It’s just before two o’clock at North Berwick Rugby Club the day after Scotland has beaten England to retain the Calcutta Cup.

The teenagers who are about to take part in the match between North Berwick’s under-18 team and North Edinburgh Vikings are on a high with the famous win, which had been the main topic of conversation in the dressing room, still fresh in their minds.

"I was running the line and did a double take,’ said Jason Martin, North Berwick’s youth development officer. 

"Out of the corner of my eye I saw a couple and a young man walking up towards the far side of the pitch. Once they got closer I realised it was Rory Darge and his mum Nicola and dad Kevin.

"I couldn’t believe it at first. Rory had just made history co-captaining Scotland to a fourth straight win over England the night before.

"I assumed he would be resting, taking it easy maybe after a few drinks after the win, yet here he was making the effort to turn up to watch his brother Harris play for our under-18 team. 

“It was the mark of the man that he took time away the day after one of his finest hours to watch the game. The boys were buzzing once they realised Rory was watching but he made no big deal of being there. He is so grounded and is a credit to this club where he started."

To many Darge, 24, is the junior of the Scotland co-captains with Finn Russell, 31, the senior figure but a road trip by Scotland Rugby News to trace his rise shows that could not be further from the truth. He has been well prepared for the moment of leading his country alongside Russell.

He has had his setbacks - the biggest being deemed surplus to requirements by the then Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill who allowed him to move to Glasgow Warriors because he felt he wasn’t big or physical enough. In the list of bad mistakes in the history of Scottish club rugby that has to be at the very top.

We begin our journey into the background of Scotland’s co-captain at Aberlady Primary School in East Lothian, a village known for the top-class golf courses on its doorstep and the excellent Ducks Inn in the High Street, whose reputation for its cuisine is as great as Darge’s as a rugby player.

A very nice and polite lady associated with the primary school who has been there for nearly 30 years talks about how the whole village is proud of Rory’s rise to the top, especially as football was the main sport played there when he was a pupil.

Sure enough, walk round the back of the school and there is a full-sized football pitch and a five-a-side one running across it.

Football was in the Darge family genes with father Kevin being a handy player at junior level with West Lothian outfit Blackburn United.

Rory’s brother Arron who started out at Hearts and who currently plays for Cove Rangers inherited his dad’s talents with the round ball.

"The story is that Kevin brought Rory to us only because he was rubbish at football," said North Berwick director of rugby Ken Muir with a big smile on his face. "I bet Gregor Townsend is delighted that he did." 

The early years

Darge started at the North Berwick minis and worked his way into the first team at North Berwick High School and played an occasional game for North Berwick RFC 1st XV at their home ground, Recreation Park.

"We actuallydon’t know how many games he played for the firsts as you had to be over 18 to do that and by that time Rory was destined for greater things," said Muir.

Muir shows me a picture on his phone of Rory in a North Berwick High School tie holding a North Berwick Rugby Club strip after a game. Another is of him as part of the North Berwick S3 school team that won the East Lothian sevens.

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"Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of him with Ken Hogg who was a legend at this club and who loved Rory," he continued.

"He always encouraged Rory and was so proud of him. He organised age-grade level rugby and minis during Rory’s time and when he died last year Rory got permission to leave the Scotland camp for the day to go to his funeral. Ken was a big influence on him."

Before leaving North Berwick rugby club Jason and Ken give me a guided tour of the club house and the jerseys donated by players with links to the East Lothian side that are framed on the wall.

The first impression is that Darge’s jersey - a white Scotland one from his second cap against France which was his first start- has been given pride of place as it sits alone on a wall.

Ken laughs as he opens the door to the dining area where every wall has jerseys on it. "We just ran out of space and had to start on a different wall in the main club room with Rory’s jersey," he said as he points out others donated by former players with an association with the club.

They include one from former Scotland captain and British and Irish Lion back row Jason White who used to coach North Berwick and still lives in the town.

