Two of last season’s regulars, Duhan van der Merwe and Rory Sutherland, have moved from Edinburgh to Worcester, offers from a club that has languished in the lower half of the English Premiership being more attractive than whatever Edinburgh proposed. Should Darcy Graham be injured or off-form, scrum-half Ali Price might be the only member of the back division playing his club rugby here.
Of course, for much of our rugby history, it’s aye been like that. It’s only rarely that we have fielded an almost entirely home- based XV. Then, in any professional sport, the brighter your star players shine, the more they are in demand, the harder it is to keep hold of them. Many of the greatest Scottish footballers spent most of their careers with English clubs.
The immediate question is “what does this drift away mean for Edinburgh and Glasgow?” Obviously they are immediately weaker than they were. Glasgow would probably have been more successful over the last three seasons if Finn Russell had been partnering his former flat-mate Price at Scotstoun as well as at Murrayfield, Twickenham and the Stade de France. Van der Merwe has been Edinburgh’s top try-scorer; they can’t but miss him.
What is the meaning of Glasgow and Edinburgh?
Coaches of course always look on the bright side and say of any departure: “it opens up opportunities for others”. This is true, even though the others may not be as good as the one who has gone away.
There is however a question which may be usefully put. What are the two Scottish pro teams for? Is their main purpose the production and development of future Scotland internationals? If so, they have done a good job whenever a player has done well enough to help win matches for Scotland and to attract the attention of English and French clubs. On the other hand we may ask “are they important in their own right? Should they be judged by their performance in trans-national leagues and cups? If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then neither Glasgow nor Edinburgh has done very well.
One has sympathy for the club coaches. Because we have only two clubs, owned of course by the SRU, the interest of the national side always comes first. It’s interesting and perhaps instructive to compare Glasgow and Edinburgh with Ulster and Connacht. These two Irish provinces contribute less to the Ireland team than Leinster and Munster. They often field a XV with at most only one or two current Irish caps, sometimes, especially in the case of Connacht, none. Yet both frequently beat Glasgow and Edinburgh even when the Scottish sides are able to field several members of the Scotland international squad. Why? The answer may be that, standing a bit further apart from the Ireland squad than Edinburgh and Glasgow do from the Scotland one, Ulster and Connacht have a stronger independent identity than the two Scottish pro teams. Their coaches don’t have to look over their shoulder to the IRFU as Edinburgh’s and Glasgow’s do to the SRU.
Of course you may say that Edinburgh and Glasgow are more in the position of Leinster and Munster, and so perhaps they should be. Yet there are differences. Leinster and Munster have their own academies. In Scotland there is one academy, serving both clubs, and responsible to the SRU. Leinster indeed currently stand to Edinburgh and Glasgow rather as the top clubs in England’s football Premiership do to Rangers and Celtic.
Understanding and patience required
It’s uphill work for Danny Wilson at Glasgow and Mike Blair, who has replaced Richard Cockerill at Edinburgh. A dual mandate, developing future Scottish international players and seeking success in their league and European cups. The second has become still more difficult with the inclusion of top South African provinces in the new set-up. Though most of us, I think, like to see Glasgow and Edinburgh putting out a team of Scottish-qualified players, we also like to see them winning; and the exodus of Scotland internationals coinciding with the strengthening of the league makes this even more difficult than it has always been.
We should remember that even the leading English clubs rarely put out a XV of England-qualified players, this despite the financial rewards for fielding a certain number of them. Nor do the top French clubs shrink from recruiting players from the southern hemisphere, England, Ireland, Wales and indeed Scotland. It looks as if Blair and Wilson should be just as selfish, making club success the priority rather than seeking to provide the national side with ready-made stars. After all, young players are more likely to develop in winning sides than in losing ones. Blair and Wilson are faced with a very difficult balancing act; they deserve understanding and patience.