Development work is done, says Jeffrey – it’s time Scotland got some results
When he rampaged across pitches in the 1980s and 1990s, Borders farmer John Jeffrey was known for giving nothing away easily. His approach to life has hardly changed now that he is in his Fifties and is one of the sport’s global administrators.
He might spend as much time watching games in England, France and the southern hemisphere as he does feeding his cattle on the farm near Kelso, but Scotland’s representative on the International Rugby Board remains as passionate about the game of rugby here as he was when helping to guide the national side to Grand Slam success nearly 24 years ago.
He was encouraged, then, in 2013 to witness the emergence of more promising young Scottish talent, particularly more threatening backs, and he believes that those youngsters hold the key to success in 2014. But for all of his best efforts to develop diplomacy skills within the halls of the IRB, he remains as straight a talker as ever and states that the next 18 months have to be more about results and less about development.
Reflecting on the year past, Jeffrey begins: “If you look at the results, we ended up third in the Six Nations which was our best result in countless years. Although it was only two wins, there was certainly progress there, though there were good games and there were poorer games.
“The summer tour in South Africa was more of a development tour, and we were into double figures for the number of people that were capped in the summer. It was disappointing against Samoa, to be honest. We did really well against South Africa and could and should possibly have beaten them. I probably shouldn’t say this in my position [as chair of the IRB referees panel] but there were a couple of contentious refereeing decisions. Then we had a good win against Italy to finish off.
“But we capped a lot of boys and it wasn’t just capping the boys that was good, the experience of going to South Africa for three weeks under Scott Johnson, living in that environment and training in that environment, to me is actually more important than playing in the games, because they pick up what Scott is after.
“Then in the autumn we had a good win against Japan, a poor performance from everybody against South Africa, which was disappointing, and a good performance against Australia but not the result we were looking for. So, as Scott would say, it’s a work in progress.
“He did say when he came in and took over from Andy [Robinson] that we were going to develop a lot of young players, and we have developed a lot of young players, but we’re now, come the Six Nations, 18 months out from the World Cup and so it’s time to get units together and playing what would be our preferred squad leading up to the World Cup.”
In terms of where Jeffrey sees growth and reasons for optimism, the former fiery flanker likes what he sees from the burgeoning second row and back row competition particularly, but also gives an appreciative nod to the progress of the back division.
“We seem to be developing a very strong forward unit that is hard to beat, and hard to break down,” he says, “but what I’m liking is we’re developing some backs that are going to score some tries, like Matt Scott, who I thought was outstanding on the summer tour and really put his marker down.
“Totally biased, I thought that he was unfortunate not to go on the Lions tour. Then you’ve got Tim Visser on the wing, who is going to score tries, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland – a bunch of boys who would all challenge to get on a Lions tour.
“Obviously, Stuart and Sean did go [to Australia in 2013], but you add Tim Visser and Matt Scott into that, we have a good core of players there if we can get them the ball.
“We’re going to play a wider game hopefully as well and we can threaten. People are saying that to me from other countries, that Scotland are starting to threaten from out wide, whereas in the past we’ve never had that. So if we can keep developing that, and one or two more players, then I’m optimistic about Scotland’s future.”
So, gazing into the crystal ball, what does he see or merely hope for in the coming year?
“I think everybody always says ‘I’d like us to win the Grand Slam’. I’m not that cheeky to say we’ll go for a Grand Slam, but I want to see progress and not just in terms of playing but in terms of results.
“We were third last year in the Six Nations and that should be our benchmark. We shouldn’t accept anything less than third now as being good enough, so we should be looking to improve on third.
“We’ve always said you should be looking to be in a position with quarter of an hour to go in a game where you could win the game, and I think that’s a good benchmark. If you lose because you weren’t quite good enough to shut it out, well, you learn for the next time.
“But I think you should take that into a championship as well and say, with three-quarters of the championship gone, you should still be in a position to challenge for it.”