Across from it is one donated by Scotland women’s international and UK Olympic sevens player Megan Gaffney who went to North Berwick High School.

"Rory’s jersey is a bit different to the others in that he tried but couldn’t wash the stain off his jersey from the branding that was on the Murrayfield pitch that day against France but as I said to him that dirty mark just makes it even more authentic," said the North Berwick Director of Rugby.

Spinning plates as a student of the game

It’s over an hour by car from Aberlady to Galashiels which is why when Darge enrolled in Borders College in the town he moved into student accommodation.

He combined his time on the HND coaching and developing sports course in 2019 where he was named ‘sports student of the year’ with playing for Melrose in the Tennent's Premiership and also at semi-professional level with the Southern Knights during the early days of Super6. 

He also travelled up to the capital to train with other youngsters in the Edinburgh youth academy.

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Former Scotland winger Nikki Walker has been head of the sports programme at Borders College for nearly a decade and taught the man who would go on to co-captain his country.

"The talent, attitude and personality Rory showed when he was with us here at Borders College was fantastic and it is no surprise to me he has gone on to have such a great rugby career," said Walker.

"I coached him at Scotland Under-20 level under Stevie Scott and Carl Hogg and was one of his course lecturers when he was studying here which was also a time when he was also part of the Scottish Rugby Academy and also training with Edinburgh so he had a lot on his plate."

It was Darge’s ability to combine everything and deal with such a punishing workload that impressed Walker.

"Included in his studies was rugby coaching and he went to some primary schools to do some coaching, strength and conditioning, nutrition, how to run sporting events, a lot of the building blocks that helped his future rugby career," he said.

"He had to spin a lot of plates all at the same time with his course work and rugby commitments and for a young man that must have been tough but he managed it as he had such a strong mindset and focused outlook. 

"He managed to complete the course and do really well on it despite the fact that he had to juggle his lectures around because of his rugby responsibilities.

"What was really impressive is that he never moaned and always found a solution to catch up on his work. He always got everything in on time. He was a problem solver and you can see how that attribute would have helped him in his leadership role.

"He is a naturally a quiet person but through the years he has built up a lot of knowledge. On the pitch he leads by example and is a diligent individual, someone I can understand why others would follow."

It was Darge’s performances for Scotland under-20s that made people really sit up and take notice.

Scotland Rugby News: Rory Darge in action for Scotland under-20s Rory Darge in action for Scotland under-20s (Image: SNS)

He made his debut for them at the age of just 17 and really flourished in the age-grade 2020 Six Nations where he wore the number eight rather than the seven jersey that he went on to wear for the full Scotland national side.

"I made him captain when I came in as under-20 head coach in 2020, ‘ said Edinburgh-based Sean Lineen, the former Scotland international who was part of the 1990 Grand Slam team .

"Why Rory? He had a presence about him, a quiet authority. He had a terrific rugby brain and was such a good player he was one of my first picks. I could understand why Edinburgh took him on their books."

Everything was looking great for Darge up until that point. He was one of the rising stars of Scottish rugby, had performed brilliantly for the Scotland Under-20 team and had secured a dream move to Edinburgh, a forty minute drive from the family home in the outskirts of Aberlady. Then the nightmare began.

Surplus to requirements at Edinburgh Rugby

Everybody had been perfectly happy to talk to me on the record about Darge on my road trip until I arrived in the capital. Not surprisingly there wasn’t anybody who was at Edinburgh Rugby at the time who was willing to chat on the record about him.

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That wasn’t surprising considering they had one of the best Scotland players of his generation at the club and let him slip through their fingers. In an incredible and embarrassing miscalculation they felt he was too small and not physical enough to make it as an openside flanker.

The future Scotland co-captain was deemed surplus to requirements and loaned out to rivals Glasgow Warriors before being allowed to move along the M8 for good. It was arguably the worst decision ever in the history of Scottish professional rugby in terms of a player transfer.

