Allan Massie: Does national rugby side benefit from Scots playing abroad?

Richie Gray in action for Toulouse. Picture: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Richie Gray in action for Toulouse. Picture: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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Top Test teams keep their stars in the home country but, with only two pro clubs, Scotland can’t, writes Allan Massie.

Speaking on the Sky TV programme The Offload, Will Greenwood made the point that the three top-ranked nations – New Zealand, England and Ireland – all keep control of their international players and restrict selection to those playing in the home country. Others don’t or can’t. Last season, France, for example, continued to select Louis Picamoles, who was then playing for Northampton.

Australia and South Africa are both in financial difficulties, with the result that many of their best are playing in Europe.

In theory, Greenwood’s argument that this control is desirable, and indeed necessary, makes sense, though one might observe that Argentina were more formidable before they entered the Rugby Championship and restricted choice to home-based players, even though many of their best still play club rugby in France and England. Wales are in a sort of halfway house (like Australia).

From now on the national team will be drawn from Welsh clubs, exceptions being made only for players who have already won a certain number of caps. Assuming they stick to this, their first-choice scrum-half, Rhys Webb, won’t play for Wales next season.
We are in a different position – of course – as usual. With only two pro clubs, we can’t restrict selection to players from Glasgow and Edinburgh, even though in our successful autumn campaign we came quite close to doing so. It’s also the case that, if we copied the Irish model, there would soon be a log-jam, as young players at Glasgow and Edinburgh found their progress blocked. So, while we try to keep star players – and Glasgow have done well to retain Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray – we can’t always succeed; hence Finn Russell’s departure to Racing 92 next season.

It’s also a matter of the game’s popularity. Everyone is pleased that Glasgow now regularly fill Scotstoun. But it’s a small ground and a home European tie for Leinster or Munster will draw five times the crowd that Scotstoun can accommodate, and therefore five times the gate revenue. Money talks, more and more loudly with every season.

Of course, today’s Inter-City at Murrayfield will draw a bigger crowd, but this is exceptional.

We have to make the best of things as they are, and so the comforting theory is advanced that players who move to a leading club in England or France will improve.

To which the answer is that some do, and some do not. I’m not convinced, for instance that several seasons in France have made Richie Gray a better player than he would have been if he had stayed in Glasgow, and I would say the same of Sean Maitland at Saracens. Both are still very good, but it is questionable if they have improved. You might say that Greig Laidlaw benefited from his spell at Gloucester, and I would agree. Likewise, Matt Scott seemed to get a new lease of life when he moved there for season 2016-7, scoring tries with a zest he seemed to have lost at home in Edinburgh.

John Barclay’s time with the Scarlets in Wales has probably been beneficial. But David Denton’s experience with Bath and now Worcester points in the other direction.

Of course, much depends on the character of the club to which a player moves. There were likewise very mixed results in the days when the leading English football clubs would eagerly snap up Scottish stars. Kenny Dalglish might shine at Liverpool and Paddy Crerand at Manchester United, but Jim Baxter went to the wrong English club – Sunderland , as I recall – and Arsenal blunted the talents of Charlie Nicholas and Peter Marinello.

Still, today’s first of the three-leg 1872 Cup promises both interest and entertainment. Edinburgh are perhaps nearer full-strength than Glasgow, who are without Stuart Hogg, Callum Gibbins and their club captain Ryan Wilson. But it should have something of the feeling of the old International Trial in that almost everyone on the field may have an eye on the Six Nations.

Yet, of course there is a significant difference. The crowd used to treat the International Trials with a certain levity, often seeming to support The Rest against the probable Scotland team. (In the distant past the teams were indeed sometimes named Probables and Possibles. Now it is an important club match, in which the result matters more than the performance of individuals, and partisanship is fierce.

Looking at the sides selected I should say there should be very little in it. Glasgow may have an advantage at half-back and in the centre, but, in the absence of Wilson and Gibbins, Edinburgh may be more effective at the breakdown.

There wouldn’t seem to be much to choose between the front rows and the locks – and therefore the line-out – seem well matched. Glasgow may have more flair, especially when Finn Russell comes off the bench, but Richard Cockerill has effected such an improvement in Edinburgh’s attitude that it would be no surprise if they inflicted a first league defeat of the season on Glasgow.