Edinburgh, with their new coach, the South African Alan Solomons, have added six or seven to their squad this season. We don’t yet know how good any really are.
Imports come in three categories. First, there are those like Sean Maitland or, a few years ago, Dan Parks and Brendan Laney, who have a Scottish qualification, and in the case of these three go very quickly into the Scotland team. Second, there are the so-called Project players who have indicated their willingness, even ambition, to qualify for Scotland by living here for three years, as Tim Visser has already done, and as Mike Cusack, Josh Strauss and WP Nel may do. Not all in these two categories will make the grade. Third, there are imports who are, and will remain, ineligible to play for Scotland because they have already played international rugby for another country. The former All Black captain Todd Blackadder was one such. Today we have Glasgow’s brilliant Fijian, Niko Matawalu and their South African/Canadian winger DTH van der Merwe.
All this raises the question: what sort of imports are desirable? Nobody, I think, would question the value of most of those mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Laney’s international career may have been a bit disappointing, but he played wonderfully well for Edinburgh. Parks always had his critics when he played for Scotland, but Glasgow supporters thought the world of him – with good reason. Visser has been outstanding for Edinburgh; their recent record would be even worse but for his ability to score tries.
A player not qualified for Scotland is a worthwhile import if by performance and example he raises the level of the whole team. Blackadder did that for Edinburgh, giving them a direction they were lacking. Matawalu was outstanding for Glasgow last season, snatching victory from defeat on several occasions by his brilliance. Van der Merwe scores tries almost as prolifically as Visser, quite often when no try seems on.
The value of imports who are good, but not outstanding, is more problematical.
They may be useful members of a team, but they are occupying a place that would otherwise go to a home-grown Scot whose development may be retarded by a lack of opportunity. If we had four professional teams, as we once did, it might not matter if there were five imported players in each of them any and indeed every weekend.
There would still be 40 qualified Scottish players in action. The four Irish provinces and four Welsh clubs can field foreigners or imports without doing any damage to the prospects of the national team. There are still enough Irish and Welsh players available. Our position is different. With only two pro clubs, one must ask how many imports can be played without impeding the development of young Scots.
It’s a difficult question. On the one hand we want – and indeed need – Edinburgh and Glasgow to do well. The need has become more urgent, given the probability that we are going to have to accept the principle of qualification from the RaboDirect Pro12 for whatever European competition may emerge from the current squabble.
On the other hand, if Edinburgh were to field a side containing no more than six or seven Scottish or Scottish-qualified players – something that is quite possible, given the number of this season’s signings added to the ineligible players already there – then it is hard to believe that many would find this satisfactory, no matter how successful the club might be.
It’s true, of course, that there are many Scottish international players now plying their trade outside of Scotland. Last season they made up almost half the team, and may well do so again this year. Euan Murray, Richie Gray, Jim Hamilton, Alasdair Strokosch, Johnnie Beattie, Kelly Brown and John Barclay are all likely to feature in Scott Johnson’s squad for the November internationals, as may Max Evans and Tom Heathcote, even if Heathcote is being kept out of the Bath team by the excellence of young George Ford (he should surely have been lured to Edinburgh, once it was known that Bath had signed Ford).
Nevertheless, it is still the case that we depend on Edinburgh and Glasgow to produce players of international class – and , indeed, Murray, Gray, Strokosch, Beattie, Brown, Barclay and Evans were all developed here.
The doubts one has about the number of imports flooding into Edinburgh is whether they are going to prove significantly better than the home-grown ones already there. Certainly none comes with a particularly impressive record. None appears to be a player like Blackadder, Laney or Matawalu capable of lifting the performance of those around them. I may be wrong. One or two may prove exceptionally good recruits. One must hope so. Otherwise Edinburgh’s decline will continue, the SRU will have wasted a lot of money, and Iain Milne will have been proved right.