When the news broke that Edinburgh had signed two Welsh internationals in John Yapp and Richie Rees there was the beginning of some grumblings about why the SRU were failing to promote Scottish youth by signing players who are not Scots qualified. Of course whenever a press release flies out from EH12 about any new signing there is always the copied and pasted line of “PLAYER X will bring on any young Scottish players”. All that the fans see, though, is that someone is flying in and occupying a spot.
To think like this does a disservice to the unique situation of Scottish rugby. What people must make peace with is that there are two pro teams in Scotland and will be for the foreseeable future. The SRU cannot see sports sides like Rangers FC going to the wall and see institutions like the newspaper industry struggling and say that it is viable to create a new brand. At times like these the prudent move is to solidify your foundations. Strengthen your existing brands.
It must be said that the SRU have taken a very even handed approach to this philosophy and while anything about Andy Robinson improving the national side may be off the mark for now, it is moves like these where the Union and its Head Coach seem to be making decisive choices.
Both Edinburgh and Glasgow have specialised, focussing on one competition each and pushing their way to the top. For Glasgow it has been hard going and they have tilled a path through attrition alone. They were fighting on two fronts at one point, but found themselves stretched to breaking point. They hardened and targeted themselves at the RaboDirect playoffs.
Edinburgh, just along the M8, played it differently. They have thrown everything they have at the Heineken Cup and it has seen them rewarded handsomely. They imply that the RaboDirect is also a going concern –and the players have always given their best in this competition –but an 11th place finish would not keep Michael Bradley up at night.
Both of these teams have tightened, made their points very clear and they have impressed in the arenas they have chosen. The Warriors have lived up to their moniker and the Gunners have caused many a mouthful to be spat out in shock. Their Heineken Cup run is something which has forced those at the ERC and at big media institutions to acknowledge Edinburgh’s exalted play.
However, it cannot be denied that both of these teams have not had the depth, strength or resources to fight in the league and in the Cup. So how do you address that?
It is understandable that some fans are disappointed that the extra squad places have not gone to Scots qualified players, but signings Tim Swinson, Byron McGuigan, Sean Lamont, Greig Tonks are all qualified and WP Nel has apparently offered his services when he qualifies under residency. On top of this, players that have stood out at either club level, international level, or both, will still be there. Stuart Hogg, David Denton, Ross Rennie and Lee Jones have all shone in international rugby and remain. The outstanding club players of the season, Greig Laidlaw, Chris Fusaro, Matt Scott, Nick De Luca, Duncan Weir and Jon Welsh will still be here. No one needs reminding either that Tim Visser qualifies this summer.
These men need support and there is still time for guys like Rob Harley, Ryan Wilson, Tom Brown, Stuart McInally and Grant Gilchrist to take that next step. However, now that the SRU are hoping to grow the brands and begin to solidify places in the Heineken Cup and Pro12, simultaneously, there must be more strength in depth. Last week I said that reaching the semis of two tournaments for both teams was the only way to say that Glasgow and Edinburgh are big teams.
I stand by that statement, and with these signings it looks like the SRU are thinking that way, too.
In England there is a hope that a ‘marquee name’ can be accommodated in any amendments to the salary cap, while in France teams want a squad of marquee names. In Scotland it is about competition and longevity. Both pro sides need to be able to last the pace of a full season better. One cap-busting signing wouldn’t do that. Signing squad players will.
Rees is a like-for-like swap with Mike Blair, who is away. The rest of the signings, though, are not guaranteed starters. They are there not only to increase competition for squad places, but also to make the two sides much stronger than they are when the international players are away.
Yapp and Nel are much stronger than Edinburgh’s current back-up props and have experience of physical games. Ben Atiga has not played any Super Rugby for a while and comes in marked as a ‘workman’. Labelled as a centre/full-back, but with Scott and De Luca doing very well it is likely that pairing will be preserved. Atiga will step in whenever needed – perhaps like the ever willing Troy Nathan has done at Glasgow – but he will likely start less. He comes to the fore when the internationals are away. Dmitri Basilaia will do horrible work, but again Edinburgh’s back-row is versatile.
At Glasgow it is a great shame that Fusaro, probably the Warriors’ best player this season, could end up frozen out with Barclay remaining, Wilson sticking, Harley progressing as a 6 and the likes of Willie Ma’afu and Angus MacDonald coming in. It is a combative corps, though.
All of the names above will play when the 6 Nations is running. All of them will be more competitive options than EDL players and some of the 7s caps, because they have experience and they are almost all exclusively hardy players. Those youngster can then be used when it suits the coaches, rather than being thrown in out of necessity. The SRU have looked to solidify the foundations they have, and they have signed hefty and stocky enforcements.
Do not worry for the young Scots. Those already earmarked will be taken to tour. Other names have already been mentioned by Andy Robinson and feature in his thoughts. Yet, this is phase one. These foreign influences will bed in while more youth is promoted internationally. It is the beginning of a cycle and it has all been thought of from up high. Let’s see it through before we lament lost prospects.
Edinburgh and Glasgow must get stronger first.
Dundonian Alan has played rugby all over the world for various teams including Dundee High School, Heriot's and the Scottish Club International. Now writing from London he covers all issues international and unreported.