Interview: Craig Chalmers rages over non-Scots influx
MELROSE coach Craig Chalmers is urging pro clubs to help develop home talent, and not rely on overseas players.
It is no secret that Chalmers hankers after a job in professional rugby, nor that the SRU seems reluctant to offer the former Scotland fly-half an opportunity. But as the 43-year-old launches Melrose into pre-season for the sixth season as head coach, another clutch of young Scots are hoping to reap the benefit of him remaining a Greenyards fixture.
The benefit he sees is two-fold: helping Melrose to retain their place at the top of Scottish club rugby and providing a springboard for players to the professional game, and, for some, international honours.
These targets underpin the excitement and enthusiasm for rugby that still emanate clearly from him, despite a number of brush-offs from the SRU in his bid to join the full-time establishment of professional coaches.
But he admitted that his greatest frustration was now coming from the signing policies of Glasgow and Edinburgh. More specifically, he is furious at the number of non-Scots-qualified players joining the pro team ranks at a time, he believes, when the quality of the top club players in Scotland is growing.
Chalmers attracts criticism close to home, for encouraging players to the Greenyards from other Borders clubs, but when asked about the latest influx, which includes Andrew Nagle from Jed-Forest, Lewis Mallin from Kelso, ex-Heriot’s fly-half Richard Mill, from Esher, and Australian Greg White, he holds up his hands.
“When I was a player I wanted to be the best I could be and, fortunately, Melrose were the best club in Scotland in many ways,” he said. “But these days it is different because the clubs are no longer the top of the tree or the stepping stone to international rugby.
“So, we have had players coming to us from clubs like Jed-Forest, Kelso and Hawick, great clubs but clubs in the Second Division, and these boys now see us, and the First Division and British and Irish Cup, as a stepping stone to their ambition of being a pro. And they’re right to. James King came to Melrose to help him get back into the pro game; Fraser Thomson came to us from Gala and is now with Glasgow; same with Bruce Dick; and Scott Wight obviously got his chance after his performances for the club.
“People talk about us paying money, but we don’t. We pay two or three only, and try to help guys travelling with a shared car or flat, but Nagle, Mallin and great Melrose servants like Graeme Dodds, etc, don’t get a penny. We can’t offer what some other clubs do financially. Instead, we offer the chance to win things, enjoy top-level club rugby and progress in the game, not that the pro team coaches care.”
There it was. It is invariably there. The sting in the tail. Chalmers is a passionate individual, but also a direct, sometimes brash one. Speaking about trying to keep a club in a town of 2,000 people competing with the best in Scotland, clubs drawing on locals and students across Dundee, Edinburgh, Ayr, Glasgow and Stirling, he is full of warm enthusiasm.
He praises rival Borders clubs, singling out Gala, for their efforts to grow rugby in difficult times. But what has possibly cost him appointments within the SRU, alongside a belief from those on high that he is not a good enough coach, has been his innate ability to find confrontation.
And on his mind right now is the signing of Fijian scrum-half Nikola Matawalu, Tongan Viliami Ma’afu and Canadian Taylor Paris by Glasgow, and the horde of new arrivals at Edinburgh that include Ben Atiga, Greig Tonks, John Yapp, Mike Penn, Perry-John Parker and South African Izak van der Westhuizen.
None of them can play for Scotland, though some, who have never played Test rugby, might follow Tim Visser into the navy blue after waiting three years to qualify. Michael Bradley, the Edinburgh coach, and Townsend insist that they are vital to both teams’ efforts to not only remain competitive in the RaboDirect PRO12 and Heineken Cup, something neither side has managed in the past decade, but take the next step and claim silverware.
Chalmers does not have an issue with top-quality foreign signings, into which bracket All Black Angus Macdonald at Glasgow and Edinburgh prop WP Nel may fall, believing that they can enhance the Scottish squads, but states that his task of developing Scottish players is given a hollow ring by the signing of foreign youngsters.
“I have nothing against these players, but why are they here?” he asks. “They may help these teams, may strengthen them, but so would some club players at Melrose, Gala, Ayr, Dundee and other clubs.
“I look at boys being signed from Worcester, Cardiff, Canada and wherever – some who will never play for Scotland – and you’ve got to ask why? We have to invest in young Scottish players that club coaches are working very hard to develop and turn into pros and internationalists. Why sign a Welsh scrum-half and a Fijian scrum-half for our two pro teams who can never play for Scotland?”
Many will agree with Chalmers’ sentiments, certainly judging by the reaction on scotsman.com to our interview with Taylor Paris yesterday, but Michael Bradley and Gregor Townsend will argue that the SRU have tried to stay mainly Scottish and the teams have failed to qualify in Europe, struggled to contest silverware and the national team has suffered. They will say that they cannot compete with the top Irish provinces, Welsh regions and French and English clubs without more hard-edged players, with different skills, from outside the country.
Chalmers contests: “I’m not against the pro teams bringing in good-quality, overseas players, like Todd Blackadder for example, but they have to be the right ones. I’m against bringing in guys who are not as good as players we have here.
“Our job is to make the players attractive to the pro teams, but they have to have faith in us and them. Rather than sign a Fijian or Welsh scrum-half, why not leave the door open for Murray McConnell, the youngster from West of Scotland who was playing for the under-20s this season?
“Fund him on a proper contract and make it easier for him, rather than leaving him scraping around on £10,000 or £12,000 a year, while five or ten times that goes to a player who will not help the Scottish game.
“We have good players coming through the clubs, but we can only do so much training twice or thrice a week. We’ve seen the benefit this year of giving young Scottish club players chances with Greig Laidlaw, Lee Jones and Stuart Hogg coming through. We should have more faith in our club players.”
Chalmers has recently returned from a three-week visit to Australia, part-funded by the SRU. His assistant, John Dalziel, is also heading off to South Africa as part of an SRU-funded programme to help develop Scottish coaches. Chalmers spent time with rugby union, league and Aussie Rules clubs, and was allowed into the Wallabies camp for a couple of days, and it only fuelled his desire to turn pro as a coach, somewhere.
“It has certainly been good for me. Will it make me a better coach? I don’t know. It’s opened my eyes to a lot of things, but it also reaffirmed that most of the stuff we’re doing here is very similar.”
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: South