John McLellan: SRU need to broaden talent pool

Scotland suffered a disastrous Six Nations campaign. Pic: GETTY
Scotland suffered a disastrous Six Nations campaign. Pic: GETTY
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How fortunate it is for the powers that be at Murrayfield that a new national rugby coach is about to arrive.

The public relations disaster which has been the cack-handed appointment of Vern Cotter has turned into a rescue package which has diverted attention away from the deep malaise afflicting the sport.

Had it not been for a promise of something better round the corner, I suspect the clamour for change would be far stronger than the shrug of the shoulders which met the end of what must go down as one of the most disastrous tournaments, with five or six nations, in living memory.

Let’s not forget that the team was one last-minute drop goal away from a whitewash and, from where I sat, there was precious little to take from the other four games.

In Dublin: a brief flash of defiance in the first half, then virtually nothing.

Against England: a national sporting disgrace.

France: victory thrown away against a poor side.

Wales: a needless sending-off provided a convenient excuse for the biggest embarrassment in national rugby history.

It’s hardly the basis for promoting the coach to director of rugby, but that’s what we’re stuck with for now.

There is an undeniable air of despondency surrounding the game but, every Sunday, hundreds of mini rugby volunteers cheerfully turn out to bring on the next generation of players. I’m one of them. (Well when I say cheerfully, that wasn’t the look on Big Malky McVie’s face when I forgot to apply the “no targeting the ball” rule while refereeing his Edinburgh Accies side last weekend). Set aside the woes of the national team for one moment, it is at youth development level where real change has to happen. In speaking to rugby people over the past few weeks, it is clear the rebuilding process has to start here.

It has been said many times before that there are far more active cricketers in Scotland: about 66,000 compared to less than 50,000 rugby players.

But history dictates that our rugby side should be able to compete with the best while it doesn’t matter if the cricketers get thumped by Bangladesh.

Now I don’t agree with the latter but, having spent the best part of 40 years around rugby clubs, I certainly agree with the former.

At a Watsonians FC dinner last Friday, three heroes of the 1984 Grand Slam side (one which drew 25-25 with the All Blacks just three months before) identified what they saw as ways to improve the game.

Euan Kennedy wanted to see the return of more dyed-in-the-wool Scottish rugby people at the top of the SRU administration and Jim Calder wanted London Scottish placed at the heart of future development.

But David Johnston identified a fundamental; the complete overhaul of the way young talent is identified and developed.

At the heart of the matter is the supply route. From where will the players of the future come? Despite 20 years of professionalism, the production line has not changed one bit.

Occasionally, players like Duncan Weir, a Cathkin High School boy who was on Celtic’s books, pop up (and thank goodness for that Parkhead-educated boot in Rome) but he remains an exception.

Look at the selection for any Scottish age-group representative side and the backgrounds are virtually unchanged from that of 50 years ago; private schools and Borderers.

And this is after years of paying development officers to go round schools to attract people to the game from non-rugby backgrounds.

The best that can be said is that big private schools, which use rugby as a marketing tool, use scholarships to attract promising players. North Berwick High School is something of a rugby academy, but their best players now often make their way to Loretto for their final school years.

But they are products of affluent East Lothian who might find the transition relatively comfortable.

What about the boy from Wester Hailes who might have the potential to be the best rugby player in the world but who, even if he’s spotted and wants to play, has absolutely no desire to go to Merchiston Castle or Fettes?

I can remember years ago saying that Scottish rugby will never truly develop until a top player (I won’t say who, but he laughed when I told him) is found in a crashed Ferrari with a glamorous blonde who is not his wife.

The situation is unchanged in that rugby is not regarded as a route to fame or relative fortune for the vast majority of boys from less well-off backgrounds. I doubt Ricky Burns thought about playing scrum-half at Cambuslang before pulling on the boxing gloves.

Professional sport provides a way for youngsters like Burns to find a better life. For the sons and daughters of the middle classes it provides an alternative, but with the pressures now demanded of pro sports people it is a choice increasingly difficult to take.

If your main supply of players is from the professional middle classes, that supply will dwindle if good players ultimately decide they are not prepared to take a gamble in contact sport and set back a career in medicine, finance or law.