Scotland open against Ireland in Dublin on Sunday 2 February, then host England at Murrayfield six days later before heading to Italy aiming to try to repair the damage of their first visit to the Stadio Olimpico in 2012. So, if still in contention for the title by then, Scotland will surely be buzzing with anticipation going into games at home to France and away to Wales.
Jeffrey acknowledges: “That is pretty tough coming from Scotland, to ask for that challenge, but unless you’re prepared to set those challenges you’re not going to improve, so I reckon that’s what we should do.
“On the summer tour it’s the same again – we should be looking for three-quarters of the wins [against Canada, USA, Argentina and South Africa]. And that will be about development as well because I can’t see all the players going out.”
As for a forecast for the professional teams after the 1872 Cup washout on New Year’s Day, and the club game, Jeffrey remains as bullish about what he hopes for in the coming months.
“Again, the pro teams have to do better than they did last year or you’re not going to progress, which means that we need to have one of the teams, and at the moment it looks like Glasgow, to get into the final of the play-offs, not just reach the semi-finals. And if you’re in the final then you could win it.
“That has to be a realistic challenge and Edinburgh have an outside shot of getting into the play-offs.
“In the club game, I would simply like to see it become vibrant again. How? I really don’t know but my wish for Scottish rugby would be for the numbers that are playing to increase because once numbers increase, you get more people involved, not just playing but coming back supporting the clubs.
“I go down to Kelso and watching them play last weekend there were maybe 200-300 people there, and that’s not great. At Christmas time we should have at least a couple of thousand coming down and watching them play … so I would like to see more numbers, more enjoyment and more people coming back to rugby.”
It is a toast many would share with Jeffrey, from the winning national side to more wins for Glasgow and Edinburgh and a greater enjoyment spilling through the game to its crucial foundations at club level. But how that is brought about remains arguably the biggest single hurdle to progress in the Scottish game.
Club rugby remains close to Jeffrey’s heart and after playing for the club and coaching at it, Kelso is where he will be spotted on the rare occasions he has time away from IRB, SRU and farming duties, not to mention the demands of a young family.
But a festive trip to Poynder Park only reaffirms a concern at how a game he grew up in, where crowds of 5,000-plus were frequent, has lost its way since the advent of professionalism. The SRU have come up with a new ‘five-point plan’ for 2014, after countless meetings with clubs, that proposes a new eight-team ‘Super League’, with extra demands on clubs to improve facilities and club and community development to earn a place in the new league and fresh investment to those who do.
Allied to this the SRU are going to establish academies in each of the four traditional districts to improve scouting and deepen the development of talented young players across the country, as well as improve coaching pathways, schools and women’s rugby.
It is unclear as yet where the funding for the plan will come from, but Jeffrey is confident that if it can be found the initiatives will bring significant improvement to the Scottish game and improve the quality of home-grown players stepping into the professional and international ranks.
“I’m involved with the Scottish Rugby Council, not the board,” he explained, “but the board have come up with these five proposals to develop rugby which I think are superb.
“One of the questions that’s been asked of chief executive Mark Dodson is ‘where are you going to get the money for this?’ and he says ‘that’s my problem’, which is a challenging answer, but I think it’s great that we’re actually proactively looking at that because it [club rugby] is stagnating.
“I go down and watch Kelso play and they struggle to get a 2nd XV out, although recently they’ve done better at that. I want to see people playing rugby. I went down to watch Kelso Harlequins [under-18s] playing last week and it was great to watch them play, the passion they’re playing with and the enjoyment they’re getting out of it, and that’s what we all want, but the question is how we deliver it further up the tree.
“It’s about getting the development up to the ‘Super Eight’ clubs. I don’t know what’s going to go through, how it’s going to be financed or what the timescale is, but what I really like is the fact that there is a will from the board at the moment, from Moir [Lockhead], the chairman, Mark the chief executive and the rest of the team to drive it forward and now it’s about getting us all round the table, which we’ve said is going to happen, and delivering that.
