JOHNNIE Beattie is a man of independent mind. He has irked coaches in the past with his desire to speak out when he does not agree. At times, he has also been criticised for being lazy when those who have coached will know that such a complaint often owes more to a lack of understanding between coach and player.
Scotland’s interim head coach Scott Johnson has restored Beattie to the back row for tomorrow’s RBS Six Nations Championship match in Italy for several reasons, but one ironically is that he believes him to be a more tireless worker off the ball than David Denton, despite the youngster’s superb ball-carrying efforts in the opening two games.
As Denton works to improve his ‘footballing’ skills, former Glasgow Schools footballer Beattie is coming back into the team having spent a few years flirting with conflicting demands to become more physical, destructive and tireless. A move to Montpellier in 2012 helped him clear the mind and realise that what he did offer as a ball-playing No 8 remained an attractive commodity in the modern era’s bish-bash-bosh.
But can it provide the spark Scotland needs? He is eager to try and prove that he can in Rome, but remains concerned at Scotland’s drop-off in recent Tests, and with his trademark style admitted to sharing the concern of many correspondents in the wake of the Calcutta Cup defeat over Scotland’s struggles to develop its own talent.
“I try to explain our Scottish system to people in France, and they don’t believe it,” he said, reflecting a reaction common around the leading rugby nations. “In saying that, every country has its flaws. The French proclaim that they have this fantastic league, but their fantastic league is 80 percent foreign guys while the English system is working well because they produce purely English kids through their academies.
“I feel very lucky for the chances and opportunities I was afforded in Scottish rugby, but I think that so many quality kids out there don’t get the opportunity. We produce guys like Chris Hoy and Andy Murray in different sports. In rugby we produce players like Stuart Hogg and Richie Gray who go on Lions tours. We are capable of producing these people.
“But, I don’t think we are getting the best out of ourselves in rugby in terms of the number of kids playing the game and coming through. If we widen our base, make it as big as we can, we will have better talent and be in a better state at the top, but I don’t think our net is as wide as it should be within our structures in Scotland to allow people to come through.”
Beattie’s generation of teenage talent knew what it was to beat England, Beattie doing so at under-18 and under-21 levels – he also drew 15-15 in his first Calcutta Cup match – but very few of his era have made it. Scotland skipper Greig Laidlaw played with Beattie at under-18s, and finally made it to a cap in his 26th year, while scrum-half Lee Dickson played for Scotland under-19s with Beattie before switching allegiance to England. Of the 30 or so involved a decade ago, they are the only ones Six Nations supporters can acclaim now.
Beattie cites Rory Thompson as an equally talented back row, with whom he shared game-time, but Beattie got a chance to play with Glasgow due to injuries. Thompson had no offer and joined the Army.
“I got a chance because Jonny Petrie, my [Glasgow] skipper at the time, injured his shoulder and I got to play 20 games in the Celtic League when I was 18. That was just luck. There are heaps of other guys who never get that chance.
“There was a decision made at under 18 between me and Rory. I got pushed ahead and he got left behind. He didn’t get a chance. He went to university, army, lost interest in rugby and didn’t continue. He was like me at the same age. I was part of the Scottish Institute of Sport, so had two or three years of weight training behind me – physically I was ready, mentally I was hungry for it and wanted to play. And I got the chance, but I was lucky that I got it at the time. There are lots of kids in Scotland not getting that chance.”
That is at the heart of the debate, particularly when Edinburgh are pursuing a plan to make the team more competitive which relies heavily on imported players. Beattie hoped his move to France might have helped to expose more young Scots at Glasgow, such as flanker Adam Ashe, and questioned how the Scottish structure could be changed to give players like Ashe an opportunity.
“I have discussed this with other guys in the camp. If the Italians leave and Wales go and play in the English league, could we have our own Scottish league? A Scottish pro league where we get our own house in order before we think about other things? If that was to be the way forward, and I don’t know if it is, then the standard would not be great at the start, but in ten or 15 years’ time you’re hoping you have developed enough players.”
This discussion stemmed from the reaction to the Calcutta Cup defeat and how it had widened the debate to all that is wrong in Scottish rugby, but Beattie quickly brought it back to the Italy game which remains at the forefront of his mind.
“The squad put in a decent shift for the first 40 minutes against Ireland, but we have been dross for the last game and a half we have played together,” Beattie said, typically bluntly. “In terms of that highlighting the shortcomings of the Scottish structure, I don’t know.
“We didn’t do our jobs properly, but we also kicked away a lot of possession and defended for 80 percent of the game against England. Mathematically, you’re not going to win any games if you are defending for 80 percent of the time. If we can hold ball, play a bit better, test them, organise ourselves, go forward and try and crack them there is no reason why we can’t go and get a win.
“I 100 percent believe our squad is capable of going to Italy and winning, but in general I believe, and I’ve believed it for a long time, that we could also change our structure in Scotland and do things better to make the most of what we have. Definitely.”
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