What does a player need to develop?
For some it is competition, for others it is hard work they are not used to. Freedom comes into it but restriction and focus can be the answer for many more. Success is a something attainable but the recipe is different for every individual and establishment. The legendary Pele once said “Everything is practice”. Many people have said that what made the late Seve Ballesteros so great was his flair and tenacity: personal qualities he had freedom to express.
I’m afraid that neither of these make Graham Lowe’s life any easier.
This week Lowe offered his congratulations and a ‘promise’ of future support to London Scottish. The ‘promise’ could well see funding sent south but more importantly the loaning of young players down to London. Let someone else share the burden of developing Scottish talent.
A lot depends on whether LSRFC take up the chance. They are under no obligation to recruit Scottish players, and they could well renege on RFU funding by not using English qualified players. It is down to them what they do, no matter how the SRU dress it up.
Such an agreement could be fruitful for Scottish players, though. Young Scottish starters like Willie Lipp and Lewis Calder have thrived in National 1 (thought to be roughly the same standard as Prem 1, but possibly more fiercely contested and probably better funded). They have earned a step up to the Championship.
Would the Championship be a better standard to learn at than Prem 1?
I tend to think so. Adversity would drag some youngsters forward, and there are already a few Scots in that league doing well. As it comes to light that Scottish squad places are limited and we see guys like young Alex Blair released back into the wilderness it becomes all too apparent how little time there is for Scottish youngsters to prove themselves.
A Scots exile once said to me “Scottish rugby is a goldfish bowl – we inflate talent and we pressurise talent. It can often be to the detriment of young players”.
In some senses this is true. Alex Blair, at the ripe old age of 20, has been shown the door after only one season as a pro. Some players need time to mature into a game. Look at Greig Laidlaw: not a starter for his first few seasons but now he is an asset to the Edinburgh squad. The same could be said of Ryan Grant who is in the Scotland training squad after a decent end to the season. Previously he had been at the Borders and Edinburgh, without amassing a huge amount of game time, before joining the Warriors.
Not all players thrive on being nurtured, though. Indeed some players must be thrown into pressure situations to force improvements out of them. In a short space of time, and at the young age of 19, Duncan Weir has impressed for Glasgow and the tit-for-tat competition he has with Ruaridh Jackson seems to bring the best out of him (when he is fit).
Competition, it seems is something players have to want in order to benefit from it. Fraser McKenzie chose to go to Sale because he most likely felt it was a step up in intensity. If he could manage that step-up there is no doubt McKenzie will achieve international honours. So it is interesting, then, that fellow Sale recruit Richie Vernon will have competition thrust upon him when he arrives back from the RWC. Sale have just signed maverick Andy Powell.
While Vernon is sweating it out in NZ Powell will have had a full pre-season and 2 months of games to establish himself in Stockport. Will the challenge bring the best out of Vernon? We will know as soon as he plays his first few Aviva games.
And then we come to Mark Bennett.
It is true that some players have to seek out foreign opportunities because they are not wanted on these shores or they know they will get better breaks somewhere else. Bennett has opted to take an academy place where, those in France tell me, he will have frighteningly slim chances of getting near the Clermont first team.
Glasgow have made it abundantly clear that he would get game time if he stayed. Continual Magners League experience at 18 would certainly bring his game on leaps and bounds, but would we again be caught ‘pressurising’ talent because we have so few quality young prospects?
In terms of gaining life experience Bennett has made a sound choice. The move could also prolong a career as he improves and learns new styles of play without seriously damaging his growing body. He could be missing out on professional game-time and a steep learning curve and there is no guarantee he would fit in, in France, but he could always come back.
About five years ago I was told of a chance to join an academy in France. To this day I am still not sure if I made the right decision passing it up. Bennett won’t have that doubt, and we should all commend his bravery. He could well carve out an outstanding career among the Massif Central. This isn’t to say that this decision would be right for everyone. Some need smashed, and some need teased.
We will have to wait for word from Ferrand to see if his choice was the right one.