In the past month Rory Darge has been described as “world class” by his national team coach, tipped to become “an absolute superstar” by a renowned team-mate, and chosen to captain his country in one of Scotland’s four World Cup warm-up matches.
The softly spoken 23-year-old – who still has just 33 senior club games and 11 international caps to his name – agrees his meteoric ascent has been “crazy”. But in a sign of perhaps just why coaches have identified the frills-free flanker as not just a rare talent but a natural leader, Darge explains what he thinks are the reasons behind his rise with mesmeric simplicity.
“All I try to get right week-to-week is my mindset, my prep,” said the openside who started both of Scotland’s most recent fixtures, the 30-27 defeat by France in Saint Etienne and the 33-6 win over Georgia at Murrayfield.
“I want to make sure I’ve done everything I can. (If) I am playing on a Saturday, on a Sunday night I write down what I want to get done on the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. So, once I get to Saturday I know I have done all of it.
“When I am thinking should I go in and do my extras or not, (I think) well obviously come Saturday you’ll be thankful you’ve done it.”
It is an approach born out of one of Scotland’s unheralded rugby hotspots. North Berwick may not have the romance of Hawick in the Borders or the glamour of the Scottish private school system, but the East Lothian town has a quietly impressive recent roll call of professional players.
Alongside Darge, former Edinburgh players Lewis Carmichael and Tom Brown both played for Scotland in the past decade or so, while Harvey Elms starred in the dark blue at the 2022 Sevens World Cup. Add in a good sprinkling of current Edinburgh squad members and you can see why it was a great breeding ground for a young tyro.
“I just loved it, playing for your group of pals and representing where you are from,” said Darge, who grew up in Aberlady, a village nine miles along the coast from North Berwick.
While his family have always been right behind him, there is no rugby background to speak of, with football the traditional Darge sport: a great-grandad signed for Hamilton before World War Two intervened, while younger brother Aaron is on the books of Scottish Premiership club Hearts. Instead, it was a locally renowned coach, Keith Hogg, a one-time head of Scottish Rugby League, who assumed a critical role.
“He was a massive part of my rugby growing up,” Darge explained. “He is still the coach I have had for the longest time continuously. The thing with Keith was he made it really enjoyable for us all, did a lot of good for me and a lot of guys my age. I couldn’t speak highly enough of him.”
One game he broke his finger and went off. Then he wrapped it with tape and went back on and played. When he came back off again, he showed me his hand and it was like an elephant hand.
Despite never being big for his age, Darge admits with a smile that it was always “the contact, the tackle and the carry” that came naturally to him. A story shared with something of a grimace by his mum, Nicola Darge, confirms this.
“One game (for North Berwick High School) he broke his finger and went off. Then he wrapped it with tape and went back on and played. When (eventually) he came back off again, he showed me his hand and it was like an elephant hand,” Mrs Darge said of her eldest, who was also a keen boxer in his teenage years.
“I was like ‘Oh my God’. And he was like ‘Oh, I thought it was fine Mum, but look it’s all swollen’. He played more than half the match like that.”
With the bravery and physicality seemingly there from the beginning, it was Hogg who helped bring the rest of Darge’s game up to speed.
“He would take bits of my game I was struggling with and the academies had identified and help me work on it, like a bit of hand catch-and-pass stuff… he would take extra time at the end (of sessions) for me,” Darge said. “That stuff was class.”
Hogg’s death last year, aged just 66, was a real blow. But the East Lothian legend will no doubt be looking down fondly on his student’s remarkable progress. Not that it has all been straightforward.
After graduating from North Berwick through the Scottish development pathways to play for the national under-20s side aged just 17, Darge made the seemingly simple decision to turn pro.
But despite continued success in the dark blue – Darge won 13 caps for the U20s and captained them during through the 2020 Six Nations – things were different when he joined Edinburgh after two-and-a-bit seasons with Borders club side Melrose – “brilliant for me” he recalls – and a spell playing semi-pro rugby with Super6 side Southern Knights.
“It was the biggest bump so far,” Darge said, as he reflected on a period where he managed just 15 minutes – against Leinster in November 2020 – in a first-team jersey. Darge had not been expecting to waltz into Edinburgh’s first team. But he had been hoping for a chance to show what he could do.
