SEVEN years on from the disbanding of the Border Reivers, Scottish Rugby may just have taken its first tentative step towards the reinstatement of a third professional team – this time based in Caledonia.
Such a move is still, at best, some way off. But national coach Vern Cotter sees it as the natural consequence of the successful growth of the BT Sport Scottish Rugby Academy in Aberdeen, launched yesterday as the first of four academies, one in each of the governing body’s four regions.
Each region had its own team when the sport went professional in the 1990s, with the Caledonia Reds representing the North and Midlands. The Reds were officially merged with Glasgow in 1998, while the Borders joined forces with Edinburgh the same year before returning as an independent entity for five years from 2002.
Scottish Rugby’s desire to return to four professional teams has hitherto been widely seen as a pious intention with little hope of realisation, but BT’s £20 million investment in the sport has encouraged Cotter and other leading figures to think big.
“I would like to see more Scottish available players playing in Scotland,” Cotter said. “If we had a third team, it would mean rugby is progressing and we have players who are coming out of these environments performing.
“Can you then put in another professional, or two professional teams? When you look at it like that then the future is really exciting. That will be one of the questions that will be asked in two years’ time. If we can produce ten competitive professional rugby players from this environment or more every year, that would be great.”
Where previously the professional teams were top-down ventures, brought into being by Murrayfield and imposed against the wishes of a significant number of clubs and individuals, under Cotter’s analysis a new professional outfit in the north would be born as the result of pressure from below. If an increasing number of players with international potential were coming out of the Aberdeen academy, support for the sport could grow in the city and the wider region, ensuring a ready-made following for a representative team.
“There is potential here,” Cotter continued. “The more professional, competitive players we can produce and the more players available to the national team, the better it is going to be. This is a great step forward having an academy. I think it’s tremendous. It’s a professional facility. It has been well-thought out and is a great opportunity for young players to get selected and become part of us and eventually become professional rugby players either here or abroad. I think it is a great opportunity for them.
“It’s a great initiative. I congratulate the SRU and BT Sport for putting this in place and with the objective of putting another couple in as well. You can’t underestimate the importance of having these type of places in Scotland and outside of Edinburgh.
“The grassroots guys who are throwing the ball around today can look at this place and can think and believe that if they are good enough, and they develop, they get selected and they have a chance to become a professional rugby player. So their pathway becomes quite evident. I am really excited about this. If I was a young rugby player I would be too.
“This compares to any facility in world rugby. It’s outstanding. It will be well run and we just want the players to put their hands up now. If we can create competition up here that’s a good thing. From what I can gather there is great potential up here in Aberdeen and the north-east area. We need to develop it.”
Cotter knows it will be some time before any academy graduate, either from Aberdeen or the other planned centres in the Borders, North Lanarkshire or Edinburgh, is on the verge of selection to the Scotland team. With players initially being recruited at 16, the 2019 Rugby World Cup could be the stage on which those graduates make their mark.
“If you can learn pro habits, you have to be identified at 16 or even earlier. You then have two years of pro preparation. At 19, 20 players should be coming through. I’m thinking you’re looking at three or four years before you see the benefit.
“We’ll try to get as many players as possible out of here and into pro teams. If you’re producing ten world-class professional rugby players [from one academy], if you have four of those [academies] that’s 40 players.”
Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson agreed with Cotter that the Aberdeen academy had the potential to build up momentum for a third team. “We’ve been very clear that we need a third franchise,” Dodson said. “The economics behind that are always the obstacle. We can’t have one that starts and fails, and we need to know where it would play. We’ve got the Guinness Pro 12 – it’s not the Guinness Pro 13. So we have to wait until we have the ability to build a team and enter a competition that’s worthwhile and meaningful.
“We’re looking at all options at the moment. We’ve never said that we don’t need a third franchise. I would love four franchises, but I haven’t got the wherewithal to pay for it or the players to populate it. In a few years, absolutely. This is the first step on a journey.”