JONATHAN Humphreys has seen a lot of professional rugby in a career with Cardiff, Bath and Wales.
Now 44, the former hooker launched his international career in 1995 and played at the Rugby World Cup in South Africa where, with the spotlight trained on Nelson Mandela, the talk away from the main stage was of players turning professional with either Kerry Packer’s world league or Rupert Murdoch’s Sky-enhanced pay packets.
The latter prevailed and unions kept a hold of the sport of rugby union, but many in Scotland might be entitled to ask: ‘at what cost?’ As the unions struggle in another war over the future of the sport in Europe, his own brethren in Wales currently battling their union in no man’s land, Humphreys’ attention is on the Scottish game.
He had a reputation latterly as a player for being an astute individual, a player at Bath with a deep knowledge of the game and one destined for coaching. That developed further at the Ospreys and Scott Johnson turned to him when Andy Robinson quit Murrayfield, for some forward guidance.
If he knows what the future holds when Johnson’s successor Vern Cotter takes over in the summer, he is not saying. But there appeared to be no room in his mind yesterday for anything other than a sharp appraisal of the Scotland forwards’ failings. He pinpointed a lack of “intent” against Ireland, failure to stick to “principles” worked on in training when under pressure at crucial moments in the game and held his hands up and admitted that his coaching had to be questioned after a performance like that.
But, the big issue, he stated, was how players could come through a system in Scotland that left them unable to string any consistency between their displays. “I am culpable for everything that goes on out there, because that’s me,” he said. “I will never hide away from that fact. A coach’s job is to step forward when it doesn’t go right and step back when it does. I will step forward and take complete responsibility for that shambles at the weekend.
“But,” he continued, “it’s not about me. It’s about us as a group going forward. Where do you sit and what do you represent? If someone was to ask me right now what does our forward pack represent, well I’m struggling to know what they represent. I know you’re looking at the here and now, but long-term we need to create depth so that we can have true competition throughout all aspects of our team.
“We’re getting there in terms of competition in our back row and second row, and I’m really excited about that, but we’re still a long way short of having the depth that other teams have. So, therefore, we have to look longer term as well as the short term. What is our development process? What do our age grade teams represent? What are the principles that they are based on in terms of their forward play?
“Until that DNA of what we want runs through all the age-grades, we’re going to be sitting here every three games and you’re going to be asking me ‘what went wrong, what went wrong?’”
There is the obvious issue of a lack of numbers in Scottish rugby with anything from 8,000 to 14,000 being quoted by different sources as the number of adult rugby players in Scotland, which is a fraction of the number in rival countries. There is a correlation to the quality of players being produced, as players require numbers and increased competition to improve their quality, but Humphreys feels he has seen enough in Scotland in nine months to believe that rugby here produces quality.
“There is quality there in your age-grade game,” Humphreys said. “But it’s about identifying that and fast-tracking that; putting everything in place to get that talent through. It’s not about [waiting to] being 24/25 and being mature at international rugby. Jonny Gray is a shining example of a 19-year-old kid who is ready to play international rugby. He is a flag-bearer to that, but every other nation in the world gets their players through. We need to do that. We need to create depth.
“Is this team good enough? Yes, they are good enough. Right now, they are good enough to compete. But am I disappointed that we weren’t better at the weekend? Yes, I am. Am I disappointed that we didn’t represent ourselves in the right manner? Yes I am. But we will never get that consistency until we have a strength in depth to what we do. That has something that has been constantly hammered home certainly in the time I’ve been here. We’ve got to create depth.”
It can be taken as read that the younger Gray is in line for a Six Nations debut this weekend in the Calcutta Cup, and he will not be the only new face thrusted into the team in response to Sunday’s performance. A question over whether the management have thought again about the need for a specialist openside flanker, as highlighted in yesterday’s Scotsman, was met with the reply: “You will have the answer to that in a couple of days”.
Humphreys insisted that change is vital to shake the competition again, and there is a sense again that some players are swiftly playing themselves not only out of the team but out of contention for the 2015 World Cup. Humphreys balances his criticism of their displays at the weekend with a recognition that they are ultimately only as good as the system that has developed them, and he struggles to hide his surprise at how poor Scotland’s structure is compared with what he knows of the game in his native Wales, Ireland and England.
“The depth is not their concern, it’s ours,” he added. “We need these boys to go into major competitions at domestic level and be very, very competitive and we can only do that by increasing the depth there and that filters up.
“Look, it’s not easy to play for Scotland. It’s hard to play for Scotland. It’s not an easy out. These boys have to battle against the perception of what they are. Everybody who comes here will come at them because of the perception that we are competitiors, but just that. That perception can only change by the deeds that we produce.”
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE