Glasgow Warriors' Inverness trio showing what is possible for north rugby talent
Starting out in Highland Rugby Club's youth system, Paddy Kelly's rugby journey has taken him to an Under-20 World Cup in Italy, through a year spent playing in France and all the way to the professional game with the Glasgow Warriors.
Originally coming from Inverness, Kelly played age-group rugby at Canal Park until he was 14, when he earned a scholarship at Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh.
There his game improved leaps and bounds, and he caught the eye enough to win the John Macphail Scholarship and a stage three deal with the Fosroc Academy.
He was then assigned to the Warriors, but even throughout his already-storied career the 24-year-old still has fond memories of his time up north.
"I played right the way through the youth system with Dave Carson, who is obviously the first team coach at the moment, he took our age group the whole way through along with John Carson," Kelly recalled.
"We were quite a good group, I remember winning tournaments up north. Then I ended up going down to Merchiston in Edinburgh when I was 14.
“I was lucky, it was a really good opportunity at that age. Don’t get me wrong, Highland still played competitive fixtures, but the step up going down to school in Edinburgh made a massive difference for my own development.
"That gave me the exposure to play under-20s during the year I was in France, and then that exposure gave me the opportunity to get a Fosroc Stage Three contract and then on to Glasgow.”
Chances in the first team with the Warriors have been hard to come by, and after making his senior bow in November 2016 Kelly has still only made one competitive start.
As an inside centre, to say the competition at Scotstoun is rife would be an understatement, even when players get called up for international duty.
But he was rewarded with a new contract earlier this year, and if there is one thing Kelly cannot be accused of it is having a bad attitude as he is still staying positive.
“I can’t really think of any other clubs that have got so many internationals in one position, playing centre," he mused.
"You look at the guys who are ahead of me and it’s always going to be tough to push my way in.
"Even during international periods like the World Cup, there are a couple of centres away but there are still international centres at the club available to play. I just need to keep being patient, bide my time, and be ready to take an opportunity if and when it comes.
“Apart from anything else, it is a great club to actually be at, even if you’re not playing. I know there are plenty of clubs that boys wouldn’t enjoy being in a similar situation to me, they wouldn’t enjoy training just for the sake of it, but we get a lot out of training.
"The coaching ethos is really good and the whole club environment is great, so I’m getting a lot out of it.”
With both professional rugby clubs in Scotland based in the central belt, the pathway for young talents coming from Inverness may appear difficult to see.
Alongside Kelly in the Glasgow Warriors set-up at the minute though are two other Highland alumni – number eight Bruce Flockhart and scrum-half Jamie Dobie.
Existing connections with both men have helped all three settle into professional life, and Kelly thinks it shows what is possible for the sport in the region.
“I played a bit with Bruce, he’s two years younger than me but we went down to London Irish together for an under-12s tournament," Kelly explained.
"That was probably the first and last time I played with him, and he has always been a big mutant.
"It’s good to see Jamie too, we knew each other through our families back when we were younger. He went to Merchiston as well, and he has obviously really kicked on with his rugby now. He’s a very old head on young shoulders, and he’s settled in really well.
“It’s encouraging for the area, it’s always good to see. When guys ask about it, it’s nice to be able to say that it’s not just me, there are a couple of other guys from up north who are pushing on to the professional level.
"I know Highland take great pride in that as well from speaking to mates at home and the coaches whenever I get back. They are always really interested in what we’re doing, and they take great pride and encouragement from the level we’re getting to.
“It has been good to see them get promoted a few times in the last few seasons. Obviously the new facilities are absolutely brilliant too.
"A lot of my mates who I played with when I was younger have ended up coming back to Highland, so they’re all playing there at the moment. It’s always good to get back and catch up with them.”