Rugby is a TEAM game
One of the wonderful things about Marr Rugby’s progress through the divisions with four successive league wins – they will play next season in the 2nd top tier of Scottish rugby for the first time – is that their success has been built around local boys who have grown up together playing for the local school team.
Sure, something brought Craig Redpath, Paul Burke and Stephen Adair along the road from Ayr 3 or 4 seasons ago to coach and lead with purpose and vision, but at the heart of the team are guys who played together for Marr College – one group around the Bickerstaff brothers, Connor and Scott, who came out of the school about 4 years ago, another around the Johnston boys, Angus and Ben, who emerged just this last year. They’ve grown up together, learned to win together, learned to lose together, learned to value the purple and gold together. Not only does this mean they are prepared to put their bodies on the line for each other, because it is their pals they are defending for, but it also means the sum of their efforts is so much more than any of the individual parts because they know intuitively where each will be, having played together for so long.
On the East coast the similar success of Howe of Fife, is based around Bell Baxter High School. It used to be – and to an extent still is – the secret of the over achievement of Borders teams, that lads were playing for so much more than themselves; for village pride, for shared identity, for families and friends.
Somewhere in Scotland’s attempts to be bring success in the professional game, we seem to be losing sight of the fact that rugby is essentially a team game.
It’s not so long ago that Glasgow could field a pack consisting entirely of players who had grown up in the district. They still have a core of men who would be on the terraces supporting Glasgow as their local team if they weren’t out on the pitch – Bennett, Weir, Reid, McArthur, Welsh, Kellock, Gray, Eddie and Harley. By contrast Edinburgh this season, have regularly fielded just one or two players who were schooled in the capital – Dougie Fife and Matt Scott. The rest of their team are a disparate group of accents and cultures, bound together not by a shared identity, but by ambition (to play for Scotland) necessity (there is no Borders team) or comfort (they need to earn a wage).
Are these things enough to build a team culture with?
Go one step down from the pro teams and look at the teams that represented Scotland in the British & Irish Cup this year. Each team – Ayr, Edinburgh A, Gala and Stirling Co – playing 6 games, and with one or two exceptions, were well beaten in most of them. Regularly we heard stories about unequal playing fields – professional teams from England against amateur teams from Scotland; but that is only part of the story.
Too often we threw together a group of players on the day and expected them to combine their individual talents to the benefit of the team. But it wasn’t teams we fielded in the competitio: each of the four clubs played more than 40 different players over their 6 games; and each of them included individual professionals for games who turned out for other club XV’s in the Premier championship.
So Ayr had McGuigan and Brown (Aberdeen), Wight, Gillies and Redmayne (Hawks); Edinburgh Accies had McInally (Currie) and McAlpine (Hawick); Gala, astonishingly, had Walker (Hawick!!!) Bryce (Heriots), Low (Aberdeen) and Cox (Currie) while Perry Jon Parker and Basilaia both appeared for Stirling County. It seemed to be all about getting game time for individuals, or parachuting ‘better players’ players into a struggling team in the hope that somehow they would improve it – but rugby doesn’t work like that!
It depends on combinations, familiarity, defensive alignment, team ethos; perhaps more than any other sport.
To make this point even more strongly look at the Glasgow team this season. In 22 competitive games, they have played 21 different combinations at the 9, 10, 12, 13 midfield axis.
Only in the games against Connacht (home) and Cardiff (away) have they played the same 4 players (Pyrgos, Jackson, Bennett, and Vernon) in the same combination. Maths and probability were never my strongest points, but until I looked through the combinations I wouldn’t even have guessed you could get 21 different combinations from the pool of 14 players they have used in midfield this season. Surely if you are going to play attacking rugby you need a midfield familiar with angles of running, depth of approach, speed of acceleration and flight of pass?
Finally to this year’s premier champions, Melrose. When you look through their team sheets you find the same names appearing week after week in their squad – Lockington, Helps, Mill, Colvine, Little, Holborn, Eccles, Dodds, Runcziman. There is a consistent spine to the team, and even when they have suffered injuries – for example Thomson, Anderson and Nagle – they have had regular squad members ready to step in. It is into this consistent team selection and team pattern of play that they have gradually introduced their next crop of outstanding youngsters over the period of the season – Richard Taylor, Blair Hutchison, Lewis Carmichael, Ruaridh Knott.
You can’t help but feel that whatever level these boys go on to play at they will have learned at this stage a crucial maxim of rugby union:
Together Everyone Achieves More.