Back to the Future

It’s all changing in Scottish rugby at the moment. A new generation of players are bedding into the national side. Glasgow and Edinburgh could be in the picture for the first ever Magners League playoff. A few club sides have taken part in the first year of the British and Irish Cup. Yep, things are evolving.

So why would we revert back to a system we had previously abandoned?

The simple answer is that it would make sense. What I am talking about, if you are wondering, is the Scottish Academy structure. After about 3 years of a centralised Academy the rumour mill (which spins as fast as that other hideous cliché, football’s managerial merry-go-round) has spat out the story that Graham Lowe wants the Central Academy to disband and for Academies to run out of Edinburgh Rugby and Glasgow Warriors, respectively. Meetings about this subject could rumble on in the bowels of Murrayfield for weeks to come.

If this does actually happen then it is not something I am opposed to. The problem is that it is a change that could have been avoided years ago.

After the fiasco of the Carruthers brother’s (circus – Ed?) handing Edinburgh Rugby back to the SRU in the summer of 2007 all of the apprentice rugby players from the squad, as well as those from Glasgow and the disbanded Borders team, were shifted into the Senior Academy running out of Murrayfield. This was a decision that was presumed to have been made by Gordon McKie and his advisors. It was also one that showed a lack of foresight concerning the development of future International players.

As it stands at the moment the current system has a few players training with Edinburgh, a few with Glasgow and a couple training together at Murrayfield. Every training programme is controlled by some Strength and Conditioning coaches, a few skills coaches and overseen by a manager who would assess where this player could figure into the professional teams plans.

This last concept is the one that leads to the failings of the current system. As noble and well meaning as this set-up is it revolves entirely around the demands of the pro sides. If Glasgow needs a full back for training but have filled their quota of squad members the Academy can supply one. If, however, Glasgow and Edinburgh do not need any players for training and their whole squad is contracted for a couple more seasons then the SRU have to fill spots in their Academy without remit. Also if some players are taken on by the Academy and a place never opens up in a pro team after a couple of seasons then that player is let go. While there have been some definite and brilliant successes out of the Academy (look at Jackson, Gray and Jim Thomson) the player turnover suggests more ‘failures’ than successes.

Another issue with this is that while some players enjoy a competitive training atmosphere others are forced to try and recreate match intensity with limited numbers. I have heard more than one club coach complain that, for example, front row academy players are taken for scrummaging sessions by backs coaches. Whether this is true or not is not important because the fact remains that with either professional outfit they would receive ‘expert’ tutelage in an environment that is competitive, combative and controlled.

I could state specific examples of failings of the National Academy, but in truth it is something that needs supported. While it has caused a few problems the fact that it is being reviewed and possibly evolved should be encouraging to fans. Who knows, we could start producing more amazing players at a hell of a rate!

The reason that I seem happy with a return to the apprentice system is that it will not only give youngsters competition and exposure to International class rugby through those they train with,  but also because it is a move that places more trust with the clubs. At the moment players can be told to rest by Academy physios, Pro coaches, Gael Force coaches and maybe even dropped by club coaches. If and when things change then players will get team training constantly, with their pro team or club team, and they won’t miss out on games; because pro sides want players match fit, not gym-monkeys training to train.

Such a move could encourage better relations between clubs and the pro teams. Also, Edinburgh and Glasgow will only sign-up who they need and who their head coaches actually rate. Like at the moment, the best players will be taken on at the pro teams, but on a full time contract. Therefore, aspiring pro’s who have missed the cut will have to guts it out in Premier 1 until they make it, improving, perhaps, the standard in the league. Most importantly, though, this move can free up coaching roles within the SRU to coaches who can go out every week to younger players earmarked for success all over Scotland and supplement the training they are already receiving with expert position-specific skill training. Like a mobile Academy but spread farther than before, like the junior Academy (which should stay as-is) but for younger generations. At least that’s the hope!

Ok, I have been much more serious with this than I meant to be. However, with no third pro-team this is the most important investment the SRU can partake in right now.  Next time it will be more light-hearted stuff, I promise! Like scrums that miraculously stay up, or Bastareaud’s social life, or that impish charmer Davies, or Ross Ford calling a lion ‘Chief’ on the Lions DVD, or…..

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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.

One comment on “Back to the Future

  1. Gregor on

    Really enjoyed that read, very interesting. I agree that something needs to be done, especially when Jackson is listed as one of the success stories of the Academy!

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