Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


5 Key Points For Fixing Scottish Rugby

Scott Johnson - pic © Al Ross
Scott Johnson - pic © Al Ross

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

18 Responses

  1. Nice piece, Cammy. re your 5 points:
    1. Was the DoR job advertised anywhere? Did the SRU consider more candidates than just Johnson? If not to either or both of those, then why not? What exactly are Johnson’s qualifications for this role? Did anyone at the SRU take note of criticisms from Wales and the Ospreys in particular regarding Johnson’s past performance when he was appointed? If not, why not?
    2. Money would appear to be the key to the professional game, at least when used wisely (viz the troubles that France have had). If money were available to the Scottish game, what would the priority list be? Would a 3rd pro district team really solve very much? What about a semi-pro league of 4-8 teams below that instead to bridge the gap between senior amateur and pro, which appears to be a very difficult leap for many players to make? How about putting some money towards sorting out the schools game? Why are private schools and clubs still playing separate competitions? What about the real grassroots – could we afford to support a pitch at every primary school?
    3. Surely there has to be a balance in any squad between home-grown and brought-in talent, and even more so when the talent from outside is deemed ‘project’ player for the national side. If there aren’t enough home-grown players of sufficient quality or able to make the step-up, then that points to a problem which itself needs fixing. The NZ comparison isn’t truly valid tho, as most of their Island players moved to NZ when they were v young and have largely risen through the NZ age groups and been brought up in their youth coaching structures.
    4. Agreed. Perhaps a mentoring programme might be instituted to bring on the development of Scottish coaching talent, attaching promising young coaches to more experienced foreign ones. It’s great to see Murray’s involvement at Glasgow, but it’s a shame that a slot couldn’t be found for Chalmers somewhere in the coaching group at Embra
    5. Rugby is growing and needs to continue to grow, of that there is no question – so either the 6Ns can embrace that or else the danger is that their hands will be forced. The French-dominated FIRA body may not be the answer, but neither is no change. Personally I’d have no problems with setting up a second tier 6Ns with a home match for the bottom tier 1 side versus the top tier 2 side scheduled towards the end of the season

    1. All fine valid points!

      The main point in the peice is to take a bit more of a dispassionate look at the realities of some of the “solutions” being put about.

      What’s clear is that Scottish Rugby is lagging behind other Northern Hemisphere countries partly because of financial constraints but also because of a lack of forward planning in the past. That forward planning seems to be happening now but needs time to bear fruit.

      A big concern is the future of club rugby in the UK and Europe. If Wales go with England then Ireland could follow which would leave us no option but to go with them. That could mean both pro sides playing in the bottom half of a UK league or even worse playing the likes of Doncaster and Bristol in the Championship.

  2. All makes sense. As for the Six Nations, why not expand it to a Seven Nations, with the seventh spot made up from the best finisher from the year before in a similar competition for the smaller sides? That would give Romania, Georgia, Portugal and maybe Russia more games among each other and they’d get to play the Six Nations every now and then too…

    1. That competition already exists, every rugby nation in Europe outside of the 6N plays in one of the European Nations Cup divisions. 1A is the highest one.

      The major change those teams want is to integrate the 6N into the already existing promotion and relegation structures, rather than being stuck in the same competition forever.

  3. I think 2 and 3 are pretty urgent and do need to be resolved. No one would expect a development side to be a huge success on the pitch but young players need game time and they don’t get it being on the fringes of Edinburgh and Glasgow’s mega-squads. Scotland has enough ex-test standard players littered around the fringes of squads in the AV and English championship, enough capped and A-players currently third or fourth choice at their pro-team, and enough young guys who want a game to make a go of it. Obviously, finance is an issue but there are other models than central control that might be viable. Obviously, I have no idea of the financial reality behind it but I don’t think it is impossible.

    In regard to 3 – quality not quantity FFS! No one frets over Cornell, Straus, Matawalu etc. But what use is Piers Francis to anyone?