The amount of game time Darge was given to prove himself and show Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill and his back room staff they were making a big mistake?

One single run out off the bench in a 50-10 hammering away to Leinster on November 16, 2020 with the Irish outfit running in nine tries. The future Scotland co-captain got just 18 minutes to show his worth when he came on for Andrew Davidson. 

"The whole thing was embarrassing," said someone who was at Edinburgh at the time on the promise of anonymity.

"Rory never got a fair chance. The Edinburgh coaching team at the time thought he was too slight.

"If I remember correctly I think Rory would have been around 95 kg (14 stone 9lbs) and they wanted him to be at least 100kgs (15 stone 7lbs) and felt he could and needed to get up to around 105kgs (16 stone 5lbs) to make it as an openside flanker.

"We were all amazed he wasn’t given a fair crack of the whip. We had Bill Mata, Hamish Watson at the top of his game and a lot of other top-class back row players in the squad in the couple of years Rory was at the club but even so he deserved better.

"It showed the strength of his character that he never let his head go down and he kept plugging away. Also don’t forget he could play eight or seven. He was versatile yet they still let him go." 

Moving west 

Scotland Rugby News understands the men at the top of the SRU put pressure on Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill to get rid of two young back row players to cut costs and also to allow them to move to Glasgow Warriors where there was a supposed shortage.

Cockerill narrowed it down to either Darge, Conor Boyle or Ally Miller with Boyle kept in the east and Darge and Miller heading west.

Edinburgh players at the time were stunned that in particular Darge - who currently weighs 98kgs (15 stone 4lb) according to the Scottish Rugby website - still less than the minimum 100kg he was expected to reach at Edinburgh was deemed surplus to requirements and shipped along the M8. 

"I have no idea what happened at Edinburgh but we were delighted to get Rory at Glasgow," said the then Glasgow Warriors coach Danny Wilson, who couldn’t believe his luck when he was offered him on loan to begin with and then on a permanent deal.

Scotland Rugby News: Danny Wilson snapped up Darge during his time at Glasgow WarriorsDanny Wilson snapped up Darge during his time at Glasgow Warriors (Image: SNS)

"The minute he walked into Scotstoun I could see he was a very special player,” said Wilson.

“It is the mark of a man how he deals with injury and he got a serious injury where he dislocated his knee cap with us but his attitude through what must have been a tough period for him was top class and he bounced back and I am delighted but not surprised he went on to be the co-captain of Scotland." 

Wilson, who is now head coach of top English side Harlequins but lives in East Lothian, was so impressed by what he saw from Darge in training that he gave him his debut at the first possible opportunity.

Comparison to a former Lions captain

He came off the bench away to Benetton in the opening match of the 2021 Rainbow Cup. In his second game, which was his first start he won man of the march against Dragons.

"It was very evident he was a class act and had very good leadership skills," said Wilson.

"He wasn’t the loudest in the dressing room but he led by example. He is one of the new types of rugby captains. The days of the captain being chosen because he is the one who can deliver the best inspirational speech and shout loudest is long gone. 

"For example I worked with Sam Warburton in the past at Cardiff Blues and I see the similarity between him and Rory. Both lead by example and do the right things, both on and off the field.

"Both are intelligent rugby players in terms of understanding the game. They can also speak round the technical and tactical elements of the game to their team-mates.

"Both Sam and Rory used their generals, so to speak, around them very well. Sam would use Dan Biggar or Alun-Wyn Jones for advice and Rory obviously has Finn Russell as his co-captain.

"For Scotland having Rory and Finn as co-captains is a good move as Rory is still only 24 and has a long career with Scotland head of him. He is a big part of the future of Scottish rugby."

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend clearly thinks so.

"I named him co-captain of Scotland ahead of the Six Nations because he is a player who was world class from the moment he came into the side back in 2022,’ said Townsend.

"He is a leader, someone i can rely on. He is one of the brightest stars of his generation."