Allan Massie: Pro team woes hamper SRU Heineken bid

Glasgow's Peter Murchie looks dejected after a loss to Castres. Picture: SNS
Glasgow's Peter Murchie looks dejected after a loss to Castres. Picture: SNS
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THE SRU’s attempt to resist any change to the format of the Heineken Cup hasn’t been helped by the wretched form of our two teams.

Played six, lost six is a record that rather weakens our bargaining power. It may of course look a little better this morning, if Edinburgh have beaten Racing Metro at Murrayfield last night, but, even if they have, it will still be wretched.

Moreover, some of our allies are also in desperate straits. The Italian record is the same as ours, and the Welsh one reads played nine, won one, Ospreys having beaten Treviso. All this makes it difficult to argue that the Rabo 12 League deserves to have ten places reserved for it. It doesn’t of course alter our case that it was from the first a tournament of countries rather than of leagues; after all we were competing in the Heineken before our league had been formed, and places were reserved for the Italian clubs before they joined our league. Nevertheless it would be foolish to pretend that our defence of the status quo looks compelling.

The drive for change is coming from the English Premiership clubs, with some support from the French Top 14 ones. They have been doing better this season than the Scottish, Welsh and Italian ones, with ten wins from 18 matches. Closer examination reveals that they are nevertheless not doing very well, not as well as the French with 13 wins out of 18 or the Irish with nine out of 12. Seven of the English victories have been against Scottish, Welsh and Italian teams. Saracens have beaten Racing Metro, and Harlequins have won against Biarritz and Connacht. Otherwise English clubs have lost five times against French ones while Ulster, Leinster and Munster have all beaten English opponents.

Admittedly the half-way point is not the best place from which to judge, with the second leg of the back-to-back fixtures this weekend. Saracens, at home, may win their return with Munster, but Sale and Northampton are away to Toulon and Ulster respectively, and unlikely to avoid defeat.

So the argument has some way to run. Our case would however be helped if Glasgow and Edinburgh could record a few victories.

Their disappointing performance stirs up another argument here. The SRU have spent lavishly to strengthen both clubs, having brought in some 22 players at what must be a considerable cost. There is little evidence that either club has been strengthened, and perhaps no more than half-a dozen of these imports can be considered a success so far. Some may be taking time to adapt to a new club and new conditions, and may yet justify their recruitment. Others already look like bad buys, players who are either past their best, or ones who never were, and never will be, good enough. Meanwhile their presence is hardly helping the development of young Scottish players who are being denied game time.

Getting the balance right is difficult, but one can’t help thinking that the Irish provinces have managed this better than the SRU and the Scottish clubs. Yet, paradoxically, the success of the Irish clubs in the Heineken has done as much as the weakness of our ones to provoke the English demand for change. They think the Irish have it too easy and are more able than English clubs to rest players from league matches. I am not sure that the statistics bear this out. In any case some of the English clubs’ complaints might more fairly be directed at the RFU. England played four internationals this autumn, whereas Ireland elected to play only two and an “A” game against Fiji. So when Ulster met Northampton last weekend at Franklin’s Gardens, they had had their squad together for two weeks, whereas Northampton’s English international players had been back with the club for only five days. So who was to blame for the Saints’ lack of preparation?

Gala, meanwhile, have been doing themselves, and their coach George Graham proud in the British and Irish Cup. Interestingly Graham has chosen to rely on his regular squad and make no use of the professional players available to him. Some will conclude from this and from the differing fortunes of Melrose who have included professionals, that the gulf between the pros and the amateurs isn’t that wide. Yet one should note that Moseley, the professional club that Gala beat last week, are lying third from the bottom of the English Championship, or second division, and have won only two league games this season. The likely explanations for the different results of Gala and Melrose in this Cup are that, first, Gala are a better team, and, second, that a settled line-up is often to be preferred to a much-changed team. This is something that those who clamour for sweeping changes in the Scotland XV might bear in mind.