“I don’t know what the reason was that he didn’t get a game,” said Darge’s mum Nicola with a hint of exasperation.
Rory was world-class when he came into the Scotland team…We see a leader there
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend
For a while Darge, at 6ft 1in and 98kg, feared he may be “too small” for the pro game. “I remember I never saw an article about me that didn’t mention my size,” he said. But the youngster did not panic. Instead, he got his head down. And that proved enough to catch the eye of Danny Wilson, then head coach at Glasgow Warriors.
Scotland’s other professional team was suffering a back-row injury crisis – “if you were to ask 90% of professionals how they got their first game, it’s injury” – and with five games left in the 2020-21 season, a grateful Darge headed west.
After a “brutal” defeat by Italian club Benetton on his debut off the bench, Darge played a significant role in helping Glasgow to four straight season-ending wins in the Pro14 Rainbow Cup, including one against his old Edinburgh teammates and a statement-setting victory against Leinster.
He has not looked back since.
Just 10 months after swapping Edinburgh for Glasgow, Gregor Townsend handed Darge his Test debut, off the bench against Wales in the 2022 Six Nations. A week later he started at Murrayfield against France and grabbed his first try within the opening half-hour.
“Rory was world-class when he came into the Scotland team in the 2022 Six Nations,” Townsend said last month after naming Darge captain for the first of their World Cup warm-up Tests against Italy. “We see a leader there. A leader by example in the way he plays, but also a leader who can grow in the role of captain, vice-captain or part of a leadership group.”
Darge’s reaction to being named skipper, aged 23 and after just five previous starts, is indicative as to just why Townsend chose him.
“All he said (was) ‘I just need to focus on my job, also I just want to learn from the other guys how to pull the team together’,” his mum shared with a laugh. And what of the man himself? “It wasn’t intimidating, it was just a big responsibility,” he said. “That’s all I saw it as, a responsibility. I just had the mindset to do everything I could to honour it.”
Honour it he did, with Darge garnering praise for his poise and composure on and off the pitch. With his under-stated but clearly well-received leadership, a largely second-string Scottish side pulled through to win 25-13.
As down-to-earth as they come – Darge was “more nervous” taking his driving test during last year’s ankle injury lay-off than leading Scotland out at Murrayfield – even he is quietly excited by Scotland’s performances in those warm-up Tests, particularly their efforts in the narrow loss to France in Saint Etienne last month.
“The thing we took from that France game was we were physically very good against them and we can compete there. That will breed a little bit of confidence. We were gutted we never got the result out there but we weren’t far away at all.”
It has been mental the last couple of years how quickly everything has moved. My (Edinburgh) contract running out having played one game and now I’ve played more than 10 times for Scotland and I am going to a World Cup. It’s crazy
Add in the fact they have now experienced the atmosphere of a boisterous French crowd, felt the heat of Nice and stayed in their team hotel, and Darge cannot help but look forward to the tournament with relish. All this despite Scotland being pitched into the infamous ‘group of death’ alongside defending champions South Africa and world No.1-ranked Ireland.
“We’re obviously going to back ourselves in every game we play and see where we get to. I don’t think we are going to say anything more than that,” said Darge, unable to hide a quiet smile. “But if we do beat South Africa (in their opening match on Sunday, 10 September, in Marseille) then you’ve got to back yourself against anyone.”
All the signs are that Darge – who started three of Scotland’s warm-up Tests and was a replacement in the other – will be wearing the No.7 jersey against the Springboks. Warriors team-mate Fraser Brown certainly thinks he should.
“He is going to be an absolute superstar,” the 61-cap hooker told a recent episode of the BBC Scotland rugby podcast. “Even when he doesn’t have one of those games where he’s the best player on the pitch, he’s still sitting at an eight out of 10.”
Typically, Darge does not get involved with social media so had to be told about Brown’s comments. While he is far too embarrassed to indulge in the notion, he does concede that he has come a long way fast.
“It has been mental the last couple of years how quickly everything has moved,” Darge laughed. “My (Edinburgh) contract running out having played one game and now I’ve played more than 10 times for Scotland and I am going to a World Cup. It’s crazy.”