  4. Scottish rugby will not improve until those people born with silver spoons in their mouth start to integrate into the main stream in particular within schools. That us where the grass roots are. There are too many people in power within the Scottish game who have next to no idea what rugby is all about but are there because there family is of the upper class variety.

    Mark Dodson maybe a chief executive but when setting goals for any athlete they must be achieves me and not pie in the sky. He need to be removed from the SRU and someone with rugby experience plus a knowledge if business us brought in. Jim Aitken, Gavin Hastings are two examples. Three pro teams is a must as is a return to the district rugby , Glasgow, Edinburgh, South and North Midlands. This could be semi professional. That with a semi pro. Club team competition would give players a better chance to progress.

    1. There is a popular misconception that most of the Scottish international players are the products of expensive independent schools. This is patently not the case; of the starting line-up for the Italy game only Richie Gray (Kelvinside Academy) and Johnnie Beattie (The Glasgow High School)were educated privately in Scotland. This begs the question: where did all the embra boarding schools kids disappear to?

  5. Well written article Cammy. I agree with all your points. More importance has to be placed on improving grass roots rugby in Scotland. It is going to be a difficult few years for the National team. The SRU should identify this and adopt a medium term view. The current crop of 14-20 year olds are the future. Lets not waste money on over acclaimed, under performing and over protected players in the scottish game.

    Attendance for school kids should be free for example. Subsidised buses should run from clubs/schools all over the country. Currently attendance and some of the games is shocking. There is nothing to lose (and arguably a lot to gain) by having 500 school kids attending for free and developing an interest in rugby.

    SRU contracted players need to be used more strategically as well. They seem to have vast amounts of spare time. Why are they not coaching at locals schools every week? You can’t underestimate the impression they can have on young rugby players. This may seem trivial, I know, but the phrase marginal gains seems to be the buzz word in sport at the moment and there has to be a more rigorous, comprehensive approach to developing the grass roots game.

    There are also too many players who leave school with potential but fall through the net. For example, I question the merits of the 7’s circuit? Is it not meant to be a spring board to 15’s level? Does it not just take away young players with potential and deprive them of 15 aside rugby for 2 or 3 years? I don’t have an answer for this but I wonder if the output from the 7’s justifies the financial input (i don’t see england/NZ using sevens to bring on 15’s players). Maybe someone can offer an opinion on this?

    John – I agree we need guys running the SRU who understand the Scottish game. However, in rugby the majority of players traditionally come from private schools or the borders so in all reason “upper class’ individuals will make up a large proportion of the SRU (and you have recommended Scott Hastings who was born with a silver spoon..and his commentary IS appalling..)

    1. NZ have brought along many players in their 7s side, players like Savea, Jane, Vito, Piutau, even Lomu got his start in the side. Other nations haven’t had as much success, but Wales have brought through Tipuric and Jonathan Davies I think.

    1. Yep, if they had any fans they’d be facing fan protests.

      Is this Sean Lineen justifying his world-scout position? For God’s sake, we need a clear out not to keep piling them up. Edinburgh have a huge squad and young Scots struggle to get game time as it is. Very depressing.


    Educated at Queens College in Eastern Cape, the promising young prop, who can play on both sides of the scrum, qualifies for Scotland through his grandmother, Joan Carmichael, who was born in Paisley and brought up in Edinburgh.

    He has made 13 senior appearances in the Vodacom and Currie Cup competitions alongside his selection for South Africa Schools and every South Africa age-grade en route to lifting the Junior World Championship trophy with the under-20 side in 2012.


    Born in Christchurch New Zealand, 23 year-old prop, Berghan – who can play on both sides of the scrum but has a preference for the tighthead side – progressed from Shirley Boys High School to local club Sydenham, who he has captained for the past two seasons.
    He earned selection for the provincial Canterbury academy, B team and Crusader Knights, the development squad of the Super Rugby giants, before securing his one-year chance to prove himself in the capital.

    He is eligible to represent Scotland through his grandfather, Andrew Davidson, from Stirling.


    Versatile back Nick McLennan started his rugby development at Waitaki Boys’ High School and North Otago, before his induction into the Crusaders devolopment squad in 2010.

