Chalmers yearns for rebirth of Scots rugby

IF THE beginning of Craig Chalmers career in Scottish rugby was filled with memorable moments, he could be forgiven for wishing to forget the manner in which it came to an end at the top level.

His feelings are put into perspective when he says that his final season playing club rugby at Melrose, most of which was spent in the treatment room in a battle with a knee injury he would not win, returned some happiness. Five years earlier Chalmers’ exploits as one of Scottish rugby’s Grand Slam heroes were a dim and distant memory as he was shown the exit door by Glasgow Caledonians.

"The whole period was a horrible one," he recalls now, safely ensconced in his Greenyards ‘home’. "I don’t expect great rewards or anything for what’s done in the past, players should be judged on what they do now, but I still felt I deserved better than I got. It sort of stemmed from me damaging my knee playing for Melrose in a game against Randwick. I’d been left out of Scotland’s World Cup squad in 1999 and I was absolutely gutted. So I went and played for Melrose, and injured my knee.

"It went from bad to worse. I was then left out of Glasgow’s Heineken Cup squad and it was clear I wasn’t wanted. I had felt the same before, when the Borders were broken up and I went to Edinburgh Reivers. Alan Tait and I sat on the bench, mainly because it was Edinburgh coaches in charge and they wanted Edinburgh boys.

"We forced our way into the team, but with the usual mess of SRU contracts I ended up with my old Melrose coach Rob Moffat at Glasgow. It was nice that he wanted me, and the Glasgow players and supporters were excellent, but it was strange moving about clubs across Scotland.

"Then, when Glasgow left me out of their European squad, I was wondering whether it was all over when Mark Evans, the Harlequins chief executive, called me and asked if I wanted to go down to London. I jumped at the chance. It was only two months but it was great and I really enjoyed it. I didn’t get offered another contract by Glasgow when I came back, and that was a difficult time for me, personally - my career in Scotland was finished, and I didn’t feel ready for that.

"But my eyes were opened by that spell at Quins. I learned so much down there. It was a different mentality, a commitment towards training and improving, something I was used to personally, but down there everyone had it. They were in from 9am to 4pm, whereas in Scotland players had the attitude that they wanted to get into training, get it done and get away.

"I enjoyed then playing at Worcester and then at Pertemps Bees, but it made me regret not going down south earlier. I got chances to go to Leicester, Wasps, Llanelli and others when professionalism was coming, but I had a young family, I was really enjoying playing for Melrose and we were winning things. I was tempted, but Jim Telfer and Keith Robertson persuaded me to stay, and I also felt quite strong about wanting to make professional rugby work in Scotland. If I knew then what I know now I’d have gone. It’s a big regret that I didn’t take the opportunity to test myself with some of the best in England, training and playing, where rugby was treated with a professional attitude we just haven’t had."

Pain is etched on his face when Chalmers speaks of Scotland’s struggles with professionalism. He always set high standards for himself and though a tough critic appears to have taken the failures personally. He edges forward, his ire raised, as he points to an inability in Scotland to understand the change from amateur to professional rugby, and a real lack of faith and confidence as reasons for the turmoil.

"I was part of that first Borders team and it was tough - losing 80 points in France in our first game. But we laid the foundations for a squad there, and the same had been done in the Caledonian region, but the SRU didn’t give either of us a chance, and merged the teams with Edinburgh and Glasgow. It was ridiculous. Nothing is ever going to get better in Scotland until they go for something and stick with it. You have to have faith in people, teams, whatever. Money is obviously a problem in Scotland, but you wouldn’t believe the money that has been wasted here in the last ten years.

"There have been unbelievable wages paid to some of the guys flown in, and they’re not worth it. They just take it back to the country of their birth and very few have given anything back to our game.

"It wasn’t the player’s fault, but one [Brendan Laney] was flown in and lined up to play for Scotland against Argentina four days after arriving. Senior players stopped that, but he made his Scotland debut the next week against the All Blacks. That sudden elevation was a total embarrassment to anyone who has pulled on the Scotland jersey; the work, sweat, the proving yourself through each age group, and everything that is associated with that, and to see a player get a jersey that cheaply made me pretty sick. The people responsible for that ... you couldn’t print what I think should have happened to them.

"There is a lot of good, young talent in Scotland but it hasn’t been nurtured as well as it should be and we haven’t shown faith in them; we don’t trust our own players, and prefer to pay big money to foreigners who can’t get a game in their own country.

"There are times when it is wise to look abroad. Todd Blackadder, for example, isn’t here to play for Scotland. Okay, he’s here to make some money, but his experience from Canterbury and the All Blacks brings something Scottish players need. Dave Hewett will be the same for Edinburgh. They are good signings. But we have wasted ridiculous amounts of money over the past ten years through not believing in ourselves."

