Blair Cowan is determined to enjoy his surprise Scotland recall after some ‘dark moments’
It’s been all about comebacks for Scotland this week. The return of Finn Russell dominated the squad announcement. Then the focus shifted to Richie Gray, back in the national set-up for the first time in two and a half years.
The inclusion of another forward after an even longer absence almost went unnoticed. Almost.
Blair Cowan last played for Scotland at the 2016 Six Nations in Cardiff but he’s back and, at the age of 34, determined to enjoy it.
That hasn’t always been the case for the New Zealand-born backrower who admits to some “dark moments” in a rugby career that has taken him from Upper Hutt in the Wellington Region to the brink of a World Cup semi-final with Scotland.
Cowan started the now infamous quarter-final against Australia five years ago today when a mistake by referee Andre Joubert turned Scotland’s 34-32 last-minute lead into a 34-35 defeat. It was, says Cowan, just one of a number of rollercoaster moments that left him struggling to cope at times.
He admits candidly that the comedowns brought on depression. Happily, he’s in a better place now and thrilled to be back in the Scotland squad.
The call from coach Gregor Townsend was a “pleasant surprise”, he says.
“No matter how long you play rugby for, the feeling of actually getting that phone call never changes,” he admits. “To be honest, I’d never shut this chapter in my career, but as you get on a bit and the team evolves you become realistic - to the point that it was a really nice surprise.”
Capped 17 times, Cowan will look to add to that tally across a busy autumn schedule which begins with a match against Georgia at BT Murrayfield on Friday, continues with the rescheduled Six Nations match with Wales in Llanelli on 31 October then segues into the Autumn Nations Cup which will see Scotland play Italy, France and Fiji on successive November weekends before a final classification match in early December.
After such a long absence, the London Irish flanker wants to make the most of this second chance.
“Looking back at when I was originally in the squad and those few years when I played at the  World Cup, I was always so worried,” he says. “I was always worried about making a mistake or I wasn’t doing the right thing. The lesson is being able to sit back and enjoy the moment and just realise how amazing it was and how special these environments are.
“Probably my biggest learning from that is to come up here, work my arse off, but enjoy it. Make sure I enjoy the moment, the boys, the coaches and the intensity of the environment.”
The fallout from the 2015 quarter-final had a profound effect on Cowan who was controversially omitted from coach Vern Cotter’s original World Cup squad. He was then drafted in and found himself starting key games against South Africa and Australia.
“My career’s never been smooth sailing, that’s for sure,” he says. “One minute I’m not in the World Cup squad, three weeks later I’m starting in the quarter-final.
“We should have won. At the time I probably let the emotion get to me and it probably disrupted my form for a good few months after that. It wasn’t the one game in particular, it was the whole rollercoaster of what we do, especially when you get to international level. Not making the squad, coming back in - the ups and downs mentally.
“Luckily enough, I’ve had plenty of time to learn from those feelings and how to control them, and have triggers where I’ll get into a better space so I won’t fall into those traps. That’s an important thing I’d like to pass on to younger boys as well at the club, because there were some dark times that came after that.
“I think every player experiences it. It doesn’t matter at what level, there are those dark periods. There’s a lot of support and resources out there to help us get through those, but I think the best sometimes comes from players and those experiences
“I’m lucky. I’ve got through that, all good, and now I’m just loving life. Loving where I’m at at the moment, my career and my off-field stuff. And I’ll continue to help out if I see that with some other players.”
The biggest lesson Cowan learned was to ask for help. He didn’t, initially, and would urge younger players not to make the same mistake.
“I was probably too afraid to ask for help when I was not in a good focus spot,” he says. “I probably dealt with a bit of depression, and what I thought were the answers were the complete opposite and made things worse.
“That went on for a period. I’m not blaming anyone: it’s simply on me and how I was dealing with certain situations. But at the back of that, I realised what’s important to me: family, enjoyment and the game.
“I stepped back into isolation and probably seemed distant to a lot of people. You get disconnected from certain areas and people probably don’t know what’s going on.
“I was lucky enough that some people recognised it, I was able to talk to the right people to guide me through it.
“It was nothing to do with Scotland. It was just the ups and downs, and I was in a ‘young’ state of mind. It wasn’t anything directly to do with anything: it was just my own headspace that I needed to clear.”
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