It’s time for Scottish rugby to get radical

Delight for the Melrose players after winning the RBS Premiership. Picture: SNS/SRU
Delight for the Melrose players after winning the RBS Premiership. Picture: SNS/SRU
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RADICAL is a word that does not sit easily with a large proportion of Scots.

For some in our sheltered world it conjures pictures of political or religious extremists or perhaps evangelical preachers placing their hands on gullible Americans and ‘curing’ them of disability or terminal illness.

But it is a word now being tossed about frequently in Scottish rugby as Scotland’s rugby community, from SRU staff and volunteers to club administrators, coaches to teachers, study radical steps that could save our place in the Rugby World Cup and Six Nations and reverse the sport’s slide away from global relevance in the game.

I have never been one for hyperbole and shake my head at countless doomsday forecasts of the end for Scottish rugby, so we will make a clear distinction. Rugby will not die in Scotland. For nearly 150 years, it has been a sport held dear in small parts of the country – the Borders, population just over 110,000, private schools and their shallow hinterlands and vibrant pockets such as Cupar, Ellon, Glasgow’s west end etc – and one only has to look at the passions aroused by hand ba’ events to realise that this kind of sporting excitement was around even before clubs were officially formed.

It will remain, just as shinty has in the glens, but the crossroads Scotland has reached now, coming up for the 20th anniversary next year of the decision rugby took to become professional, is significant, one from which, in these times of sport being dictated by finance, the wrong turn could prove irrecoverable.

Over 500 different characters from different backgrounds – volunteers, paid officials, accountants, bankers, strategists, oilmen, millionaire entrepreneurs, rugby coaches, teachers, joiners, plumbers, doctors, farmers and many others – have spent many long hours at Murrayfield analysing the problems and striving to come up with solutions.

When Mark Dodson took over as SRU chief executive in 2011, he launched another exploration mission seeking the views of people across Scottish rugby. He came in as a passionate rugby man, but one from Manchester, whose knowledge of Scottish rugby stemmed largely from discussions with Sale owner Brian Kennedy when Dodson was involved with the club.

Over the past two years all of those views have been fed into the Murrayfield machine to produce another road map for the way ahead. The problem is, like others before him, he now wants to move on and make significant changes, but could be forgiven for thinking Scots are a nation of brickies for the speed with which walls are being put up around him.

Let me make it clear. I do not know whether Dodson is the best CEO we could have and whether he will make the crucial difference. I would feel more comfortable were one of the leading trio at Murrayfield – Dodson, chairman Sir Moir Lockhead and director of rugby Scott Johnson – Scottish, but we have had plenty of Scots who could not effect change so, for me, birthplace is not as relevant as the ability to make things happen.

After an exciting weekend finale to the club championship, where Ayr and Melrose contrived to deny Gala the title and the Greenyards club came from behind their local rivals to regain the crown, we now look ahead to RBS Scottish Cup semi-finals and then a finals day at Broadwood that, for all the moaning of the venue after Murrayfield was ruled out, could provide a wonderfully atmospheric showcase for Scottish rugby at a modern ground equipped to hold as many as 8,000 people.

The key in the coming months, however, is the link between this level and the professional and international tiers. We have said in these columns ever since the game turned pro in 1995 that Scottish rugby had to find a way to compete at the elite end while retaining strong links with the clubs that grew and developed the sport here.

Too many SRU leaders failed to recognise that, or how to achieve it, and that has been at the heart of the game’s struggle. It is where Ireland and Wales made it work, keeping links from bottom to top. As a result, though terrific work, mostly voluntary, has reignited progress in the club game it is not improving at the pace of the pro and international levels, and is more distant than ever.

So, the most talented teenage players face a major step-up moving from club to pro levels, and ultimately have to spend two years or so trying to leap the divide and become good enough to play pro rugby. For many that comes with the loss of regular Saturday games, so it is no surprise when some give up.

Those that come through, such as Ruaridh Jackson or Duncan Weir, are still learning the game at 23 or 24, props are still coming to terms with the physicality at the same ages, against far better developed opponents. So coaches like Alan Solomons at Edinburgh, brought in with a clear mandate to make the club competitive with Leinster, Munster, Saracens and Clermont Auvergne, looks elsewhere for a more fully-formed player, believing that they will help to bring through the young Scots.

