Players face tough task going from club to pro-team rugby

Rory Sutherland, Gordon Reid and Kevin Bryce all managed the feat. Ewan McQullin and Jason Hill fell just short. Fraser Thomson made the jump before changing his mind while Scott Wight bridged the gap for a short time before taking the sevens route. Nick Beavon is giving it his best shot right now.

Coach Ben Cairns believes Harvey Elms of Currie is equipped to turn pro. Picture:: Neil Hanna

We are talking about a select band of players who have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to make the arduous step up from club rugby into the pro teams and have done so from outwith the all-enveloping academy structure. It has never been easy but what was hitherto a daunting task now looks like something that Hercules wouldn’t try without his Weetabix.

Sutherland, Reid and Bryce transitioned so successfully that all three have since been capped for their country even if the latter was an emergency flanker rather than in his favoured front-row berth.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

They were the lucky ones. Former Heriots’ No.8 Hill spent a whole season at Glasgow but played not one minute of one competitive match for the Warriors and has since moved on to the Bedford Blues. Beavon made the step into the professional ranks with Edinburgh last summer at the advanced age of 29 and, at least to date, he has yet to make a professional appearance. It’s a tough ask and the reasons are obvious to Peter Wright, the oldest and longest-serving coach in the BT Premiership.

“It’s all down to physicality,” says the former Lions tourist. “The Premiership is a physical league but the Guinness PRO12 is like night and day in comparison. I suspect that Nick Beavon is struggling to cope with the physical demands.

“Ewan McQuillin is now playing in the Championship for London Scottish so you could say that he has made the jump successfully after leaving Gala in 2013 but he didn’t get much time with Edinburgh and the PRO12 is definitely a step up from the Championship.”

In three seasons McQuillin didn’t start for Edinburgh, coming off the bench twice, but having joined the Exiles this season he was dragged back to the capital to cover in an injury crisis and, finally, got his first start for Edinburgh against Treviso.

McQuillin isn’t the only prop to struggle for recognition. In his first two years at Edinburgh, South African import Allan Dell was given exactly four starts for the club. Now he has stood up and been counted in three full internationals so just imagine how good he could be had he been given the chance to learn his trade on the job as all props must.

The front row are a breed apart, taking time to develop the muscle and technique required to cope with the car crash they endure every scrum. Zander Fagerson is an obvious exception so it isn’t surprising that front-row forwards can make the step into the professional ranks later than most.

Their late development underlines Wright’s argument about physicality which is further supported by his youngest rival in the Premiership, former Scotland centre Ben Cairns who now coaches Currie.

“You are almost talking about different sports,” he argues when comparing the club game with the PRO12. “In the past it has been easier to make the jump but now... the hardest thing is simply that it is very hard to tell who is going to make it and who isn’t.

“Take a guy like [Watsonian No.8] Rory Drummond, he is a big guy and plays a little like Josh Strauss. He is a big ball carrier for Watsonians but would he be able to do the same against professional defenders? I honestly don’t know. Sometimes you just have to take a chance and see what happens.”

Cairns points to one of his own young players, Harvey Elms, as someone equipped to turn professional. The full-back is a decent size and quick, with good hands and an even better understanding of the game.

“I think the academies were talking to him ahead of this season but Harvey is in his final year of university and he wanted to concentrate on his studies,” says his club coach. “I think he is right to do so but he may make the step up in the summer.”

Drummond was omitted from the initial draft but Elms is a member of Phil Smith’s club international squad that enjoyed success over England and Ireland last year. Heriots’ coach in his day job, Smith knows the club players as well as anyone but isn’t convinced that many of them would make a huge impact in the professional game.

“I think there are probably quite a few players who could manage professional rugby,” he argues, “but perhaps not very many who would thrive in that environment.

“Guys like Rob McAlpine and Tommy Spinks do get called into the Glasgow squad from time to time but it probably happens less often than it used to. The main issue is the physical side of the game. The professionals train three, four or even five times a week in the gym whereas our guys are there two of three times at most.”

But before we write off the club pathway to rugby fame and fortune it is worth recalling the tortuous rout taken by Finn Russell who was, according to Smith: “A perfect example of someone who almost missed out because he was too small.”

Cairns remembers one early mistake by the unheralded stand-off with gratitude.

“We were heading for relegation and he threw a pass that we intercepted and someone went the length to score. It saved our season!”

The club international coach recalls coaching Russell in the Scotland U20s second string squad and recommending him to Wright who then took the midfielder to the U20 World Championships in South Africa but only as second choice stand-off behind Harry Leonard. Russell started just one match but his future was already assured.

Warming up for that trip, the juniors played a training match against the full Scotland squad, Leonard got injured and Russell was shuffled from 12 to 10.

Watching on the sidelines, Gregor Townsend was so impressed by the replacement’s performance in his preferred position that he offered Russell an academy contract while playing for Falkirk.

There are gems out there if you know where to look.