WHILE the SRU is focused on finding a new coach to lead the national side, beneath the Murrayfield parapets, club officials have stepped up debate aimed at tackling a more far-reaching and damaging problem.
There is a bottleneck in the development of the nation’s youngsters whereby talented teenagers lack the intense and competitive match preparations of those in other countries. A handful are then squeezed into the Glasgow or Edinburgh pro teams.
This has led to a new push for a stronger, more widespread academy system in Scotland.
All of the teams who will line up for the RBS Six Nations Championship in February are underpinned by professional academies. Some, in England and France, are operated through clubs, while Ireland, Wales and Italy operate professional academies attached to provinces and regions.
Italy have three academies, despite only having two pro sides but these are run by the Italian federation and cast their net over 1,000 youngsters at the age of 15 before pushing the cream into pro set-ups as they leave school.
With the SRU’s Director of Performance Rugby Graham Lowe having departed Murrayfield and no replacement yet on the horizon, there are concerns that key aspects of the SRU strategic plan are being left on the back burner.
The ten Premiership clubs formulated a new strategy for academies linked to their clubs but designed to be part of region-wide systems.
Lower-league clubs from the new “Championship Forum” have, however, come up with an alternative plan to create regional academies run at arms’ length from clubs.
Their paper states: “The Championship Forum were unanimous in their dislike of this single option [club-based academies] and, as a result, this paper has been prepared as a discussion document looking at other options against the ‘Values and Purpose’ which the Championship Forum supported.
“The paper identifies four options, including the status quo and an ‘ideal model’, and scores them against the criteria of the ‘Values and Purpose’, using a simple red, amber, green scoring system.”
In conclusion, the paper stated: “Initial findings suggest that a regional-based model would better meet the vision and purpose and is therefore worthy of a more detailed analysis.” Premiership clubs have spent the past few years trying to work up a new structure around their clubs.
SRU investment would be agreed on the basis of a system whereby the top ten clubs were charged with leading the development of young players in their area.
However, this has attracted criticism from clubs outside the top flight, who fear it would lead to a block on promotion and relegation, whether officially or as a result of the clubs in the Premiership grabbing all the youth talent. It’s feared youngsters would naturally gravitate towards the new semi-professional academies.
The lower-league clubs also question what would happen if a club in charge of an academy was relegated, and where the club promoted in their place ould fit into the structure.
The Championship Forum’s paper looks at four options. The first is the status quo, where the SRU fund academies aligned with Edinburgh and Glasgow and use the resources of the Scottish Institute of Sport and area institutes but with more emphasis on linking 20-30 young players to clubs.
The second is ten club-based academies, as proposed in the SRU’s strategic plan, where each of the ten Premiership clubs would have an academy coach based with them.
Third option is to form six regional academies, with independent managers, in Aberdeen, Dundee, Stirling, Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Borders.
The case for further centres in more outlying areas, including Ayrshire, North-West, Fife, East Lothian and the South-West, would be looked at in the future.
The final option looks at the “Ideal Academy” proposal. This would create a permanent base close to a regional institute of sport with at least one academy manager and coach, access to strength and conditioning facilities, medical resources and quality facilities, grass and 3G pitches and academic study facilities, as exists with the French and Australian rugby academy models.
That is considered impossible by leading club and SRU figures on cost grounds yet it is stated in the paper that such a model was proposed for the Borders in 2006 but was scrapped when the Borders professional team was closed down the following year.
However, Gala’s Netherdale site now boasts a leading university and college campus, state-of-the-art gym with strength and conditioning facilities and full-size 3G and grass pitches.
The SRU Championship Forum, involving the 20 clubs below the 20 in the Premiership and National League, states that, after considering all of the options, the second came out as a clear favourite, with a new region-wide system preferred.
It’s claimed that would eliminate conflict between Premiership and non-Premiership clubs, avoid concern over promotion and relegation and be more geographically spread than a Premiership system that currently has four clubs in Edinburgh and none in the city of Glasgow.
It would also use managers rather than coaches to operate the academies alongside other resources such as the Scottish Institute of Sport.
Peter Laverie, the Premiership Forum Chairman, said he had not yet seen the Championship Forum’s proposal but welcomed alternative suggestions.
He said: “What we are looking for is a new system of academies for Scottish rugby and so we need all clubs buying into the process and discussing and debating the merits.
“The pathway system that we had and which was very beneficial for a lot of areas has been destroyed, schools are struggling to expose youngsters to regular, competitive rugby and it is no coincidence that we are struggling to take pro rugby and our national team forward.
“We have to act and it’s great that the Championship clubs are getting together and debating this issue, and are looking to work with us.
“What we put together was a plan for ten academies where the clubs can simply be a focus for driving development in their wider areas.
“With a new player registration system, players can work their way up to the highest level possible but will always have to play for their local club unless they are good enough to play for the 1st XV of a higher club, rather than boys going into clubs and playing 2nd XV rugby.
“I am aware that some clubs don’t agree because of a fear that we will get all the players, and there is a local concern in places such as the Borders where Melrose fear Gala will host that area’s academy and vice versa. But we are working to see how clubs can work together.”
Laverie, a coach at Premiership leaders Ayr, added: “I am concerned that two of the key drivers of the strategic plan, Graham Lowe and Andy Robinson, have now left Scottish rugby.
“We have to re-draft the programme of development for young players from S1 upwards with a better academy system that is not run from Murrayfield but by clubs. That’s the way we will improve the quality of players coming through.”