That will only increase if a new bridge between youth and club rugby and the pro game is not built. That is the major challenge for 2014/15, and it rests with clubs. They resisted a plan to introduce a professional eight-team Premier club league this year, so it returns to the melting pot for more discussion and potentially a new blueprint for 2015/16.

Some of the loudest critics have also been among the most vocal in castigating the Scotland team and coaches for errors in the Six Nations. Yet the two are intrinsically linked. We cannot have a better, more skilled, more cultured Scotland team without a better, more skilled and more cultured top tier of club rugby.

A new working party has been formed of club people and union officials, with advice from players and coaches, to start again on a new plan. How many times have we heard this? How many times has it led to tinkering at the edges, the abandonment of seemingly radical ideas and a hotch-potch of a structure that appeases the most vehement critics and serves only to stick another roadblock in the development of Scottish rugby?

Melrose may not be popular with everyone, but that club along with Ayr have set the bar and managed to maintain progress. They are criticised by some because their income from a sevens tournament they created, gave to the world, and have worked tirelessly every year to maintain, despite a drop-off in sponsors, helps to pay players.

The profit is well short of the six figures it once was, and most goes into club overheads and rugby development work. But the reality is that if Scotland are to reverse the slide and begin to close the gap that was so crystal-clear in the recent Six Nations it requires a different, more competitive, financed pathway for rising talent.

There are more rugby players in Scotland now aged from six to 14 than ever, a fact in the SRU figures that I do trust as I see and hear about it at weekends. So the game is not on its deathbed. We could do with more rugby in state schools and would like to see independent schools coming together to create a regular season of competitive fixtures, at under-16 and under-18 national leagues, or even four district leagues, ideally with club youth sides. There is a growing will at many private schools, so kick off with them and ignore the others, with their players unable to play for Scotland at age-grade levels. Radical, but vital.

Alongside that, we must rebuild that connection to the club game by improving the top end. Perhaps the first-draft plans to create a new Premiership of eight clubs was flawed. A ten-team league might be more engaging. That will be at the heart of the new working party’s investigations over the coming months.

But the clock is ticking and clubs who stand opposed altogether to a new, professional Premiership must recognise that they are clipping the wings of the young talent in their town and their club, encouraging the pro teams to bring in better-developed foreigners and ultimately blocking the improvement of the Scotland team.

By sticking to a league structure that strives for equality across all levels, clubs are effectively marooning the club game. The pro teams will continue to pluck the best talent and try to develop them for the international side, but we have seen the results of that over the past decade – a Scotland team bottom of the Championship virtually every year had Italy not joined, which dropped out of the world’s top eight at the last World Cup and which has become a realistic target for Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Canada, USA and Japan.

The game has changed, senior numbers have shrunk, competition levels dropped, first and second XVs are not as strong and players are now developed more slowly in Scotland. In other countries, investment in academies, facilities and clubs – Welsh ‘amateur’ clubs receive in the region of £50,000 each annually from the WRU, English second-tier clubs that ours play in the British and Irish Cup over £300,000 – has quickened the pace of improvement.

The SRU have realised that rugby is now a money game and only those who have it can compete, which applies to clubs too. Under Dodson, the union are now seeking to invest a six-figure sum in the top Scottish clubs every year, with the agreement that they must commit to improving youth structures, facilities, players and coaches, and marketing of the game, and work with schools and lower-league clubs in their areas.

Many well-known clubs have attacked the plans. Some want the money shared down the leagues, aware of course that even teams at the bottom of the food chain, such as runaway East League 3 winners St Boswells, are using their income to persuade boys to choose them over top-flight clubs like Hawick.

Heriot’s favour a district model while others back the new eight or ten-team Premiership as a firmer stepping stone.

Scotland were poor in the recent Six Nations, but most of those players are the product of the Scottish system. Club officials, hard-working volunteers or not, cannot therefore escape blame for the state of the Scottish game. They have helped to shape its direction.

Now back at the crossroads, which way will Scottish rugby choose to go 20 years on from the game opening up – follow other nations or back away? Rocket scientists are not needed to turn around Scottish rugby. Sacking the current leaders will not do it either.

We all know what the problems are. What is required over the next 12 months is courage across Scottish rugby to tackle them, not tinker but really change. That should not be as difficult for a nation of proud fighters, inventors and pioneers as it has so far proved to be. Radical was once a word that made Scots’ eyes light up.