If you look at Tartan week and Richie Gray stalking along a trendy New York catwalk, clad in traditional finery and winking at global fashion moguls, you would be forgiven for thinking that Scotland had some sort of international clout. Many individuals from many different ethnic backgrounds united in a love of tartan. Scotland seems to be recognisable.
Of course, Richie Gray is someone who does stand out, anyway. He is our one unquestionable world class talent and he is easily picked out of a crowd. He is in the happy situation where he will be sent to events as a signifier of Scotland until his last breath rattles into his lungs.
Do not be fooled. Stock abroad is something that figures heavily in the thinking of those at Murrayfield.
Scotland’s next fixtures involve games against Australia and a Super 15 side this summer and then New Zealand and South Africa travel north to take on Scotland at home, in November. These fixtures have long been in the can, but with the Scottish slide down the world rankings it will be hard to convince the top tier teams to play the Scots in three or four years time should the numbers stay as they are now.
So Scotland must sell themselves in any way they can. It is a popularity contest and only now, under a regime which, to their credit, have given themselves a shake and tried to promote themselves instead of appealing to the same old market it did in the 70s, are the grins pasted on faces and palms getting greased. I only hope someone at the Union – someone with a bit of guile about them and some people skills – accompanied Richie Gray and Thom Evans to New York and tried to schmooze some international high rollers.
If ‘the Union don’t do that sort of thing,’ then they should.
However the hot topic right now seems to be what Scotland can attain from abroad as well. Coaches are being shipped in for the summer and Gregor Townsend, with his coaching sessions learnt from southern experts, is moving west. He is swapping, of course, with Sean Lineen, who is to become a coach and a chief scout from within Murrayfield.
With this move I found myself asking why a chief scout was needed in the first place. So I asked the former Scotland international Shaun Longstaff, who is a director at Top Marque Sports, an agency that manages several international rugby players, how things work.
“All the progressive Unions have been scouting for years,” Longstaff informs me. “I don’t think things will change too much as far as Scottish rugby [is concerned]. In terms of the practicalities and opportunities for players with Scottish heritage there are only two pro teams in Scotland, there are thirty in France, twelve in England and then there’s the rest of the Rabo league and Japan, without touching the Super 15, too!
“Scouts historically work closely with the agents and will continue to do so. The roles definitely have similarities. In some countries I am considered more a scout than an agent.”
This last statement throws me off a little. If practices in searching for Scots qualified players have been going on for years then why do Scotland need a chief scout-type character to go out across the world now? If the Union feel this position is essential, is it the agents here or the local scouts, managers or agents abroad that they do not trust?
As well as this there is a question of expertise. If Scott Johnson, a man with a track record of alerting others about international talent, comes in and does not have the right contacts, how will Lineen fare any better? I would propose that local ‘experts’ would find it easier than either of them. Could flashing a bit more cash, signed off by a speculating CEO, really find better players?
Longstaff seems to sense my scepticism. “We, as always, have sourced Scottish qualified players for the SRU. Off the top of my head I can name Ali Muldowney, Ryan Wilson, Tommy Seymour, Tim Swinson and Keiran Murphy at the Scarlets –we’ve just brought [him] to the SRU’s attention. He is Scots qualified and a massive talent. All of these players are managed by our company … the list of players that we’ve sourced over the last 9 years of being in this business goes on.”
So will any gold rush for mercenaries or several Union appointed scouts make things tougher for the traditional agents?
“We’ll still be involved.”
I suspect that few agencies are quaking at the prospect of new SRU and IRFU scouts flying out and knocking on doors or cold calling contacts from way back when. Their first port of call will be with the people in the know and on the ground. Plus, in the competitive market, are agents or officials more likely to uncover that one free agent looking for four years sanctuary and a plush motor in return for international games down the line? Either way that players ends up in Scottish employ so why add another link to the chain?
In the meantime the fascination with the Southern Hemisphere continues. Scouts will fly out and so will a few Scottish youngsters.
With Jonny Gray and Gregor Hunter heading over to learn a thing or two in New Zealand as part of the Macphail Scholarship, alongside coach Ben Fisher (New Zealand born, bred and coached himself), there is a hope that both will learn enough to bring them on, even if the SRU have already deemed these two good enough for pro rugby.
It is great that some elite youngsters are getting the chance to enjoy some new rugby experiences, but one wonders if the money from such an initiative could be spent on something that benefits more than two young, already professional rugby players per year.
Scotland seems to be spending a lot of money these days for things achievable from the comfort of home.