Learmonth is best outside centre in club rugby, says Heriot’s coach

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EVEN though he turned down the chance to turn professional in the summer, Max Learmonth continues to go from strength to strength on the rugby pitch.

The 22-year-old from Berwick has been rewarded for his outstanding form for Heriot’s this season by being named in the Scotland club international squad.

For Heriot’s head coach Phil Smith, his inclusion is no surprise. In fact, Smith has been so impressed with Learmonth since taking over at Goldenacre in the summer that he considers him to be the best outside centre in Scottish club rugby right now.

It could all have been so different. Learmonth, who came through the ranks at Berwick and made his first-team debut at the age of 16, had the chance to join Rotherham Titans following a six-week trial with the English Championship club. But he turned down the one-year contract on offer because it wasn’t “financially suitable”.

Smith didn’t know much about him when he took charge at Heriot’s, but Learmonth made a huge first impression.

“When he came back from Rotherham, it coincided with our first win of the season against Melrose,” said Smith. “Max scored the winning try in the last few minutes to help us win 36-29 and his contribution was massive.

“He’s been getting better and better week by week. But over the last six weeks he has been fantastic. His biggest asset is his enthusiasm for training and games and his desire to get better. I think he has found the training rewarding this season and he is benefitting from that.

“He is learning and he is contributing more and more to the team. We are winning more games as a team and that is benefitting him too.

“He fully deserves his place in the Scotland club international squad and I’d be disappointed if he doesn’t get plenty of game time. I don’t think there is a better number 13 in the club game right now.”

Learmonth has praise for his coach too. “He has given me more freedom in the role at 13,” he explained. “If I get the ball, he’s encouraged me to take it with me and use my pace and footwork.

“There has been a big change in the coaching set up and at the club in general. The club as a whole is now more professional.

“The enjoyment level among the players is very high and there is a good turnout at training. Heriot’s is definitely a good place to be and things look good for next season. If we can finish in the top four we will have the British and Irish Cup to look forward to.”

Learmonth, whose younger brother Guy is aiming to compete as an 800m runner in the Rio 2016 Olympics, is so busy he has little time to think about what might have been at Rotherham. He trains every day, either at 6am before work at a financial services recruitment firm in Edinburgh, or afterwards in the evening.

Having had a taste of it, he still hasn’t ruled out the possibility of turning pro. “Financially, the offer wasn’t right,” he said of the one-year deal on the table at Rotherham. “I couldn’t really afford to stay there. If had been suitable financially, I would have stayed.

“I did enjoy it. It helped me develop as a player. We played against the likes of Worcester and Saracens, and I felt comfortable at that level. It was a great environment to be involved in.

“It gave me a taste for it. I’m training as a pro. I train at 6am or later at night. But I’m 22. It would depend whether I want to scrape by or get a career outside rugby. It is different, going to work from nine to five and training before or afterwards. If a pro contact came along, I’d be stupid not to look at it. But I couldn’t say if I’d take it.”

His hesitation can perhaps be attributed to how much he is enjoying his rugby this season.

“It is going extremely well,” said Learmonth, who says he has scored 12 tries this season, but “maybe more”. He added: “My try-scoring record speaks for itself this season. If Heriot’s are playing well, I play well. It goes hand in hand. The club call-up was an extra bonus. I’d had one or two injuries in previous seasons, so this is the first time I’ve been involved. I’m delighted to get the nod.”

He isn’t the only former Berwick player in the squad. “Gary Holborn was captain when I made my step up to the senior game at Berwick,” he recalls. “He is doing well at Melrose and is also in the Scotland club squad. It was good to catch up with him at training the other night.”

Learmonth was catapulted straight from the U-16s into the first team at Berwick and spent the next couple of seasons playing lots of representative rugby for Scotland U-17s, 18s and 19s and the Borders before joining Watsonians.

During two seasons at Watsonians, he was stuck on the wing. So when the chance came to join Heriot’s as an outside centre in 2010, Learmonth jumped at it. He hasn’t looked back since.

His coach believes he still has a chance to make it as a pro, but believes a long and successful club career could be the better option.

“We will push him as hard as we can at Heriot’s,” added Smith. “He is a top club player. He has the right attitude and commitment. It depends whether he gets a break or not. If a pro contract came along it would be a difficult choice. It would be up to him.”