Apparently there is an African proverb, “Only a fool tests the depth of the water with both feet.” In our case, though, Andy Robinson is being cautious to the extent of bringing out a dinghy.
While most are lauding the claim of our coach to knowing 25 of his 30 squad members for the trip Down Under I am a bit more sceptical. It is obvious to me that Robinson is aware of weaknesses in his side, but doesn’t know which of his fringe candidates are the best men to take with him. It is an issue of squad depth.
As previously mentioned in our squad predictions weeks ago the Scotland forward pack practically picks itself while the backline has a rotation system that Robinson and Townsend can use. The aforementioned 25 could probably be rattled off by you or me in a matter of minutes.
So when Robinson says he doesn’t know whether to take 4 or 5 props to New Zealand it is window dressing, because with only 6 to choose from it is most likely that either Ryan Grant will miss out or it could be Ryan Grant and Alasdair Dickinson. The issue, then, isn’t with tactics and the breakdown of how many forwards and how many backs we take because it is really an issue of who we need and who Robinson is willing to risk throwing in.
Would Robinson risk a Denton, Harley, Cuthbert or even a De Luca?
In fact when we look outside of the 39 players in the inflated squad there are few else that could have been involved. At a push we could say that King and Thompson could have come from Edinburgh, Welsh from Glasgow and Taylor and Hogg from down South but there are few candidates outside of these names that could come in. We just don’t have the numbers.
The problem is with the rung on the ladder below the pro scene. Youngsters can be signed from age grade teams and 7s showings but the strobile nature of Scottish rugby means squad places are obscenely limited.
If we forget the player drain because of more opportunities abroad and we look at the players being cherry picked out of club rugby then some other concerns emerge.
At the moment we have a situation that could have led to clubs monopolising players: the British & Irish Cup. Thankfully it never happened, but the worry was that as soon as 3 teams played against pro sides regularly all the ambitious players would swarm at those clubs. Of course one thing wasn’t taken into consideration.
The ambitious club players, some of them, are already being paid to play at their level. The big clubs can’t afford to pay everyone well, even the wealthier ones. Watson’s tried it a few years ago and it wasn’t sustainable. Ayr and Currie allegedly take on players for money, but they do not have inflated squads and tend to neglect the performance of their 2nd XV in favour of a highly competitive 1st XV.
This is an aside, though, as the point I am labouring to make is one about player migration. A lot of players stay put, now. Money and familiarity hold the good ones. So when the league restructures to have 10 teams at the top all competing for B&I Cup places and a trophy they will all be trying to outdo each other.
The knock on effect of shortening the top league to 10 is that the league will be more exclusive and therefore more attractive to sponsors, but also the top 10 individually will be more attractive to sponsors, too. Budgets at the top could increase. Player numbers could go up at these teams. These teams could also invest more, however if all are paying players and the teams in the division below pay players to try and get promoted it is unlikely that B&I Cup teams will see a huge influx.
Each factor contributes to another. The fear for me is that if these teams do not drastically improve (which on one hand would benefit pro rugby, but on the other would make Prem 1 rugby a 3 horse race) then the pro sides have to keep picking from the same shallow pool of players.
Foreign arrivals don’t help, but the SRU are now looking to influence club sides to sign players that are Scots qualified. Could there be a situation in a few years time where all promising players with ambition are told they must play in the B&I Cup? Maybe…
For now we have to see how things pan out. The player pool is of 39 World Cup hopefuls just now, but the pool for each pro team is only 32-36. By RWC 2015 could there be enough pro standard players to pick from? It all depends on Prem 1’s influence on the Pro12’s influence on the Scotland National Team.
I’m off to buy a dinghy.