Scotland’s pro-clubs need to keep homegrown talent

Chris Cusiter, pictured, and Greig Laidlaw are the latest homegrown stars to seek pastures new. Picture: SNS/SRU
Chris Cusiter, pictured, and Greig Laidlaw are the latest homegrown stars to seek pastures new. Picture: SNS/SRU
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As Chris Cusiter and Greig Laidlaw prepare to head south, Iain Morrison argues that Scotland’s pro-clubs can never succeed unless they keep homegrown talent

THE Six Nations hogs the limelight like Maria Callas on closing night but the rest of the rugby world continues to spin on its axis. Super 15 is under way and Italy remains in the RaboDirect Pro12, albeit with a brand new entity called “Dogi”.

Scotland’s Sevens skipper Colin Gregor suffered an ugly-looking wound to his face that looked like it was caused by a switch-blade rather than a rugby stud and both of Scotland’s pro-teams lost their first choice scrum-halves to English clubs.

Chris Cusiter announced that he was going to join Sale Sharks this summer and, following Scotland’s victory in Rome, it emerged that Greig Laidlaw, who has captained Edinburgh these last three seasons, was quitting the capital and heading for Gloucester, who see him as a replacement for stand-off Freddie Burns.

Let’s hope he is more successful than the last Scottish stand-off that Gloucester signed. Chris Paterson only managed three starts for the English club back in 2007-8, he made another five appearances off the bench and only played just one entire 80-minute match… his first. He was back at Edinburgh the following season.

It may be that Scott Johnson, who combines his Scotland coaching role with that of the SRU director of rugby, has taken his eye off the ball, or rather has his eye fixed too firmly on the Six Nations. It’s a big ask, doing both tasks simultaneously, and it is possible that the Australian has been too tied up to notice the exodus.

Alternatively it may simply be that the clubs don’t care. Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend may think that with Henry Pyrgos and Niko Matawalu in reserve, he has no need of Cusiter’s vast experience. Similarly Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons may be happy to run with Grayson Hart and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, who is undoubtedly an emerging talent. Laidlaw won’t be the only one allowed to leave by Edinburgh as the club starts to trim its bloated 64-strong squad (including apprentices) to a more manageable level. The club is paying an awful lot of players to train rather than play and six scrum-halves is at least two too many in anyone’s book.

But almost 20 years into the professional era the only silverware lifted by the Scottish pro-teams is the 1872 Cup, which is restricted to… er… the Scottish pro-teams. It’s not that success has been hard to come by or has been sporadic – success has been non-existent.

Edinburgh enjoyed a brilliant run in the Heineken Cup two years back and were rewarded with 37,000 fans flocking through to Murrayfield for their quarter-final as a result. Professional rugby can work in Scotland, it just needs something to shout about. It needs success and allowing the best players to move elsewhere won’t help achieve it.

The exodus of Scotland’s finest is hardly a new phenomenon. It was James Boswell who wrote: “The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!” It seems that little has changed in the last 200-odd years because the best Scottish players automatically look elsewhere. Any list detailing the greatest Scots of the current millennium would be dominated by those who had plied their trade elsewhere. It is so common as to become almost a rite of passage. It is as if players feel they have failed unless and until they have played in the Top 14 or the Aviva Premiership.

From Bryan Redpath, Carl Hogg and Cammy Mather through two Murrays (Scott and Euan), Tom Smith, Jason White, Nathan Hines, Sean Lamont, Jim Hamilton, Chris Cusiter (twice) the entire “Killer B’s” backrow of Johnnie Beattie, John Barclay and Kelly Brown, John Leslie, Alasdairs Strokosch and Dickinson, Max Evans and Richie Gray. The list is endless, a Who’s Who of modern Scottish rugby.

The exceptions whose entire career has been spent in Scotland are few and far between: Gordon Bulloch, Allan Jacobsen and Al Kellock jump to mind – a small smattering of names dwarfed by those who have moved on. Admittedly economics alone means that Edinburgh and Glasgow will lose a few to France but Scotland’s pro-teams are now funded mighty close to the Aviva’s £5 million salary cap so, provided they spend smartly, the pro-teams should be able to compete with the English clubs. They don’t.

A quick glance elsewhere suggests that the current open-door policy is doomed because at the heart of all successful sides lies a core of experienced local talent, with current European champions Toulon arguably the exception that proves the rule.

The Irish public bought into professional rugby in a way Scots have failed to do at least partly thanks to Munster’s early success in Europe that was largely home-grown. Leinster saw what Munster had achieved, they wanted a part of it and they exceeded all expectations with just the odd, high-class import such as Nathan Hines, Rocky Elsom and Zane Kirchner.

Irish provinces hold on to their best players, although they are helped by a government tax policy that enables athletes to reclaim 40 per cent of all tax paid in Ireland in the ten best-paid years of their sporting lives. In recent years no Irish player of note has moved abroad, with one obvious exception. Johnny Sexton is currently plying his trade in Paris for Racing Metro but even he is said to be mulling a return to Dublin after being underwhelmed by the French experience. But the same is true of Ulster (part of the UK), where the players do not have the same tax incentives yet still the province hold on to the vast majority of their big names. Tommy Bowe was the exception but he is now back where he started.

Allowing the best players to leave means that the Scottish pro-teams are in a constant state of re-building. They are never the finished article. Imagine how potent Glasgow could be with a few old boys back in harness: the “Killer B’s” backrow, Euan Murray and Richie Gray to name just five.

It will be interesting to see if, after they qualify for Scotland next year, the South African duo of WP Nel and Josh Strauss take Boswell’s advice and take the road south.