SOMETHING strange is happening, or rather, it's strange that nothing is happening. There's a remarkable absence of argument and feuding in Scottish rugby just now. Nobody's even having a go at the SRU. Could it be that everyone is at last pulling in the same direction? Or is it apathy?
The crowds at the autumn internationals certainly point to a loss of interest. Three matches resulted in a total attendance that fell short of that for the Wales-Australia game at the Millennium Stadium. The SRU responded by cutting some ticket prices, but they may have to go further yet in that direction.
It doesn't help that, as I wrote a few weeks ago, Murrayfield internationals are less special occasions than they used to be. More like buses? If you miss one there'll be another along soon. If you choose to stay home, you can probably watch two games on the same afternoon from the comfort of your armchair. These considerations apply in other countries too, but they are not experiencing the same fall in demand.
That said, the case of Wales is instructive. The Millennium Stadium is full because they have been winning again, and playing exciting rugby. But it's wasn't more than a couple of years ago when Welsh players were being sent into supermarkets to try and offload international tickets. They're spared that job now, but our chaps should be warned: they may yet be required to act as touts.
Considering the very limited pool from which Scotland have always drawn, it's not our periods of failure that should surprise, but the years when we are successful. Outside the Borders, the vast majority of Scottish internationals have always come from fee-paying schools - or, from beyond Scotland. For instance, the back division of our first Grand Slam winning team in 1925 was made up of an Australian, a New Zealander, a Herioter, a Fettesian, two Glasgow Academicals, and Ian Smith, who went to Winchester where they don't even play rugby. The pack also included John Bannerman and Jimmie Ireland, both from Glasgow High School.
So it went on for years. Players educated at state schools other than in the Borders rarely featured in Scottish XVs. The few who did so with great distinction tended to be Fifers like Jim Greenwood and David Rollo, or from Ayrshire, like the Brown brothers. Another outstanding Fifer was Iain Paxton though he, of course, became an adopted Borderer, playing for Selkirk. But both the 1984 and 1990 Grand Slam teams were made up almost entirely of Borderers and former pupils of independent schools.
Things are a bit better now, as a glance at the programme for the New Zealand game a fortnight ago will show. One finds Stranraer Academy (Craig Hamilton), Preston Lodge (Scott Murray), Stirling High School (Allister Hogg), Lenzie Academy (Andy Henderson) and Bishopbriggs High School (Alastair Kellock) alongside familiar Border names and Biggar HS (Scott Lawson) and Berwick County HS (Gavin Kerr and Craig Smith). This is a step in the right direction.
Nevertheless, making a rough count of those who have played for Scotland at Murrayfield this calendar year - 35 - reveals the following. Those educated outwith Scotland: 11; products of Scottish state schools: 11 (or 12); products of Scottish independent schools 13 (or 12). The doubt is over Jason White, educated first at Cults Academy where he won age-group caps, and then at George Watson's.
So, although state schools are making a bigger contribution than in the past, Scotland's independent schools are still producing more internationalists. Nine such schools have been represented this year: Edinburgh Academy, George Watson's, George Heriot's, Merchiston, Glenalmond, Morrison's Academy, Rannoch, Hutcheson's and Dundee High. Curiously, neither Fettes nor Loretto, schools which produced so many great players in the first century of our rugby history, has been represented at Murrayfield for some time now.
FOR those who enjoy composing best-ever XVs, here is a suggested festive season game. Pick the best XVs drawn from: a) Scottish fee-paying schools; b) State schools in the Borders; c) state schools from the rest of Scotland; d) players educated outwith Scotland. Restrict yourselves to the period 1980-2005. I would guess that for a) and b), the problem will be who to leave out; for c), who to put in.