Bill Lothian: SRU running out of paper to cover the cracks

Jim Calder's try, minutes before the end of the game, ensured Scotland would win the Grand Slam in 1984. Fans invade the pitch, below
Jim Calder's try, minutes before the end of the game, ensured Scotland would win the Grand Slam in 1984. Fans invade the pitch, below
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There is a certain black humour about Scottish rugby’s current woeful record of wins over only Italy and Japan in their last nine internationals coinciding with the 30th anniversary of arguably its greatest achievement – the 1984 Grand Slam.

As the only Scottish rugby reporter to have covered that campaign still chronicling the game, I can recall a way in which complacency underpinning the current decline can be traced back to just days after France had been beaten 21-12 at Murrayfield.

On the most reliable authority, I had it that the agenda for the SRU’s official de-brief, which ought to have been all about how to capitalise and move Scottish rugby forward, contained high up a complaint from a committee member’s wife that her pre-match roast lunch was cold!

Fast forward 12 years and a 1996 programme editorial denouncing professionalism in rugby only for pay-to-play to arrive months later and you get an idea of how haphazard and unprepared the organisation was for the brave new world.

Actually, February, 1996, was when the major debate was held as to whether performance-driven clubs such as Melrose and Watsonians should spearhead professionalism or be replaced by centrally-run districts.

“If clubs get the green light things will be polarised like rugby league where Wigan win everything,” declared one influential SRU voice, knowing who buttered his bread and fearing clubs would want investors who would want a say in running the game.

Lo and behold the following day Wigan lost their first Challenge Cup match in nine years and, of course, we now have effectively a Scottish pro league of, er, two teams.

At the start, there were four district teams – Edinburgh, Borders, Glasgow and North/Midlands – and that was the premise on which clubs voted albeit some desired more to give bloody noses to the more ambitious outfits who were accused of “player poaching” by the ones who merely liked to work up a sweat followed by a few beers (nothing wrong with that in its place).

Anyway, four districts became two and you need be no great mathematician to work out that the number of Scots being given opportunities shrank accordingly.

Then, when results faltered as inevitably they would, the plan was a sticking plaster in the form of importing Scots-qualified players under the “granny rule” such as the Leslie brothers, Gordon Simpson and Brendan Laney, none of whom are still here putting back their experience.

Worse has followed in the shape of Edinburgh/Glasgow “project” signings such as WP Nel. Josh Strauss and Cornell Du Preez, who will qualify for Scotland on residency. At some point, with youngsters being denied their dream and refusal to accept private investment at pro level meaning limited cash for grass-roots development, the paper required for the cracks will run out. In my view, we are not quite at the nadir yet and England can be beaten at Murrayfield on Saturday but urgent action is needed.

My solution is to take the money spent on the pro teams and put it in a pot for the winners of a Premiership spread over a season and not interrupted by ludicrously long breaks.

That way the game starts to grow from the bottom up rather than top down; if our clubs aren’t strong enough for cross-border tournaments then at least efforts would be taking place to make them stronger. And in the short term, combines could be entered into Europe.

For me, it is the only thing that hasn’t yet been tried by a governing body with plenty of accomplished people but more committed to control and self preservation than anything else.

Meanwhile, the international coaching hierarchy led by Scott Johnson and among whom only Duncan Hodge is Scottish, there is talk of requiring “consistency” and rightly so.

But how can consistency be achieved when off field, and helped by a top-heavy spin department, every small victory is trumpeted by the establishment and every defeat sees all hell break out on the terracings because the false expectations the spinners have been paid to cultivate aren’t met?

That’s what happens when you have no domestic game to speak of and, without it, what is there to attract recruits and followers?

The international programme is restricted in comparison to domestic rugby in terms of offering regular games so the Six Nations should really be the icing on the cake.

Instead, internationals have become virtually the entire cake.

What the SRU should be doing is undertaking the due diligence that is required when new investors enter rugby, and husbanding the national team. That, in a nutshell, is their role.

Until that happens we will see players, who are only just holding together a flawed structure that is built on sand, unfairly lambasted as – surprise, surprise – wins prove elusive.