“What the timescale for that is I’m not very sure, but I genuinely think there is a good future for Scottish rugby.”
One clear concern with the plans to create a new ‘Super League’ – it is currently being termed semi-professional but it will simply be professional with a mix of players on full and part-time salaries – is how this would affect the ambition of clubs outside the country’s top eight.
Currently, Currie and Aberdeen Grammar FPs lie in the bottom two of the ten-team Premiership so if the cut were made now, they would miss out, leaving three Borders clubs (Gala, Melrose and Hawick), two from Edinburgh (Heriot’s and Edinburgh Accies), two from the west (Ayr and Glasgow Hawks) and Stirling County as the most northerly club.
Ambitious clubs below that – Boroughmuir, Watsonians, Stewart’s Melville, Dundee and Selkirk currently lead the chase for promotion from the National League – would also be left out, despite many having invested heavily and successfully in facilities and community rugby development in wide-reaching areas of the country.
Their big fear is that all the young talent would be sucked from them to the top eight clubs and their chances of ever reaching the elite level would disappear. Jeffrey has sympathy for that view but believes it to be a natural effect of rugby past, present and future.
“There is that problem and I’ve heard that argued from my own club as well, that if we go to a Super Eight we’ll lose all of our players there, so why should we develop players? But is that not happening already? Do the best players not already go up to Premier One?
“Take my club for example, Kelso. In the past we hoovered up players from Berwick and Duns so we stifled their promotion, and then we get upset when Melrose or Gala come and pinch a couple of our players.
“To me, you have to take a wider look at that. I understand clubs’ concerns that they will just be feeders for the Super Eight, and there is talk of people trying to rekindle the inter-district championship instead, but I don’t know. I do think you have to take a wider look at it and ask ‘what’s better for Scottish rugby?’ and at the same time not kill our own club game.”
The key to every new idea in Scottish rugby lies in persuading the majority that it is the right way to go, and that is the challenge that lies ahead in 2014. Clubs have tried ideas and refused others, but while youth numbers continue to rise, little brought in over the last 15 years has halted the slide of people moving away from the game at senior level.
When Jeffrey played for Kelso they regularly fielded four teams, in a town of just 6,000 people, while neighbours Hawick fielded as many as 13 senior sides and three youth teams each weekend just 20 years ago.
Kelso were recently forced to postpone a 1st XV game due to a lack of front row cover, while 2nd XV players who view their involvement increasingly as purely social – 4th XV players of the past are now at 2nd and often 1st XV level due to dwindling numbers – refused to step up. That is not uncommon across Scotland and at clubs once among the most vibrant and successful in Scotland.
In Hawick, the loss of the Trades club and struggles at others have led to occasional weekends where as few as four senior teams are playing, which represents a loss of over 100 players from its peak in the 1980s and 1990s.
A new elite league could reinvigorate the top level by producing a more attractive product, and may lead to more competition below to push into that tier. But Jeffrey throws in another idea guaranteed to shake traditionalists from their festive slumber – the abandonment of rugby altogether in the winter months.
“I’m a great fan of summer rugby,” he added. “I would look at closing down in November and December for everyone, professionals and amateurs, and play in the summer, especially the amateurs. We’d have all the kids out playing in the summer, improving their skills.
“If you go down and watch mini-rugby at the moment kids are walking around with their hands in their pockets, they don’t watch to catch the ball, and what are they doing in the summer? Not very much. That’s maybe a pie-in-the-sky wish but I would love to be playing summer rugby.”
There remains an intransigence in many rugby clubs towards a move to playing through summer months, but youth clubs who have made the switch have reported nothing but positive results, notably in the enthusiasm of players and improvement in skills development.
We have seen many club restructures but that should not be viewed as an argument against another in itself.
A new dawn in 2014? New club vitality, pro team success and an international side that talks of winning Test matches rather than development? That will ultimately be for you and your clubs to decide.