that’s the great thing about this squad is that it’s a really humble group wanting to get better and do well for the jersey.
“I think you can see the lessons learned and being executed in following games since the autumns. France was disappointing but I think our disappointment is a measure of how we’re coming along as a group.”
Quick feet and set-piece speed
One area Dell is particularly keen to target is arguably the most technically and challenging areas of the game, and often cited as the reason why props blossom at a finer vintage.
“I still make stupid mistakes, especially in the scrum, where I might get over eager,” said Dell.
“If you think you can dominate straight from the off you can get a quick reminder that is not going to be the case.
“I think you saw that in the Scotland game against Ireland, where I probably showed a bit of over-excitement. You can end up looking like an idiot but that’s often the only way you can learn, especially as a prop.
“I feel my scrummaging has got a lot better but I will make it better still.
“Around the park I feel I can offer a lot while improving in these areas. I always want to have that in my game. I know I’m still far from the finished article and have so many years in front of me.
“As a prop, you have to be able to scrum. Everything else is a bonus. I know I’m fine around the park. I’m comfortable defending in the backs and running around. That’s all a bonus to me now as I change my mind-set. I know I’ll always have that and can rely on it but my main emphasis is getting better at scrum time.
“For me, I’m against the tighthead and I’m looking to better him. But I can’t do that by myself. I need to work with my front-row, the front-row needs to work with the locks, and then the back-three of the pack and so on.
“What I’ve learned is to take each scrum as a new scrum. No matter how well the previous one went, the next one starts from scratch, your routine your set-up. Reading scrums is a lot like reading the game. You have to play it as they occur, rather than following a set approach.
“As a loosehead, I feel that if I’ve had a good engagement after the ‘set’ out the blocks, I’m straight and my hips are still in. it’s about how tight and comfortable I feel. I can’t ‘attack’ unless I feel the pressure from the locks or feel that the tighthead is also in a good position and that you’re all low and in a position to go forward.
“But if you’re hips are too far out you won’t have the full pressure from behind, I won’t be flat to the hooker and my bind won’t be as strong. If my feet are too narrow or too wide it’ll affect my stability or power.
“There’s so many little things to feel which means it’s all about experience and about getting in and out of trouble in games.”
The low-hanging fruit
At 17st, Dell is just half a stone (7lbs) lighter than the experienced ‘squad father’ Alasdair Dickinson yet it is a commonly cited element of his and every props game.
“In the front-row I think of someone’s weight as the low-hanging fruit,” added Dell, “It’s the easiest thing to blame if the scrums aren’t right.
“I’ve always been lighter than other than the majority of other propsl so I’ve always had to focus on my strength and technique, which I use to combat an opponent who has a lot of size byusing my fitness to last longer in the scrum or on the field than a guy who’s bigger.
“The old saying in boxing is that a ‘good big guy always beats a good little guy’ so my work has always been about being more technically astute or smarter.
“Dicko is also at Edinburgh Rugby and there’s a huge amount I can learn from him as he’s not too dissimilar to myself in terms of stature. He’s a very strong man, powerful, smart and a great mentor.”