Allan Massie: Scotland needs a third professional club

Dejection at the final whistle following defeat by Japan. But the numbers just don't stack up for Scotland. Picture: PA.
Dejection at the final whistle following defeat by Japan. But the numbers just don't stack up for Scotland. Picture: PA.
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The post-mortem will go on for a long time, as indeed it must. It should, however, be extended well beyond an examination of coaches, players and performances, for it is likely that such an examination will yield few useful results. Indeed it might lead to the conclusion that, things being as they are, we did a bit worse than we had hoped, but it is unlikely we could have done much better.

High hopes make it difficult to confront reality. Indeed they obscure reality. So we might now start with some truths, truths which may be unpalatable in the Murrayfield committee rooms.

There are only around 100 professional rugby players eligible to represent Scotland. Most of them are attached to Edinburgh and Glasgow, a number to clubs in the other northern hemisphere professional leagues. This is not a deep pool from which to draw.

There are players at both Edinburgh and Glasgow who have played international rugby, but are probably unlikely to do so again: Rob Harley, Lee Jones, Ruaridh Jackson and Chris Fusaro at Glasgow, Matt Scott and Dougie Fife at Edinburgh. Some of the World Cup squad may now come in this category too.

Such players still have much to contribute to their clubs, and it’s desirable, even necessary, that they should continue to do so. Then at both clubs there are some who are never likely to be more than good club players, and there are younger ones who are not ready for international rugby. Some will never be. This is true everywhere, but it matters more in a country with only two professional clubs.

In every country it’s recognised that players not qualified for that country make an important contribution to their clubs. Glasgow probably wouldn’t have won the Pro12 title without Leone Nakarawa. Edinburgh would have been much weaker last season without Bill Mata. Then, while Dave Rennie at Glasgow and Richard Cockerill at Edinburgh both recognise that they have a duty to develop Scottish international players, their first responsibility is to make their club as strong and successful as possible. If this means fielding three, four, five players not qualified for Scotland, so be it. But this also means that there may be weeks when only 20 or 22 of the two starting XVs are qualified to play for for Scotland. There is the risk of a log-jam impeding the development of young Scots.

The World Cup is of course an unusual period with the best part of both first-choice club XVs in Japan. Even so, in the first three rounds of the Pro14, no Scottish player has started at stand-off or scrum-half for either Edinburgh or Glasgow; we are drinking from a very shallow saucer.

We have to have a third professional club. Many of us have been saying this for years; in vain. There is much talk of “growing the game” – fine, but what about growing the professional game? I don’t now care where a third club is based: the Borders, Aberdeen, Dundee or wherever. I just know it is necessary. We must widen and deepen the pool of professional players from which the bulk of the national team is drawn. If we don’t do this, we will at best remain for some time where we are – clinging to the coat-tails of the World game. We will continue to have some happy days, some splendid and often exciting victories, but most years there will be more dark days and disappointing defeats, for which blame will be directed at coaches and players even though they are competing at a disadvantage.

I’ve often remarked in this column that we have to run very hard to stay where we are. It’s worse than that really because we are not running on a flat field, but up a steep hill into a strong gale.

The SRU rightly prides itself on having repaired the Union’s financial position and on commercial success. They point also to full houses at Murrayfield. This is fine and welcome, and is in part the consequence of the style in which the Scottish team has recently been playing. The immediate future isn’t dark; we may well have a successful Six Nations this season. But there are dark clouds on a more distant horizon and only a change of wind – which is to say, policy – can blow them away.

The SRU should look west, to the offices of the SFA, and they won’t like what they see: a once great footballing power which is now an object of pity and derision, an awful warning. There aren’t many full houses at Hampden. They may say “it couldn’t happen to us”, but it could, and it will, unless they take preventive action. It’s not too late, but the clock is ticking. The world game is growing, but Scotland’s isn’t. A third pro team won’t put things right, but it would be a first step to doing so. Does anyone suppose New Zealand would be where they are if only 100 professional players were qualified to wear the famous black jersey?