    Born in New Zealand, Nick qualifies for Scotland through his grandmother, Jean, from Balmoral and his grandfather Alexander McLennan, who was from Dunblain and served with the Gordon Highlanders.

    Equally adept at stand-off, centre and full-back, McLennan was Canterbury Colts player of the year in 2010 and, most recently, featured in the ITM Cup for Hawke’s Bay.

    The Lincoln University graduate was a constant feature in the New Zealand Universities XV during his undergraduate years and, after a short spell at Russian club Krasny Yar, is looking forward to plying his trade in Scotland.

    Sounds like a promising player and 2 journeymen to me. You can probably bet that Berghan and McLennan will never play for Scotland and will just clog up the Edinburgh squad for Scots players. Dell is probably the best prop in Scotland though!

  7. I think it’s worth remembering that, currently, our youth system just doesn’t produce the required number of high-quality players that could go on to win international caps. Until we get that sorted out, we need to bring in non-SQA’d and SQA’d players to tide us over.

    There will be a big clear out at Embra at the end of this season. Let’s judge player recruitment then.

    1. That view might make sense if the quality age-grade players we did produce got some gametime as it is.

      I’m all for encouraging young players to get contracts in the Championship and having a reasonable overseas recruitment policy. But the numbers of players being brought over is getting ridiculous and there seems little discrimination between those, Like Maitland, almost guaranteed to make an impact in the test arena and others who are long shots at best.

      It is a fine balance to strike. I’d say Glasgow have done a pretty good job at getting that balance right. Edinburgh seem hell bent on signing every foreign SQP they can find.

      I also think it is not quite right to say our system isn’t producing young talent. The problem is when they are 17,18,19,20, 21 they are playing infrequently and not at a high enough level so when they finally break through to the pro-game they are playing catch up. This is a problem with the academy structure and the pro-teams – there is no point fixing the academy structure (as the SRU is trying to do) if the players are then marooned on the fringes of a 50-strong squad.

  8. Just a thought, is it possible the sru are getting ready for a third pro team? Obviously there’s a lot of uncertainty around European club rugby with the cup, the Welsh regions and the Italians. I wonder (optimistically hope) if there is more than meets the eye as the Edinburgh squad is 10+ larger than needed.

    Low’s departure to Exeter does counter the optimism though. Although I think his move is a great move for him, and Scottish rugby. If not a third pro team I hope to see a few more established Scots departing Scotland to free up places and increase pro numbers.

  9. There is a group on facebook that has been set up in light of the recent downturn in Scottish rugby called ‘change for Scottish Rugby’. They met with the SRU this week, posting this yesterday…

    We spoke to the SRU for over an hour tonight in an honest and frank discussion. Hopefully it was the first of many conversations so we won’t go into detail and we appreciate the effort the SRU made in getting in contact. Here are some of the key take home messages.

    – The SRU will welcome ANY private investment into the Scottish pro game. If investors are willing to fully fund a new Pro team they …will get the (non-financial) backing of the SRU. They are not willing to fund it themselves.

    – The SRU are moving swiftly forward with their new Academy plan, outlined in their policy paper. Furthermore they are investing heavily in the grassroots system. They are also very committed to new Super 8 semi-pro league at the top of the Scottish club game but are still at least a year away from making it happen.

    The largest area of heated debate:

    – They defend the signing of foreign players. They want the club teams to get better. Other countries have foreign players so the SRU deem it common place to look further a field.

    As you can see there was some productivity but not much. Much of it was a passionate exchange of views, where we put forward the opinions that have been left on this page and they responded.

    Their key point was, they want us to move forward, working together not apart. Sadly what they think that means is, we have to agree with them. If we don’t agree then we are not working together and it is bad for the game. Yet when we said the VAST majority of the Scottish rugby community do not want to see an influx of foreign players, so it is in fact the SRU that are not working with us, they couldn’t respond.

    We commend them for talking to us so honestly. It is a testament to what people power can do. With even more pressure they will have to act not just listen. They will see your posts on here, so please keep voicing your opinion.

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