Bill Lothian: Club rest periods? Give me a break

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CURRENT fixture arrangements for a majority of Scotland’s Premier rugby clubs are an unmitigated disaster calculated to drive players and supporters away in droves and reduce treasurers to apoplexy – or am I being too mild in those observations?

Have the leading clubs outwith our pro ranks somehow confused their standard with the physicality of the Rabo Direct Pro 12 league and Heineken Cup in believing they need lengthy rest periods between matches?

Of course, club players are showing greater commitment than ever before and standards in the Premiership are at an unprecedented high, at least on the odd occasion teams seem to come out to play these days.

But for, say, Boroughmuir to have no home Premiership game between Saturday, October 22 and Saturday, January 28 and only a single regional cup tie in-between – a period of 14 weeks – is tantamount to rugby suicide.

You might have caught Boroughmuir at Currie last Saturday but they’re idle again this weekend at least in terms of any meaningful match.

Similarly, Heriot’s last appeared at Goldenacre on October 29 in the Premiership and their only regional cup tie involved an away trip.

I could go on: Watsonians with six friendly matches to pad out their ‘campaign’; Stewart’s-Melville with no meaningful home commitment from November 6 to January 28 apart from one cup tie. To use a gardening metaphor, can league organisers, having poured Paraquat on their crop, seriously expect growth? It could get worse next season when a ten-team Premiership is due to kick in.

Now, I’m all for this concentration of standard as a bridge to the professional teams but surely playing each other three times each season and not just twice plus a cup structured initially in pools of three where one defeat can render your bid redundant, is being shortsighted.

The message is: if in a hole stop digging.

All right, the British and Irish Cup takes our top three out of the equation for a minimum four matches each and usually at a time when the weather is bad. This time round, Mother Nature wrongfooted Scottish rugby and who is to say it won’t happen in future seasons? Ways can be found for the top three to catch up without turning off the rank and file and, while Irish clubs have played roughly the same number of league matches, they’ve also been competing in more meaningful cup competitions. Most appealing is the Welsh model where the second-tier semi-pro league featuring 14 teams starts in early September and runs through to late April. Even their third tier (also 14 teams) take only a fortnight’s festive break in the same structure and the outcome is continuity.

Our clubs, significant attractions with a development role to play, have made an utter Horlicks of things and could even be accused of sporting genocide if playing numbers drop as a consequence.

The Borders have had a domestic league to fill gaps; was it really too difficult to have come up with something similar, if necessary, in the Capital?

Top clubs need fortnightly home games – or else might they even face the prospect of teams from national and regional leagues who at least have more cohesive fixture lists coming in to spirit away some of those who used to play regularly but now spend a majority of Saturdays idle.

Edinburgh squad can eclipse the class of ’04

Take nothing away from the Edinburgh Rugby side which, in 2004, reached the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup for only time in the team’s history so far.

But, if the current squad defeat London Irish on Sunday and similarly qualify (a freakish result elsewhere excepted) then, for me, it will be the greater achievement.

Eight years ago, Edinburgh’s qualification hinged on an opening day victory over Toulouse at Meadowbank when the visiting squad contained seven players – Jauzion, Michalak, Bru, Pelous, Labit, Poux and Poitrenaudv – who, 17 days previously, had stayed virtually the full World Cup course in Australia to tackle the All Blacks in a third/fourth place play-off.

By contrast, the Scottish contingent were back home much earlier and some were even able to be reintegrated to Edinburgh ranks in a game away to the now-defunct Celtic Warriors prior to Toulouse being encountered.

When Edinburgh headed for Toulouse and the return group tie, they were whipped 33-0 and fared only marginally better (10-36) when the teams were paired in the round of the last eight.

As I say, no disrespect but there is even a strong case for believing that current sectional opponents London Irish, Cardiff and Racing Metro represent stiffer opposition than a Neath/Swansea side still learning to fly as The Ospreys and a Leeds team who subsequently only qualified for one Heineken Cup campaign two seasons later.

All that really matters, of course, is that Edinburgh are in a position to go through again – even if the organisers continue to do rugby no favours with a qualification system based on two ‘best runners-up’ joining the six group winners.

Best to say in advance what a travesty it would be if Edinburgh were to win a fifth match out of six on Sunday and miss out as could happen were Ulster to take two bonus points at Clermont Auvergne and results elsewhere militate against the Scots.

Surely there are sufficient teams of calibre to expand the Heineken Cup into eight pools with two teams going forward from each?

Foreign interest in Chalmers should serve as a warning to SRU

Pondering the Referendum – what do you mean, which one? – I found myself musing how rugby men might vote within Murrayfield.

After all, the payroll includes a head coach (English), a defence coach (English), a scrummage coach (Italian), a performance director (New Zealand), a chairman (English), a chief executive (English), a pro team coach (Irish), a consultative coach in waiting (Australian). Scotland is indeed a rainbow rugby nation – and I stress each and every one is to be welcomed and thanked for contributions.

Nevertheless, there must be career pathways open for those who come up through the Scottish ranks and I was alarmed this week to learn a foreign international team had been trying to spirit away Craig Chalmers, the 1990 Grand Slam stand off, just weeks after he had finally been given a role as an assistant to Scotland’s A team. Nobody could have done more than Chalmers to develop up-and-coming players, through his work at Melrose, and the interest shown in his talents should serve as a reminder that it is not just players who have to be brought through to top level from grassroots but coaches, too.

The wooing of Chalmers, pictured, from abroad must serve as a wake-up call within the Murrayfield hierarchy to do more to recognise who is under their nose and, if Andy Robinson is to tour with the 2013 Lions, I’d try to bring back ex-Jordanhill player Richie Dixon, a prophet largely without honour in the early pro days at Murrayfield but a guru for emergent Georgia in the last World Cup.

Chris gesture shows change

Chris PATERSON will walk out with the match ball ahead of Scotland’s opening Six Nations clash with England at Murrayfield and it is decent gesture by the SRU to publicly recognise the achievements of a record cap holder newly retired from the international game.

But how ironic that such a move should come during the term of SRU President Ian McLauchlan who, until the early 1980s, was banned from active involvement in the game due to writing a book which arguably did much to stimulate interest even if it did earn him the one-time international captain a few quid?

Is it really only in the past 20 years that a stance has been softened from a position where even collecting a man-of-the-match award was taboo?

They’ll be sanctioning testimonial matches soon. Come to think of it . .