All hands on Eck as Dunbar calls time on his career
For five years, Alex Dunbar was a mainstay in the Scotland squad, his 31 caps surely falling short of the number many thought he would go on and reach, as a spate of injury problems highlight.
The former Glasgow Warriors midfield rock was lauded for both his defensive acumen and belligerence with ball in hand, hurtling towards opponents with an unwavering dedication and selfless approach to the game.
A PRO12 winner with Warriors in 2015, Dunbar went on to represent Newcastle Falcons and Top 14 outfit Brive, but the uncertainty brought about by the global pandemic, coupled with more injury woe, led to the tough decision to step away from rugby.
From inside centre to being central to the inside workings of a dairy farm near Lockerbie, Dunbar’s switch from professional sport to a new profession is one that has been challenging but ultimately rewarding in its own right.
Through studying at Scotland Rural College (SRUC), Alex has found his next calling in life, starting as he has as part of a farm management team not far from where his roots lie.
Speaking to scottishrugby.org, he said: “It’s been a bit of a shock to the system, the early mornings, but I’ve really enjoyed it and it’s been good to get into it. My family sold their farm and moved to Tasmania – they’re still out there – so this is a different project.
“It was when I was studying at college, a couple of lecturers had heard that this farm was looking for a Farm Manager and they said I should get in touch if I was interested, so I did and started in the role just over a week ago.
“This is the first time I’ve had hours, staff to look after, a continuous 12 days on and I’ve got to be there at 4:45/5 in the morning, then finish usually at the back of 6.
“Yeah, it’s a completely different lifestyle and planning the week ahead is always a busy time, then vets get called out and other unexpected things – it’s good fun and I’m really enjoying it, I’m learning so much with data and apps – stuff we never had growing up! So it take a bit of time getting used to it all.”
Getting used to a new chapter is something that Alex has had time to come to terms with, as he explained: “It’s been quite a tough year in that March 2020 most of us that were coming out of contract at Brive got let go, so it was a bit frustrating with surgeries being delayed and there was a lot of sitting about waiting for ages.
“Once I had my surgery, the treatment and training was not as open as I thought it would be; the restrictions meant getting stuff done was so difficult. I had a partial tear of a ligament and two ruptures; I remember playing in a couple of games strapped up and on painkillers but I could barely move and couldn’t say I was playing well, so it wasn’t ideal.
“It’s still pretty tough given I was only 30 when I effectively finished playing. I still, up until the injury, thought I was playing a bit better and hoping for a good run of games, but it’s quite frustrating, but it’s the way it is.
“It’s not a nice feeling when you think you had a couple of years left but I’ve had the best part of a year to come to terms with it and there’s been plenty to focus on, like having my little girl back in October and going back to the studying, so it’s been good to have other things on to keep the mind occupied.”
As the dust settles on an excellent career, Dunbar cites that PRO12 title triumph as being amongst his finest moments, as well as giving a nod to some of the clubs that paved the way for his international recognition: “It was probably some of the years I enjoyed the most, "he said.
“As a group of youngsters coming through at Glasgow in I think 2011, we struggled a little at the start but after a couple of seasons of getting used to each other, the improvement was huge and I have a lot of good memories from being part of that squad for the best part of six or seven years.
“Coming through for Annan and then also Selkirk, where I was when coming through the academy system, those are the two that stand out the most I think. I was drafted to a few clubs here and there as well, although that was more now and again.”
The pinnacle was of course international rugby, a stage where Dunbar looked ever at ease amid the chaos of centre play: “I loved it. It was something growing up as a kid you think ‘that’ll be cool to do’ but I wouldn’t have thought it was possible,” he added.
“Even getting called up to travel with the squad, I think in 2012, the weeks leading up to that I wasn’t playing loads and maybe thought I was being let go. Then you get a run of three or four games and suddenly you get a two-year contract and go on tour with Scotland!”
31 caps later and although they all mean a great deal, the game against New Zealand at BT Murrayfield in 2017, when the iconic Dodie Weir came out with the match ball, definitely stands out: “I’d say in terms of an atmosphere around the stadium, that’s one of the best atmospheres I’ve been a part of. Even in the hotel before, you could see a few boys couldn’t even eat anything because of the occasion. You can feel it, the supporters and players, and the whole day was just unbelievable.
“You see highlights all the time [of Stuart Hogg’s piercing late run that almost reaped a potentially match-winning try] and I reckon anyone other than Beauden Barrett, he’s probably scoring it.”
2017 was memorable for Scotland, and for Alex Dunbar; nine caps in the calendar year, including that All Blacks spectacle and tries against Ireland and Samoa, as well as two wins over Australia in Sydney and BT Murrayfield. He didn’t make the final conversations ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand that same year but apparently wasn’t miles away.
On the selection of eight Scots, including centre Chris Harris, for the upcoming Lions tour to South Africa, Dunbar added: “Just chuffed for all the boys, they’ve put in an unbelievable amount of work over the years and it’s great to see so many Scots involved in selection. Chris is a great boy, I know him well from camp and when I went on loan to Newcastle he looked after me, so hopefully he gets the chance to go out there and show what he can do.”
Alex Dunbar speaks passionately about how much it meant to him to pull on the dark blue those 31 times, and yet his genuine delight at former teammates gaining Lions and Scotland selection, when his own career was cut short through injury, is testament to a thoroughly nice person besides.