‘If I and the other coaches can’t help them, and they can’t improve, they’ll be back in amateur rugby pretty quick’
THE SRU’s new technical coach, Alan Tait, believes Scotland’s current crop of full-time players have to shape up or ship out of professional rugby.
After adding his vast experience in professional rugby - gleaned from seven years in Rugby League and six in professional Union - to the Scotland coaching team in New Zealand, Tait was appointed full-time technical consultant earlier this month. His rugged, uncompromising style on the field has transferred to his approach off it, as his former Edinburgh Reivers team-mates have quickly discovered.
Tait reveals: "I’ve spoken with the Reivers in the last wee while about their problems, and I’ve let them know what I think.
"Generally, that’s part of my remit as I see it - to use my experience to help players any way I can - and in the three sessions I’ve had with them, I’ve put my views across, and hopefully helped them.
"If I and the other coaches can’t help them, and they can’t improve, then they’ll be back in amateur rugby pretty quick - that is the reality of professional rugby; there are plenty of youngsters out there who would jump at the chance of professional rugby."
Enthusiastic about the challenges of coaching, Tait stresses he does not wish to be viewed solely as a defensive coach. There is no doubt, however, that with the Scotland side losing a barrowload of points over the two New Zealand Tests in the summer, and the Reivers yielding 150 to two Welsh teams, plugging holes is of major concern to Scottish coaches.
"What is important to realise now," he says, "especially for young players who want a career in rugby, is that if your tackling is not up to scratch, you won’t make it.
"It’s no good anymore saying I can pass well, run well or kick well, if you can’t tackle.
"Some former internationalists will hold their hands up and tell you that they weren’t great tacklers, but you can’t get away with that in professional rugby now.
"Defence has changed a lot in the last few years. It’s inevitable that as players get stronger, become professional and spend more time on weights and in the gym, that collisions will be bigger and harder.
"I’ve been down to see Matt Elliot, the Bradford Bulls’ coach, recently, and spoken with Phil Larder, England’s defensive coach, and I think they were the ones who brought defence and tackling on a lot. Phil told me that they cannot afford any players in their squads now who can’t tackle. And it’s got to be the same here."
After widespread consultation, with coaches in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere, Tait has focused on three main aspects of defence - shape, impact and technique. Director of rugby Jim Telfer is keen to see Tait deployed more widely next year in clubs and schools, helping develop future talent, but the professional players are currently occupying his time.
Tait admits: "I know the Reds are doing better than the Reivers, but they are still letting in too many points while the Reivers are letting in tries all over the place.
"We have to be more aggressive. As the players found out in New Zealand, we’re too passive at the moment. I told the Reivers before the Swansea game that they would get no change out of Scott Gibbs and Mark Taylor, but we still stood off them, gave them too much space, and were punished.
"I’m trying to get the boys to realise that in defence, the first two steps must be forward, not static, waiting for the players to come to you."
The difference between getting defence right, and getting it wrong, can be a landslide of tries in the modern game, as players are increasingly strung out across a pitch as opposed to the old-fashioned style where an attacker would have several walls of defence to break before reaching the try-line. Clearly, Tait’s Rugby League knowledge helps, but he maintains theories and systems remain less important than a player’s own desire.
He says: "Defence is the biggest responsibility on the rugby field. It is not the easiest thing to coach, it comes down to how a player reacts on the field; tackling is a personal thing.
"In Reivers games I’ve studied, certain players have let their team-mates down by missing tackles. Our job is to help them improve. If they can’t improve, as I’ve said, then they’ve got to go back to amateur rugby.
"Those are harsh words, but it is time it was said. Coaches and players knew I would speak my mind, and that is what I do."
Tait is quick to add that he feels there is a lot of potential among the professional squads, and one feels it is realising that which drives his enthusiasm for the new job.
"There are a number of very good players, but they have to lift the competitiveness within the squads to get the individual and overall improvement Scottish rugby needs - comfort zones don’t exist at the top level," he said.
"At the moment they train in the morning but do their own thing in the afternoon. What they have to do is get themselves into groups and push each other, particularly the guys who are left behind when the team goes down to Wales.
"Instead of sitting back, playing their club game, having a few drinks, they should be making sure of a good meal after the game, sleep well and go along to the gym on the Sunday morning to push themselves ahead of the player in your position - use that time when he’s playing or travelling to give yourself a better chance of getting in the next week.
"That’s what professionals do - they don’t burn themselves out, but they use any little advantage to push ahead of their rivals, and that’s something our guys are only just beginning to understand."
The Reivers conclude their opening salvo in the Welsh-Scottish League tomorrow, against Caerphilly at Jed’s Riverside Park. Then comes the daunting prospect of European Cup competition. Tait believes this could, in fact, help inspire the Scottish players.
He says: "The European Cup is going to provide a great chance for the players. We will get the crowds because supporters want to see the likes of Leicester and Biarritz.
"It’s a real chance for the players to show what they’ve learned, and get people behind them. Hopefully, we’ll use the European games as a platform to really kick on.
"Pro rugby is always asking questions of you. It’s great when you’re riding high and winning, but when you’re on the ground you seem to get kicked harder.
"When I was at Leeds, if you had a bad game everyone knew about it, because the local paper printed your stats on the Monday, and slaughtered you. But that’s professional rugby, and you have to accept it. The public, the press, are pointing the finger at you and the only way to answer it is to perform on the field; that’s what we’re paid for.
"I heard the boxer Evander Holyfield say this week ‘winners make it happen, losers let it happen’ and that sums up the difference between players who make it to the top, and the many hundreds who don’t."
A Scottish League winner with Kelso, Rugby League winner and Great Britain internationalist, British Lions winner in South Africa and Five Nations champion with Scotland, it is clear to which camp Alan "Victor" Tait belongs.
The question for Scottish players, present and future, is how many really have what it takes to accept the harsh words and follow his example.