The inclusion of Gary Graham in England’s Six Nations training squad was the equivalent of poking a hornets’ nest with a stick, which was probably somewhere on Eddie Jones’ agenda when the Australian mischief-maker invited the Scottish flanker into the red rose fold.
If it passed you by, this is the same Gary Graham whose father George played 25 times for Scotland. Raised in the Raploch area of Stirling, a more dyed in the wool, dedicated Scot it is hard to imagine. Like his dad, son Gary was also born in the shadow of the Wallace Monument and while much of his childhood was spent in Carlisle he turned out for Scotland at age-grade level.
Gary Graham is not alone because reports from Gloucester suggest that Jones also rates Ben Vellacott, a small but speedy scrum-half in the Danny Care mould who played for Scotland throughout the age grades.
Those perfidious English have been poaching our age-grade players, partly because of the importance of being English-qualified in the English system. Cameron Redpath, son of former Scotland skipper Bryan, turns out for the England U18s and England U20 player Fraser Dingwall’s father Gordon played at London Scottish with me for years. Both youngsters grew up (almost) exclusively south of the Border and that’s the point. Dads are Scottish but the sons feel English although some of them may turn their heads north if/when they fail to make the grade in England.
Scottish Rugby obviously took its eye off the ball regarding Gary Graham but Gregor Townsend likes ball-handling forwards so there was no guarantee that he would have got a call from the Scotland coach.
England are only copying Scotland’s own play book because Murrayfield has been poaching players of all hues for decades. The starting XV that thumped the Wallabies last time out is a case in point. Just six players came through the Scottish system, of whom only five were born in Scotland. The remainder were a motley collection of Kiwis, Saffas plus five recognisable Englishmen.
All of this doesn’t even touch on the whole sordid issue of “project players” being brought from abroad specifically to play for Scotland. The professional era has seen huge player movement and nationality is no longer a black and white issue, if it ever was.
You may not have heard of Sam Yawayawa but the young Fijian-born winger spent time in Germany before dad’s army career brought the family to Scotland. He played U16s for Scotland before being offered a contract with Leicester Tigers’ academy where he turned out for England 18s. (Age-grade qualification is less arduous than senior level.) After three years Tigers released him and he is back with Glasgow Rugby’s academy, Glasgow Hawks and aiming at the Scotland 20s squad; proudly Scottish once more or, at the very least, content to go down that route and see how far it takes him.
This whole nationality thing is fraught with difficulty. World Rugby could go a long way towards clearing up a mess of its own creation. In the face of a challenge to the supremacy of the international game by the English and French clubs, its idiotic three-year residency rule (now extended to five) fatally undermined the integrity of Test match rugby. That same idiotic three-year residency rule qualified Gary Graham for England.
World Rugby must bring the 15-man qualification rules in line with Olympic Sevens – a passport. That would simplify matters, but it wouldn’t do anything to stop poaching among the four home unions where, for every fervent nationalist of whatever persuasion, there is at least one player whose loyalty is a little more malleable.
Many of the Welsh stars have one foot in England, including George North (born in Norfolk) and Alex Cuthbert (born in Gloucester). Sam Kennedy-Warburton grew up supporting England.
Former England stars Mathew Tait and Iain Balshaw could have played for Scotland and the same is true of current England winger Anthony Watson and his brother Marcus, who plays for Wasps and England Sevens. Scottish Rugby cast its eye over the youngest brother of the trio, Callum (the name is a clue), although appears unlikely to pursue the Loughborough University scrum/wing.
Tom Smith, still the last Scot to start a Test for the Lions, and the grand slam-winning captain David Sole were both born in England to English fathers and Scottish mothers.
The point is that a certain portion of players, especially among the home unions, choose their nationality rather than inherit it.
A pal of mine has just had a gene test done to see if an unknown grandfather may have hailed from down south but whatever differences exist between the English and Scots they stop well short of their genome.
The law on qualification is an ass and nationality is a movable feast. Given his heritage, Gary Graham appears as English as Irn Bru.
But I still hope he gets capped by Eddie Jones and, if it happens, I hope that dad George sports the red rose on his barrel chest with as much pride as he once wore the white thistle. Well, almost.