That is not a label one could attach to Chalmers, a player whose career was marked by unstinting self-belief. Scanning the current crop of players, and failing to find many with the same characteristics, begs the question of whether Chalmers was a one-off. The stand-off has played with many of the current generation and he has intriguing thoughts on why they are failing to set the heather alight.

"There are many reasons why we’re not winning right now, but it’s not because we don’t produce good players. We have some very good players. I like Chris Cusiter and Mike Blair and they’re going to have a cracking battle for years at scrum-half. Chris Paterson didn’t get the chance he should have at stand-off, but he’s starting to show what he can do at full-back.

"I don’t understand what happened to Gregor [Townsend] - he was dropped far too quickly. He was inconsistent at times, but he’s a great player and better than the guys there right now. Why retire two or three of your most experienced players? Let them play, and if they’re playing well for their clubs then get them involved. Gregor has incredible experience, playing in teams going for Grand Slams with us, and the Lions, and that is something we have needed recently.

"I’ve been impressed by Sean and Rory Lamont, strong wings and you can work off them, but you must get the ball in their hands more often; Simon Taylor is a fantastic player, though he has to do a bit more for my liking; I think Gordon Bulloch has had his day but Ross Ford and Scott Lawson should get a shot now and they are quality boys.

"We looked good in flashes in the championship, but our game-plan has been a bit inhibited. Again it comes back to trust. If Matt Williams stays, he has to trust the players more and give them more freedom, because when we expressed ourselves against Wales and England we scored some great tries - there haven’t been many better tries ever scored in a Scotland jersey than that one Chris [Paterson] created and Andy Craig finished."

Chalmers was criticised at times in his career for being nothing more than a kicking stand-off, but those slights now seem laughable when his talents are compared with some around now. He laughs it off and admits that he worries about modern skill levels in Scotland.

"The gym seems to be where players test themselves now, not on the field. You have to be stronger now than in the amateur days to compete, but players have become infatuated with muscles and what they can lift in the gym, and have forgotten skills of passing, how to tackle, and decision-making.

"It’s right for Matt (Williams) to say our skills are not up to scratch in Scotland, but I don’t really know what the coaches are doing with them. Rugby is a simple game and coaches try to over-complicate it."

Chalmers feels there has to be a much closer relationship formed between clubs and the pro teams. He says it is a shame that professional players don’t have a real ‘home’, with clubs and their members and supporters providing a source of comfort and confidence during his own career, and feels players must work harder to make themselves part of Scottish rugby. "Very few of the Borders team now live in the region," he says. "I don’t think that’s right. Even at Worcester it was stipulated you had to live within half an hour of Worcester. It’s easier for players to get to training, to get home, without ages in a car after a hard session, but it’s also because guys are seen around the place, seen to be getting involved in the community.

"Look around the Melrose club and look at all the players pictures on the wall, the picture of me gives pride to me, my family and Melrose supporters. Where is Hugo Southwell’s picture? Whose wall does Sean and Rory Lamont’s picture hang on? That’s a real shame for them, and that’s why we should have every player involved in pro rugby in Scotland strongly linked to a club, where he can be given a home, somewhere he feels proud and people there feel proud to know him, to help and support him. That was a big part of my amateur career, which helped my confidence. How many real characters are there in the current squad compared to the Grand Slam squad in 1990? There are too many international players who can’t think for themselves. Players have it far too easy now - getting contracts when they’re far from being a professional player."

Chalmers adds: "They don’t have the hero worship footballers have. Chris Paterson, Chris Cusiter or Simon Taylor might attract some of that, but you’ve got to expect people to recognise you and it’s great if they do. It’s a great thing because it’s a sign that they’re interested, they’re obviously watching you, the game, and know you play at a high level. When no-one recognises you that’s when the sport has a problem and we have that now when we need 40,000 Welsh supporters to fill Murrayfield. Not many teams will bale us out like that."

Ever the optimist, Chalmers believes good times will return soon, if Scottish rugby can rediscover the kind of self-belief around which his own near 20-year career revolved.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, he wants to be part of it.

"The knees mean I can’t play anymore though if it was my choice I’d put myself up for Scotland tomorrow," he said. Even as I asked what role he had in mind, I knew the answer.

"I would love to coach Scotland. I enjoy coaching and want to get better at it, and want to be successful, It’s just the same as being a player, and just as I always wanted to play for Scotland, I would love to one day coach Scotland. Not tomorrow maybe, but one day. Would I be good at it? Come on, do you need to ask?"

In a time of regular fluctuations in Scottish rugby, there is some pleasure to be drawn from the constant that is Craig Chalmers.