SINCE 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, I am reading a book explaining exactly just how that disastrous conflagration ignited.
At one crucial point in the drama Kaiser Wilhelm II turned to his Chancellor Bethmann and said: “This is a fine mess you’ve got me into!” You don’t know whether to laugh at the Laurel and Hardy phrasing or cry at the banality that preceded the bloodshed.
And so to a week of national mourning in Scotland where everyone is, like the Kaiser, looking for someone else to blame. But Scottish rugby has usually struggled to compete. Not so long ago, when Clive Woodward’s team was in its pomp, we’d have taken a 20-point loss to the English and been grateful for it. It wasn’t so much the size of the defeat last weekend at Murrayfield as the manner of it because the Scots were like a drunk at throwing out time, failing to land a single telling blow. The English friends I met after the match didn’t even bother to take the mickey.
Much of the finger pointing has been at Scott Johnson. The Australian usually revels in attention but maybe not of this particular variety. Johnson has always dealt in soundbites, a modern coach for a modern age, which is why he is a journalist’s best friend right up until the point that a crisis occurs, when his flippant patter and trite one-liners irritate rather than illuminate.
In fairness to the Aussie, he did get one thing right – he isn’t head coach material. Johnson admitted as much by hiring Vern Cotter to succeed him but then the SRU made a hash of the announcement which occurred without anyone remembering to ask Clermont, Cotter’s current employer. The French giants got understandably sniffy so they made Big Vern see out his contract and the New Zealander won’t arrive in Edinburgh until the summer. Johnson, whose obvious failings as a head coach might have survived one season of Six Nations rugby, suddenly had to survive two and, right now, that looks far from certain.
Ignore for a moment his role as head coach (four wins out of 13 for a 30 per cent ratio) and instead focus on his position as director of rugby at the SRU, the job he will do exclusively come the arrival of Cotter in May/June. In that, the Australian looks even further out of his depth.
The national team has an aggregate score of 48-6 against in the Six Nations to date. Factor the under-20 team’s results into the equation and the aggregate score becomes 130-28. Add in the women and the score widens dramatically to 252-28 and finally, throw into the melting pot the Club International side and the aggregate score is a mind-numbing 280-31. The current malaise runs much deeper than the national team.
Scotland lost promising stand-off Tommy Allan to Italy on Johnson’s watch with the Australian blustering “we won’t beg”. Scotland could probably have had the stand-off in return for a pro-team contract but instead Johnson only chased Allan after he’d been listed in Italy’s Six Nations’ squad. His calls were not returned.
Meanwhile, Alan Solomons has stuffed Edinburgh chock-full of imports who are not qualified to play for Scotland and another promising No.10, Lee Millar, has had to go to London Scottish to get a game. Solomons has to present to the Scottish Council (the body that represents the clubs has finally woken from its slumbers) but the South African lawyer is not to blame. His remit starts and stops with Edinburgh. It is Johnson who okayed Solomons’ unbalanced recruitment policy. A few “project players” will become available for Scotland in time but only thanks to the IRB’s calamitous three-year qualification rule which is undermining the whole ethos of international rugby.
Scottish rugby has many problems but chief among them is a lack of competition at youth level. Italy has just invested in eight new national under-18 academies and 32 new centres of excellence for under-16s. Five years after the SRU’s annual general meeting passed what was supposed to be a binding resolution to instigate a combined schools and clubs under-18 competition, there has been no progress.
The Union made the point that the private schools are not falling over themselves to sign up but whoever is tasked with the job only needs to persuade two or three of the best ones to buy into an elite tournament and the rest will follow. That is exactly what happened with the schools cup.
Restrict Murrayfield’s use for the new competition, get the nice people at Brewin Dolphin to sponsor it and the job would be two-thirds done. Moreover, the schools, or at least the rugby coaches within the schools, know that their players would benefit from better fixtures. One angry mother at the weekend claimed that all bar one of her son’s matches this season had been stopped under the prevention of cruelty to teenagers act, whereby, if one side is stomping all over the other, the match is abandoned. Too much stomping/being stomped, not enough competitive excellence – that is Scotland’s youth game and it does neither side any good.
There is a lot of anger about the parlous state of Scottish rugby, it has been growing for some time but it seems to be largely lost on chief executive Mark Dodson.
There is now a Facebook page “Change for Scottish Rugby”. In the middle of last week it boasted 3,000 “likes” and that figure has almost doubled as you read this paper.
Dodson will take heed of the public’s anger sooner or later but whether in time to assuage it is another matter. If things get ugly in Rome he may have to jettison Johnson just to save his own skin.
There is much wrong with Scottish rugby but, unlike the Kaiser, we should hesitate before pointing the finger elsewhere. We gave away the keys to the castle and now we complain that the recipients are ruining the game so just who, exactly, carries the can?
We have, as chief executive, a businessman who knows almost nothing about elite sport (we are supposed to win the 2015 World Cup, if you recall) being advised by an Australian who knows almost nothing about Scottish rugby and we allowed it to happen.