SIMON BORCHARDT looks at how Tommy Allan, the nephew of former Springbok hooker John, ended up playing Test rugby for Italy.
On 27 October 2012, Tommy Allan, who had played for Scotland U20 earlier in the year, started at flyhalf for the Western Province U19 team that beat the Blue Bulls in the domestic final at Kings Park. On 9 November 2013, he came off the bench to make his Test debut for Italy against the Wallabies in Torino.
Confused? Let’s start at the beginning.
Will Allan, the brother of ex-Scotland and Springbok hooker John, was born in Scotland before moving to South Africa. He played hooker for Natal U20 and then moved to Italy, where he met his future wife, Paola, who had played scrumhalf for the national women’s side. Will would probably have represented Italy, too, had he not been sent off during a trial match before the 1999 World Cup.
The Allans were living in Vicenza, a city in the north-east of the country, when Tommy was born, and he would spend the first eight years of his life there. He started playing rugby aged seven and then opted for a year of soccer.
When the family moved to Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, England, Allan played club rugby for the Henley Hawks as the sport wasn’t offered by his school. His uncle John, a Glenwood old boy, also arranged for him to play rugby at the KwaZulu-Natal school during the English summer when he was 15 and 16. He then spent his final two years at an English school that did play rugby and didn’t return to Glenwood.
After a few years with the Hawks, Allan joined London Scottish and it was through the club’s contacts that he ended up playing age-group rugby for Scotland. He took part in two U20 World Championships, in 2012 in Cape Town and Stellenbosch, and 2013 in France, by which time he had joined London Wasps.
Wasps, though, didn’t offer him a contract after school and, remembering the good times he’d had in South Africa, Allan considered furthering his career at either the Sharks or Western Province. There were too many players at the Sharks Academy for his liking, so he opted for the WP Rugby Institute.
Allan played for the WP U19 team that won the domestic competition in 2012 and was expecting to stay in Cape Town.
‘Province told me they would offer me a contract, so I started looking for an apartment,’ he recalls. ‘Then three weeks later they said only one junior flyhalf would be getting one and it wasn’t me. I was very disappointed.’ (That flyhalf was Tim Swiel, who signed with the Sharks at the end of last year, having received a substantially bigger offer than Province’s.)
‘Province told me they would offer me a contract, so I started looking for an apartment. Then three weeks later they said only one junior flyhalf would be getting one and it wasn’t me'
As Western Province were the only South African team Allan wanted to play for, he asked the Scottish Rugby Union for a contract with Edinburgh or Glasgow, and was turned down. Fortunately, though, his agent, Rod Labuschagne, had good contacts in France, at Perpignan in particular, and got him a deal for the 2013-14 season, which has since been extended by two years.
‘I played in a few of Perpignan’s warm-up games in August and for the club’s U23 side, and then started in the Top 14 match against Racing Métro,’ says Allan. ‘I’ve also played a few European Cup games. There’s a lot of competition for the flyhalf position with Wales’ James Hook and France’s Camille Lopez also at the club.’
In October, one of Perpignan’s coaches, Giampiero de Carli, a close friend of Italy coach Jacques Brunel, asked Allan if he would be willing to play for the Azzurri. He said yes, and then got a call from the Italy team manager Gino Troiani to say he had been picked for their squad. Later that day, Scotland coach Scott Johnson phoned Allan and said he wanted to pick him for their end-of-year Tests.
‘I had always kept my options open when it came to playing Test rugby for Italy or Scotland, and I didn’t expect to have to make a choice so soon in my career,’ he says. ‘I feel Italian, so I was happy to be called up to their squad. I was surprised to get a call from Scott, considering Edinburgh or Glasgow hadn’t wanted me, but by then I had already committed to Italy.’
The following month, Allan came off the bench midway through the second half against the Wallabies to make his Test debut, and scored a late try that he clearly enjoyed.
‘One of my team-mates told me I shouldn’t have celebrated like that because we were losing [laughs]! I must have still been thinking about that try because I missed the easy conversion, which I was annoyed about.’
Allan would go on to miss important kicks against Argentina two weeks later, and against Wales and France in this year’s Six Nations, much to his frustration.
‘If you kick badly, people say you’ve had a bad game even if you’ve attacked and defended well. I had been speaking with my kicking coach Braam van Straaten on the phone, but he hasn’t been here with me, so it’s been difficult to fix the technical problems I’ve had. However, he’s joining me after the Scotland game and I’m confident we’ll get it right.’
Allan was successful with three out of four kicks at goal against Scotland and scored a try. Italy lost 21-20, having led for most of the match, but it was evident they had found a long-term flyhalf.
FORMER BOK HOOKER JOHN ALLAN ON HIS NEPHEW
‘I first saw Tommy play when he had just come over to the UK from Italy. He was attending a European school that didn’t play rugby, so he played club rugby and was used at flyhalf, centre or wing. When he was 15, I arranged for him to come to Durban during the English summer and play for Glenwood High School. It was then that he realised how much talent there is in South Africa and that he would have to up his game if he wanted to make it in the big leagues.
‘Tommy never stood out as a natural talent, but I told him it was about hard work, being positive and being prepared to vasbyt when things got tough. The credit, though, must go to my brother Will, who has always supported Tommy and given him every opportunity to succeed.
‘Tommy was eligible to play for Italy and Scotland, and I think he made the right decision to play for Italy. From an emotional perspective, he was born and grew up in Italy and his name is actually Tommaso. His mother is Italian and played for Italy’s women’s team and his father speaks fluent Italian – in fact, he often battles with English! From a clinical perspective, while Tommy played for Scotland U20, Scotland didn’t show much interest in him and didn’t offer him the security of a contract. Italy did.’
FORMER BOK FLYHALF BRAAM VAN STRAATEN ON ALLAN
‘I met Tommy three or four years ago at the Investec Academy in South Africa. I know Tommy’s father well and he asked me if I’d like to work with his son. Tommy had been kicking low off the tee and picked up some bad habits so we worked on those things. I always say a kicker’s technical foundation is laid between the ages of eight and 15 – if I can get hold of them at that age, they will kick at 85% for the rest of their careers.
‘Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Tommy for the past six months, and he has picked up some bad habits again, but I am going to France at the end of February and will easily correct those technical errors. He is a very good goal-kicker.'
– This article first appeared in the April 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine