This summer we witnessed Scotland’s worst attempt at a World Cup. We only scored four tries, in total, and all of them were against Romania. Indeed the general consensus is that with the players we sent to New Zealand, only a handful showed any guile or flair.
Twelve of those Scottish players were selected for their first ever World Cup and our youngest player there, Richie Gray, is 22. Jackson was our youngest back at 23, but after him the youngest back we had was 26 year old Joe Ansbro. 24 year old Richie Vernon was the second youngest forward, with Ross Rennie and John Barclay coming in at 25.
You could say we have a few younger players. However, we also have more than a few guys that will not make the next World Cup. You could point out that there are a few young guys in the pro environment right now, but none of them were deemed good enough to even train with the Scotland squad in the summer, bar David Denton and Rob Harley. Two forwards.
This got me thinking. Would Scotland ever have a crop of exciting players coming up to challenge for honours? Would we ever have a Golden Age? Would we at least have a few kids that could create more than we are doing now?
It comes down to the talent being produced.
The line that is forever thrown out is that Scotland do not have the numbers. That this has always been the case, but now that professionalism is about 14 years on we can no longer compete with those nations with larger player bases. Surely, though, it is a cop out just to offer this excuse? We have a rich rugby history and a population comparable to New Zealand’s.
I concentrated this concern into two key questions:
1) How do we produce more World Class rugby players?
2) How do we ensure that many of the children playing rugby go on to play as adults?
Understandably the answers I would get depended on who I asked. So I asked four individuals and one Union. Typically the responses I got were varied and differing. This in itself proves that there needs to be a strategic move or a plan discussed, publically, in order to produce a resolute dialectical plan that ensures that Scotland, its kids and its rugby benefit.
Why dialectical? Well as I probed coaches I discovered that there was a position held that the current system was fine and that things were heading on the right track. Others feel there must be radical change. There should really be a clash of these opinions so as to fairly plan a way of getting the most out of children playing rugby and to create the opportunity for Scotland to have exciting, creative players.
When I posed my two questions to the SRU a Scottish Rugby spokesperson gave me a defensive answer. “Scottish Rugby is constantly looking at ways to strengthen links between clubs and schools in Scotland and runs several initiatives designed to grow the game from its base – more people playing rugby at grass roots level will increase competition and quality throughout all levels across the country.
“Playing numbers have grown continually for the past five years. In 2006 there was 24,161 players registered in Scotland and in our latest audit of player numbers, 2011 has shown 43,400 registered players, a growth of 80%. These numbers are collated using our online player registration system which the schools and clubs use to record their active players.
“In addition to these efforts to grow the game, we’re working with clubs and schools to ensure players are given meaningful and appropriate fixtures in order to develop their game and gain as much experience and enjoyment as possible, evidenced by the opportunities for clubs to compete in the British and Irish Cup (RBS Premier 1), club and age-grade internationals and the player pathway structure.
“There are also improvements being seen through the performances of a number of young elite development players who have contributed to important wins in the RaboDirect PRO12 for both Edinburgh Rugby and Glasgow Warriors, including Matt Scott, Gregor Hunter, Grant Gilchrist, Nick Campbell, Findlay Gillies and Stuart Hogg to name a few.
“Furthermore the recent announcement of the revised national sevens structure sees increased competition for a selection of full-time players, elite development players and identified club players.”
What strikes me about this statement is that they understand the issues. They may sound unfocussed or indecisive if they cannot choose one of their “several initiatives”, but they are certainly sure of the issues.
The collation of numbers, however, looks like it could be potentially inaccurate (are these numbers taken regularly? Are they taken at the start and then end of the season to see if they are consistent? Do all players actually play?). There are also still concerns being voiced that a few young ‘spotted’ talents spend too much time in the weights room, and less time with the ball in their hands or working on technique. For example some school boys have three weights sessions a week plus three rugby sessions and a game. Then add that to homework…
Worryingly, though, something the SRU refuses to take into account is the possibility of such players missing out on pathways, age-grade internationals and then just giving up on rugby. There is an implication that players and fans must whole-heartedly support that the current way of selecting players is the only, and right, way of promoting individuals.
For Rob Moffat, formerly of Edinburgh Rugby but now at Dollar Academy, the individual is what is important.
“Everyone wants to win,” he tells me “but how you play is important. There should be more emphasis on individual development [at youth level]. I don’t like the phrase ‘well drilled’. Skills must be prominent and we need as many players playing as possible.”
Moffat hints here at making rugby as enjoyable as possible whilst also working on attractive rugby. This is a view shared by Mark Appleson of last season’s Brewin Dolphin Schools Cup champions, Edinburgh Academy.
“There are quality players on both the schools and club circuit, the key is to make their rugby experience so enjoyable and positive that they want to continue playing after leaving the age grade set up. This is the message we try to get over at EA, we remind them that they are school boys and the best years of rugby are in front of them.”
It seems that the package of rugby needs to be rebranded. Fun. Us Scots need more fun in our rugby, then it appears that we will become more successful. That means running rugby and spectacular tries.
“The Culture must change,” Moffat reiterates.
“A lot of parents are too in your face. We need to leave kids to develop. We label them quite early- but players can grow. Some boys get turned off, nationally, and by encouraging them to specialize in rugby too early we risk having Overkill.
“Also Scotland need to change style to compete. We can’t just hope for a wet day. We need inspiration.”
Another coach with pro experience, Fettes College’s Steve Bates, formerly of the Borders and Newcastle Falcons, also shares this opinion. For him, by focusing on building muscle and working on physicality we risk depriving our juniors of agility training and working on important skills. We also fall into the trap of trying to duplicate what we see from our heroes. Scotland’s style of play.
“We need to be extremely innovative,” Bates states. “It is about looking at the whole way we play the game.
“Sometimes at schools we focus on results too much. There is a tendency to forget performance.”
Is the standard of player already there, though?
Bates: “From what I’ve seen the standard is high, and the boys are keen. But there is a huge gap between pro and club level.”
Moffat: “No doubt at all! There are a few school boys that can go all the way…and if they don’t it is not their fault! I would like to see an 18 or 19 year-old [back] play for Scotland, soon.”
So is the coaching good enough nationally to cope with individual, specific training, then? For example I have serious doubts about whether scrummaging is coached adequately at junior level…
Appleson: “Ultimately it is a numbers game but having the likes of Rob Moffat, Steve Bates, David & Alex Blair, Stuart Moffat and Simon Cross coaching in schools can only help the children bridge the gap between the school game and the pro game.”
Moffat: “It could be a wee bit of some coaches out there not being good enough, but there is not enough high quality competition.”
Bates: “We need more young people training in a pro environment. With no relegation in the Pro12 we need more guys getting the chance to play and train.”
The SRU seem to think there is that opportunity. Maybe that is missing, but what about an Under-20 league, as a stepping stone between senior rugby and junior stuff? I know for a fact that “P1 is developing a strategy paper that aspires to make P1 clubs responsible for bridging the gap” that the SRU will have by November. At least that is what P1 secretary and Stirling County President Ray Mountford tells me, and he and his hugely successful underage coaches feel strongly that an U-20 competition could do no more good than a strong 2nd XV league and that the top school and club sides should be in an integrated league…
Bates: “An U-20 League could be good, but where is that league? How would it be coached?”
Moffat: “An U-19 or U-20 league is a must. Just because clubs have a junior section doesn’t mean there is a bond. Look at Stirling, Hawick and Gala. They should never be relegated because they have really strong junior sections. There is no club link.”
Hmmm…. Now I see why this one needs argued out. The SRU may see no problem, but it is fairly obvious to me that many think that there could be some big improvements. And are there any other ways of bridging the gap?
Moffat: “I’d like to see a return of more social rugby. The big clubs used to have 3rd and 4th XVs. There should still be room for kids that just want to play…”
Aha! Finally! Something we can all agree on!