The noise created by Scotland’s defeat to England last weekend reached deafening levels as journalists scoured the land dragging ex-internationalists from their beds in the hope of getting increasingly damning views on Scotland’s struggles. Meanwhile any ex-players or pundits south of the border who wanted a bit of exposure needed only to suggest Scotland should be kicked out of the tournament altogether.
The noise has receded to the background murmurs of dissatisfaction that were floating around prior to last Saturday’s kick off, but it’s never going to go away entirely.
Rugby Union in Europe is in flux with the Heineken Cup in danger of being reduced to an annual talking shop, Italian teams threatening to leave the Celtic League and Welsh regions looking to England rather than their own Union for salvation. With only two pro teams and a poorly performing national side, Scottish rugby has started to look vulnerable.
We’ve already had a look at the advantages of summer rugby in the amateur game. But just how viable are the other solutions put forward by pundits, fans and ex-players?
1. Review Johnson’s position
The SRU were forced to issue a statement backing Johnson after the Calcutta Cup defeat. Such statements usually mark the death throes of a coach’s tenure but then everyone seems to have forgotten that Johnson isn’t Scotland’s head coach. Johnson never asked to be head coach. The job was thrust upon him after Andy Robinson left his Murrayfield box of fury, believing he had taken Scotland as far as he could.
Scott Johnson is Scotland’s Director of Rugby and has only been in the position for around 18 months. 12 months have been taken up with babysitting the Scotland national side until Vern Cotter is able to start. The calls for Johnson’s head are premature. Clearly he is not the man for the job but he never signed up for the job in the first place. If he wanted the job it would have been fairly easy for him to step into Robinson’s shoes last year.
There is a suggestion, however, that Johnson has had little impact in his role as Director or Rugby with the women’s team and under-20’s both being swept aside by sides in their own Six Nations tournaments. However it would be unfair to judge Johnson’s performance in this regard after 18 months of what is a long term project to change the infrastructure of the game in Scotland. Even more unfair when you consider his attentions have been elsewhere for some of that time.
It is right to review Johnson’s position but now is not that time. Any attempts Johnson makes at developing the game in Scotland need to be judged in the long term. Performance at the 2015 World Cup may be too soon given the fact Johnson did not start until the summer of 2014 and has had time out to look after the national side. However he will have been in post for a decent amount of time by the end of the 2017 Six Nations. That will be the time to review Johnson’s performance, but only as Director of Rugby.
2. More Pro Teams
Many have been calling for the re-establishment of a professional team in the Borders and Highlands regions ever since they were disbanded and merged with Edinburgh and Glasgow.
The main case for more pro teams is widening the player base and giving youngsters an opportunity to come through the ranks without being stuck behind more established players. But putting together a successful professional side is not just a matter of getting 20 odd players together.
Anyone who watched the BBC Wales documentary about The Scarlets will appreciate the infrastructure needed to run a professional club. That means money. Setting up any new professional side would require a massive financial contribution from the SRU to get it up and running. Even then any club will need to work to generate its own income from merchandise, sponsorship and hospitality.
Gate receipts from attendance are also going to be an issue outside of Glasgow and Edinburgh with dispersed populations unlikely to want to travel to watch a poorly performing professional side. The Borders, especially, suffers from elements of tribalism and it might be difficult to persuade someone from Selkirk or Melrose to go and support a team based in Gala.
Some suggested Scotland should withdraw from the Celtic League altogether and throw all its money at developing its own professional league. It’s a wonderfully romantic idea but clubs are unlikely to be able to generate anything close to enough income to invest in infrastructure and player development even with SRU support. Scotland is not New Zealand and although passion for rugby is strong in some areas it is not as strong as it was in the past having been diluted by incomers and a loss of industry, meaning young people have no option but to move away to find better prospects.
3. Stop foreign imports
The South African revolution continues at Edinburgh as Alan Solomons scours his native land for players on the fringes of the Springboks. Glasgow have their fair share of foreign stars, but the allegation is as old as time. These foreigners are coming over here taking starting positions from young Scottish players.
A lack of game time for young Scottish players is a concern but neither Alan Solomons or Gregor Townsend have been tasked with developing Scottish rugby. Solomons’ and Townsend’s jobs are to produce winning sides. If the quality of young players in Scotland isn’t good enough they are entitled to look elsewhere.
There is a knock on effect in Edinburgh and Glasgow being competitive in the Celtic League and any European competition and that is it increases attendances and interest in the game in general. This in turn means more money coming into Scottish rugby which can be put back into developing young players who can then compete with foreign imports.
The other drawback to any ban on foreign signings is the knock on effect for the national side. Scotland are not unique in selecting players who qualify on residence or relatives. The current England side is littered with “foreign” players and the mighty All Blacks have a long history of selecting Tongans and Samoans in their ranks. Closing ourselves to the possibility of selecting players born overseas in the national side would be international suicide.
4. Develop Scottish coaches
A lot has been made of the barriers put in the way of Scottish coaches progressing through the game into top jobs. George Graham and Peter Wright have struggled to hide their dissatisfaction and Craig Chalmers packed it in a Melrose to manage south of the border.
But the same arguments apply here as they do to overseas players. Yes, Scottish coaches should be developed but they shouldn’t be catapulted into jobs ahead of better candidates. The Irish provinces are currently managed by a host of foreign coaches as is the national side and yet they don’t appear to be struggling. There’s a myth that coaches should “understand” the Scottish game as though it is something unique. Rugby is rugby wherever you’re from and such inward thinking is more damaging to the long term development of the game in Scotland than anything else.
Of course more funding needs to be put into developing coaches in Scotland to ensure young players are getting the best standard coaching from minis upwards. That is very different from putting money into to develop the careers of individual coaches. Perhaps more should follow the examples of Tom Smith and Craig Chalmers and go elsewhere to further themselves. Who knows they may even return to Scottish rugby all the better for it.
5. Relegation from the Six Nations
There is an uneasy undertone in suggestions from English pundits that Scotland should be relegated. No one was suggesting that England be relegated when they lost 30-3 to Wales last year. No one suggested Wales be relegated when they lost to Ireland 26-3 last weekend. And no one suggested France should be relegated when they finished with the wooden spoon last year.
However rugby is fast becoming a popular sport in Europe and the rest of the world and it seems unfair to exclude the likes of Romania and Georgia and even the USA and Canada from regular tests against sides in the top 10. Widening the appeal of the game over the rest of Europe could have financial benefits in attracting sponsorship and selling TV rights in new markets.
But then there’s the history. On the other hand history can’t stand in the way of progress. A balance needs to be struck or emerging nations could feel justifiably aggrieved at being kept out of the top of the world rankings just because no one will give them a game.
One solution may be the introduction of a European Cup in between World Cups, but whatever the fix it needs to come soon before the decision is taken out of Scotland’s hands. The Six Nations is worth £52 million to the Scottish economy every year. Relegation would be catastrophic – and not just for the sport.
Other reporting Scottish Rugby Blog staff