Allan Massie: England haven’t ‘stolen’ our players

Ben Vellacott in action for the Scotland Under-20 side. Picture: SNS
Ben Vellacott in action for the Scotland Under-20 side. Picture: SNS
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A lot has changed in rugby in the last 20 years, but some things remain the same. This was evident in Dublin last Sunday. Glasgow were in the match for almost 20 minutes. Then they were right out of it. In that opening quarter 
Glasgow’s Ali Price was buzzing and full of vim; but it was his opposite number Luke McGrath who was named man of the match. Well, we’ve always known that in attack a scrum-half is dependent on the quality of ball he receives. Leinster delivered clean front-foot ball and McGrath revelled in the opportunities
granted him. Glasgow struggled to win ball and when they did so were often already going backwards. So McGrath ran free while Price was in chains.

Forwards win matches. We have always known that this is the case nine games out of ten. If a scrum-half gets quantity and quality of ball, he can run the show. The Leinster pack was dominant, and McGrath and the backs outside him flourished. Glasgow’s forwards were struggling and so their backs were receiving ball against the momentum of the match. Leinster’s dominance wasn’t really surprising. Dave Rennie had struggled to put a convincing Glasgow pack together. If all his forwards were fit and available, Sunday’s ones would mostly have been on the bench.

Some of Glasgow’s defence was admittedly feeble, and when they had the ball they made too many unforced errors. In contrast Leinster handled supremely well and ran good lines. But then it’s much easier to run good lines when you get the ball on the front foot. What the match did, however, demonstrate was that when Glasgow are below strength they can’t at present compete with a really good team; and Leinster have been outstanding in this season’s Champions Cup. It would be no surprise if they went on to win it.

Remarkably, in view of their early season form, the same may be said of Edinburgh in the Challenge Cup. It may be an exaggeration to say that Richard Cockerill has transformed the club, but what he has unquestionably done is shaken it up and instilled a steeliness that was lacking before.

First of all he has fashioned a set of forwards who display many of the qualities of the great Leicester packs with whom he was so long 
associated.

When a coach names a squad of 40 players as Gregor Townsend did this week, there can’t really be many surprises. Given the number of “unavailable injureds”, it makes sense to have recalled a number of battle-hardened forwards, one or two of whom may have thought their days of Scotland squad sessions were over. However, Jon Welsh, Scott Lawson, Gordon Reid and David Denton are all currently active in the hard testing-ground that is the Aviva Premiership – even if Reid and Denton are in struggling teams.

It may be that Welsh, Lawson and Reid are to be seen as stopgaps – even though neither Welsh nor Reid should be classed as a veteran. Denton belongs in a different category; his best years may still be ahead of him, if he can remain fit. So far his time in England has been disappointing, and indeed his game fell away somewhat even before he moved south, partly because at Edinburgh Alan Solomons seemed to regard him as a battering-ram and nothing else.

Some people have been fussing about England “grabbing”Scottish-qualified players who may even have been capped by us at under-20 level. It was good to see Gregor Townsend dismissing such talk, and pointing to Ali Price and Hamish Watson being two examples in the present Scotland team. If a player has a dual – or even triple – qualification it’s surely for him to decide which country he will opt for.

In some cases where there is no pre-existing dominant loyalty, the player may simply consider for which country he has the best chance of playing international rugby. One who has been in the news and subject of speculation is the Gloucester scrum-half Ben Vellacott who played under-20 rugby for Scotland. I have no idea where his loyalties lie – who as a boy he supported in Calcutta Cup matches. But it would be reasonable for him to look at the scrum-halves available to both Scotland and England, then at the ages of those already capped or picked for the two national squads, and conclude that he might have a better chance of playing regularly for England a couple of years or so down the line; and so opt for the rose rather than the thistle. Meanwhile it is pretty silly to talk of England “stealing” Scottish-qualified players. A player approached by one country can always say “no – my loyalties lie elsewhere”.