Nothing wrong with ambition on the stairway to rugby heaven
‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?” Mark Dodson, the SRU’s chief executive, evidently agrees with Robert Browning. (The line, incidentally, was also a favourite of John Buchan’s Glasgow grocer, Dickson McCunn.) Certainly many are likely to think that setting a target of winning the World Cup is reaching for the stars. John Beattie, not usually short on optimism, has called it unrealistic. Others will judge that the mere expression of this aim for the holders of the 2012 Six Nations wooden spoon is an invitation to mockery. “But what’s a heaven for?”
I’ve written here before that the Six Nations is more important to us than the World Cup, because we can win that tournament if we get things right, while the World Cup may usually be thought to be beyond our reach. This may be the case. Nevertheless, that’s no reason not to aim higher. Suppose, for instance, that we develop a team capable of winning the Six Nations in the spring of 2015, and even perhaps achieving a Grand Slam. This may be unlikely, but it is not impossible. So just suppose; in that case we would come to the World Cup as the top team in the Northern Hemisphere, just as England were in 2003. Consider this, too: In 2011 France won three matches and lost two in the Six Nations, finishing behind England and level with Wales and Ireland, yet that autumn they ran New Zealand very close in the World Cup final and were even unlucky to lose that match.
There’s another point. Our best World Cup performance – reaching the semi-final in 1991 – came when the four Home Nations hosted the tournament. So we were able to play all our games at Murrayfield. England will be the hosts in 2015, and though we won’t have the advantage of playing at Murrayfield, it’s reasonable to think that, like the other Six Nations teams, we have a better chance of doing well when the tournament is played in the northern hemisphere. In 2007, an undistinguished England team reached the final in Paris, and arguably only a dubiously disallowed try prevented them from beating South Africa. So perhaps it is not quite absurd of Mark Dodson to set this target. One thing is undeniable – if you don’t aim at the target you have no chance of hitting it.
Of course, a lot of things have to come right before then, and it’s likely that many of them won’t. Of course, we will still be labouring under the disadvantage of a very small pool of professional players, and, though we badly need a third professional team, it’s improbable that there will be one before 2015. Even if there is, it won’t have had time to establish itself.
Nevertheless, we may at last be getting the professional game right. Glasgow and Edinburgh may not yet have their sails well set, but they are emerging from the doldrums. Real and measurable progress is being made. Both clubs have a good crop of young players, some of whom will make the grade at international level. The sun may not be shining brightly, but it is appearing through a break in the clouds.
John Beattie is certainly right when he says that it is important to get many more state schools playing rugby, but, even when this has been achieved, it will be a long time before the effects are felt at adult level and in the international club or country game.
It is, however, equally important that many of our amateur clubs have now developed well organised and enthusiastic youth sections. Meanwhile, it’s worth remarking that eight players successfully capped in the last 18 months were educated at state schools here: Stuart Hogg, Lee Jones, Matt Scott, Greig Laidlaw, Duncan Weir, Ryan Grant, Rob Harley and Jon Welsh. There are others like Pat MacArthur, Chris Fusaro and Alex Dunbar knocking hard on the door. Established internationals such as Ross Ford, Euan Murray, Alasdair Strokosch, Alastair Kellock and Nick De Luca are all state school products.
The independent schools have always made a big contribution to Scottish rugby, and still do, but this is not something unique to Scotland. It is equally true of English and Irish rugby. In all three countries – and even restricting selection to players capped in the past 15 years – you could assemble a formidable XV from the products of independent schools, some of them very hard men indeed. Think of Laurence Dallaglio, for example.
There are enough reasons to believe that our rugby is improving to make Dodson’s ambitious target worth aiming for. If you are satisfied with mediocrity and the occasional victory, you will get mediocrity and victories will be rare. Andy Robinson has put together the makings of a team capable of more consistent success than we have enjoyed for a long time.
A northern hemisphere World Cup offers a better chance of success than one held elsewhere. It’s good that Dodson is prepared to risk looking a fool by aiming high. Reach beyond what seems to be within your grasp, or, as Browning asked: “What’s a heaven for?”
It is those who suffer from an inferiority complex who eschew ambition. Browning on the other hand was a poet who took an optimistic view of life, even though his mother hailed from Dundee.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west