LONDON Scottish may not yet be ready to return to the English Premiership but they are focused intently on taking the next step in among the big boys in England’s second tier.
With Glaswegian Kenny Baillie at the helm as chief executive and a Scottish chairman in Sir David Reid, the connection with north of the border remains as strong now as it did when the club provided countless Scotland internationals.
The squad has lost head coach Simon Amor to the RFU, but replaced him swiftly with another former England sevens coach in Mike Friday, now under the promoted James Buckland.
They head to Plymouth Albion tonight hoping to be part of a break by the leaders in the the Greene King IPA Championship over this weekend.
Having been a big part of turning around Glasgow and moving the Warriors closer to their community in the west of Scotland, Baillie has enjoyed getting his teeth into the Richmond community over the past year.
“I am loving life at London Scottish,” he said. “It’s a fantastic club with an amazing history and heritage and, even though the team has been out of the top flight in England since 1999, London Scottish still hold dear their proud record of producing more internationals for Scotland than any other club. On the playing side, it feels more like a genuine competition down here, where every point counts, every game matters and league position is really important.
“We have a situation here where, if we reached the Premiership, the change to the club would be incredibly significant and, likewise, if we were to be relegated, the impact on London Scottish would be huge.
“So, while it’s a bit different to Glasgow these days as we have bus trips to Plymouth, Penzance and Leeds in the next few weeks, there is certainly plenty to play for, which I find exciting.”
This weekend’s fixtures threaten to open up the first real gap in the Greene King IPA Championship with Bristol and Cornish Pirates at home to basement clubs Bedford and Moseley, and the top two, Rotherham – who include Scots Garry Law and Colin Quigley – and London Welsh, going head to head at Clifton Lane tomorrow.
A third win of the season would keep Scottish in the top five, with the top four sides at the end of the season qualifying for play-offs for promotion to the Aviva Premiership.
But, are Scottish ready for that yet? The club has increased its budget to around £1.5 million over the past year but most Premiership clubs spend over £4m on player salaries alone.
“It is a huge gulf,” Baillie agrees, “but, for us, it’s a building process.
“We have a new five-year plan to become recognised as a top four Championship club, strengthening to the point where we’re seen alongside London Welsh and Bristol, in the play-offs every year, and building our fanbase and business off the back of that.
“We have grown steadily, from eleventh in the club’s first season in the Championship to eighth last season.
“Now the target is top four, and to be part of the semi-finals, which would be fantastic for the club, the players and supporters, because it would bring extra games and a great focus at the end of the season.
“But we don’t meet the minimum criteria for stadia for the Premiership so, if we were to win the title, we would have to find a stadium to accommodate us to go up.
“I’m not saying we wouldn’t look at it, but the truth is we have a long way to go in terms of finance and facilities to get to Premiership level.
“You look at how Exeter and Worcester have gone up and developed, and that’s certainly where we are aiming but, right now, we also have to be realistic.”
So, no Premiership yet, possibly, but what Baillie is sure about is the desire to maintain a clear link to Scotland. The club now boasts 29 full-time players, including Scotland A caps James Thompson and Jamie Stevenson and a new recruit from Gala, stand-off Lee Millar.
“We play in England and so we fulfil the RFU protocols about developing English talent, but 35 per cent of our squad are qualified to play for Scotland and that’s something that we as a club want to continue,” added Baillie. “We want to support Scottish rugby and get back to that heritage of contributing players to the Scotland team.
“We are working positively with the SRU to encourage players like Lee Millar to come here.
“He has been in good form, and had a great game against Bristol.
“He is on record as saying that this is a step up from Scottish club rugby, so we’re filling a gap there. I’d love to see more boys use us a stepping stone to the pro ranks in Scotland or the international team, because it helps us and is a big part of what this club is about.”
London Scottish have always offered a genuine third pro fessional team option for the financially constrained Scottish game.
However, the Scottish Rugby Union has thus far failed to grasp its potential.
Competing at the top of the English Championship may begin to ensure that Scotland’s great nursery in the south returns to a strong role in supporting the country’s future.
London Scottish (v Plymouth Albion at Brickfields, 7.45pm, tonight): James Love; Mike Doneghan, Oli Grove, Andy Reay, Miles Mantella; Lee Millar, Jordi Pasqualin; Mark Irish, Ted Stagg, Lewis Thiede, Tyler Hotson, David Lyons, Chevvy Pennycook, Neil Best, Mark Bright (capt). Subs: Lewis Calder, Nick Mayhew, Eric Fry, Alex Karonias, Jamie Stevenson, Dan Newton, PJ Gidlow.