Professional rugby is going the way of football. Teams become cosmopolitan. We all know that the Lisbon Lions were born within a couple of Rory McIlroy drives of Celtic Park (the distance gets shorter year by year); and the Aberdeen teams I followed as a boy were full of players from local Junior clubs like Banks o’ Dee and Mugiemoss.
Recently, John Terry has often been the only Englishman – let alone Londoner – in Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea teams. Of course the trend to recruit from beyond a town’s walls started early in football, with clubs in the north of England luring Scots south to teach the locals how to beat defences by passing the ball. But now players come from all over the world, and the chances of any fan having grown up in the same street as their club’s stars are remote.
Rugby hasn’t yet got so far in this disconnection game. There are still Glasgow accents in Gregor Townsend’s teams, and West of England ones are still to be heard on the field as well as in the stands at Bath and Gloucester. But the move is in that direction. There are names in Welsh teams other than Jones, Davies, Williams, Jenkins, Thomas and Morgan.
Toulon, having been bought when in need of revival by a very rich man, have won Top14 titles and European Cups with a team of players who converse with each other, one supposes, in English rather than French, though some may have Afrikaans as their first language. So what? Like Old Trafford’s prawn-sandwich eaters reviled by Roy Keane, all fans want is a winning team. Who cares where they come from?
Today, Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow will be in Paris playing what used to be the famous Racing Club, now redubbed Racing 92, after a spell as Racing-Metro. A half-back pairing of Dan Carter and Mike Phillips may well pose them problems, but at least they won’t be linguistic. Racing, like the other leading French clubs, have no shortage of foreigners in their ranks. Glasgow, of course, have their own Fijians, Leone Nakarawa and Taquele Naiyaravoro, the latter being also an Australian international. Still, with 13 Scots in their starting line-up, they have what is, for these days, an unusually large native representation.
Racing destroyed Northampton in Paris a few weeks ago and sit top of the pool. Glasgow, with a visit to Franklin’s Gardens awaiting them, really need to win today. The odds are against them, and not only because they have always found it difficult to win in France. Injuries have taken their toll. They have a full three-quarter line missing, which is why Scotland’s fly-half Finn Russell will be at 12, with Duncan Weir again at 10. Moreover, three of their four scrum-halves – Mike Blair, Henry Pyrgos and Grayson Hart – are on the injured list. So if anything should befall Ali Price – one of the few Glasgow players to impress against Edinburgh last week – his replacement will be the international winger Lee Jones who hasn’t played regularly at scrum-half since boyhood days when he starred at nine for Selkirk Youth Club.
Glasgow lost their two matches against Edinburgh because they were beaten up front. They can’t have much chance today unless they achieve at least parity in the set scrum, at the lineout and at the breakdown. If they manage that, they may just pull it off, for there is try-scoring ability even in their depleted back-line. You can’t write off a team which from 15 to 11 reads: Stuart Hogg, Tequele Naiyaravoro, Mark Bennett, Finn Russell, Sean Lamont.
To some extent, the Scottish clubs are bucking the cosmopolitan trend. They have to do so because there are only two of them and the future of the Scotland team depends on their ability to identify and nurture home-grown talent. But this can’t disguise the reality, which is that more and more northern hemisphere clubs have come to believe that success requires them to behave much like football clubs in the English Premiership. No doubt this makes for much fine club rugby. The consequences for the international game are, however, worrying. The sad decline of France over the last few years has been plausibly attributed to the number of players not eligible for France in the Top 14. Players who are accustomed to look to imported stars to assume responsibility and take control of a game may be at a loss when deprived of them in the Six Nations. This season’s World Cup was the first in which no northern hemisphere team reached even the semi-finals. Is it unreasonable to connect this failure with the number of players from New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and the South Sea Island countries playing for the strongest clubs in the northern hemisphere?