Scottish Rugby is failing the next generation of players - Allan Massie

Last week Edinburgh became the first northern club in the URC to win in South Africa, and, if they beat the Lions today, they will have brought off a notable double.

Scotland under-20 coach Kenny Murray endured a tough Six Nations. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)
Scotland under-20 coach Kenny Murray endured a tough Six Nations. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

Glasgow disappointingly let what should have been a commanding lead slip in Cardiff. Nevertheless they, like Edinburgh, sit well up in the league table. Given that, to some extent anyway, positions in this table reflect the strength or weakness of any nation’s professional game, this is pleasing and should be encouraging.

I insert these qualifications for an obvious reason: so many of the Scotland team now play their club rugby in England. Not all these players have moved south of course. Some have always played for English clubs. Nevertheless others – Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray, Rory Sutherland and Duhan van der Merwe – have all left Glasgow or Edinburgh for English clubs, just as Finn Russell moved from Glasgow to Paris. However, there was a pleasing reversal this week, the news that Sam Skinner is leaving Exeter for Edinburgh.

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So it’s quite an achievement in the circumstances for both Scottish clubs to be riding high. However, one can’t but observe that they are doing so thanks to intelligent recruitment of players from Argentina, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, most of whom are not Scottish-qualified and never will be. A good deal of this season’s victories have been made possible by try-scoring Argentinian wings.

Well, that’s fine. Yet it’s just a bit worrying – or should be – that there have been weeks when no more than twenty of the players starting for the Scottish clubs are, or ever will be, available to Scotland. If we had three or four pro teams this might be no cause for anxiety. As it is, one wonders about opportunities for the next crop of young Scots.

There is reason to do so. The record of our under-20 team in the junior Six Nations has recently been lamentable. All five matches have again been lost this year. I doubt whether either the players or coaches deserve blame. The truth surely is that for far too long the SRU has failed to provide an effective structure for the development of young players.

The current SRU leadership has things to be proud of. Despite Covid and the disruption the pandemic has wrought, the Union’s finances are in better shape than they were ten years ago. Moreover, week after week, or at least month after month, my inbox draws my attention to new commercial deals struck by the Union. This is all very well, doubtless praiseworthy, but one can’t but be aware of the contrast between the Union’s commercial success and its failure to create an effective youth development programme. It can’t have escaped the notice of many Scottish fans that, while our age-group sides struggle bravely but lose, Italy’s under-20 team beat both Scotland and England this season. Perhaps the SRU’s chief executive will explain why Italy now seems to be developing the next generation of international players more successfully than Scotland. Or, more likely, perhaps he won’t. After all, we have for years heard nothing from Murrayfield about the deep and widening gulf between Irish and Scottish rugby.

On a different note it was a surprise to learn this week that Glasgow are not renewing Rob Harley’s contract. If he never quite established himself as an indispensable member of the Scotland team, perhaps because he was judged as not quite international class as either lock or blindside flanker, he has been an outstanding club player for a dozen years, dating back to the days when Glasgow played before meagre crowds at Firhill. Nobody, not even Alastair Kellock or Ryan Wilson, has given more to Glasgow or done more for the club. Perhaps he will move on, either to England or France, and, like Tim Swinson, so often his partner at lock, now enjoying a new lease of life with Saracens, have a second flowering elsewhere. But he’ll be missed in Glasgow and Scotstoun will be a lesser place without him. A couple of years on he might be just the man to take charge of the SRU’s inadequate Youth development - if, that is, he chooses to remain actively involved in the game and doesn’t seek to explore wider interests elsewhere.

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