Look at someone like Stuart McInally, the highly-intelligent former head boy of George Watson’s who went pro with Edinburgh rugby to chase his dream of playing for Scotland. He was forced to change his position and is now plying his trade as a journeyman hooker at Bristol. He might yet make it, but only after years of sacrifice in which his career development away from rugby has taken a back seat.

And what are the rewards? The very most being paid now is about £40,000 a month to the likes of Johnny Sexton at Racing Metro.

I can’t think of anything better than being in the prime of your youth and being paid £500,000 a year to play rugby, but very, very few earn that kind of cash and it only takes one hit on the knee for it all to end.

And there are plenty of young fund managers earning that kind of money who only put other people’s money on the line as opposed to their own bodies.

The chilling statistic from football is that the average retirement age of a professional player is 19 and rugby will be no different. So from the pure statistics, the way in which talent is identified and nurtured needs turning on its head. If numbers are falling and player backgrounds mean the eventual selection pool is even smaller, it is clear the current system is failing.

So, even if a new rugby gene pool can be opened up, where are they going to go? What competition will they play in? How will they be developed?

Again, the current system is a failure. The only way a player currently makes it into one of the academies is through a proven route where coaches can identify potential and so the focus remains on tried-and- tested sources.

No wonder Edinburgh has to buy in largely unremarkable foreign players when the local supply is short. The jewel in the crown of Scottish youth rugby is the Brewin Dolphin Cup, dominated in recent years by George Watson’s College. And what happened this year when Watson’s played the winners of the club-based youth cup? Watson’s ripped champions Ayr to shreds.

There has been much talk recently of encouraging Brewin Dolphin to broaden their support for youth rugby, but that misunderstands the nature of sponsorship.

I’m sure the good people at Brewin Dolphin want to see successful rugby as much as anyone, but the real reason they support the game in the way they do is because as an asset management business it raises their high profile amongst high net-worth individuals.

They are buying visibility in a key market – that’s why they took out a full-page advert in the private education supplement produced by The Spectator magazine last week.

So painful as it will undoubtedly be for the big private schools, to grow youth rugby the SRU needs to move its focus away from the Brewin Dolphin Cup.

It needs to set up a proper youth league beyond the schools, the finale of which is the real showpiece of the rugby year.

That is the next piece of the jigsaw. There are now plans to create a tier of eight semi-professional clubs, as if the top clubs like Melrose and Ayr aren’t semi-professional already.

Call me old-fashioned, but if you get a regular wage from playing a sport that makes you a semi-pro.

What makes you a full pro is if you don’t need another job to pay the bills.

What sets a semi-pro outfit from a genuinely pro outfit is the way in which players are brought on. An essential element of any new club set-up below the pro teams should be their youth development plans. And, if they can’t field competitive teams in youth leagues, they should fail the test.

While I instinctively dislike the idea of quotas, there should be incentives to bring on players from non-traditional backgrounds.

It is easy for Currie to pop down to Watson’s or Merchiston to lift the best players and dominate whatever is the new youth competition. That can’t be stopped but there should be no reward.

But if Boroughmuir produces another Dougie Fife out of Firrhill High School then they should benefit. Maybe then that one player will be the start of a conveyor belt.

So, if these development centres can be established as part of a new semi-professional structure, what shape should the competition take?

Firstly it must be a league, not a knock-out cup. Intense, high-level competition must be week-in, week-out. Even the best junior rugby outfits only play a handful of competitive games a year, limited to cup matches. Even without wholesale revolution, setting up a league is essential.

And the league should be played from March onwards, right into summer and beyond if necessary, consigning winter junior rugby to history.

Better weather will encourage more participation all round and improve skills. It will just be more fun and for the thousands who will never make it as pros, isn’t that the point?

Hockey gets a lot wrong, but on this they get it absolutely right. The outdoor season finishes at the end of November and indoor takes over until the end of February. Skills are honed indoors and top junior hockey players play on well into July even though the senior league season finishes at Easter.

What happens at our best rugby schools? The posts come down at Easter to make way for cricket and athletics. And rugby people wonder why cricket has more players?

The building blocks for the future are there if the SRU has the guts to take on vested interests.

It won’t be easy, but it’s either that or perpetual hand-wringing and brief moments in the sun like 1984.

Former Evening News editor John McLellan was a rugby player for 40 years and is a member of Watsonians FC where he helps coach at P5 level. He learnt his rugby at the High School of Glasgow and Hutchesons’ Grammar School.