Vast strides still academic for Scottish rugby

SRU chief executive Mark Dodson, academy director Steve Gemmell and president Ian Rankin announce the launch of the new BT Sport Scottish Rugby Academy, along with Scottish players of all levels.  Picture: SNS/SRU
SRU chief executive Mark Dodson, academy director Steve Gemmell and president Ian Rankin announce the launch of the new BT Sport Scottish Rugby Academy, along with Scottish players of all levels. Picture: SNS/SRU
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I don’t know about blood from a stone but the SRU have undoubtedly milked their four new regional academies for all they are worth. Yesterday was the third time they have been “launched” on to the public although, in fairness, this time all four are fully functional and newly manned with 87 junior athletes inducted yesterday morning, 16 girls and 71 boys.

East Lothian/The Borders was the last of the four to be staffed with Chris Dewsnap, a Welshman and former coach of Jed Forest, appointed manager of that facility which has access to the 3G pitch at Gala Fairydean and rehab and medical facilities provided by the Heriot Watt campus in Galashiels.

This isn’t going to increase the number of players playing the game overnight

Anyone who has followed Scottish rugby at any level has seen umpteen of these initiatives aimed at improving age grade rugby in Scotland so what, SRU boss Mark Dodson was asked, is different about this new launch?

“Money,” was Dodson’s blunt reply. “We’re doing it properly. We’re making sure that we have £1.2 million being invested in the four years in the academies followed by the release of over £4m of capital investment from our partners over the next four years. We’ve got a world class environment, we’ve got the highest number of coaches and staff working with the players and we’ve inducted more players than we have done before. We see this going on in perpetuity.”

Earlier in the month Dodson declared, when talking about youth development, that the SRU had done “nothing for the last 15 years” but since the current head of youth development Stephen Gemmell has been in situ for nine of them presumably he doesn’t entirely agree?

“I think there has been an acknowledgement that we have done well within what we have been able to do,” replies Gemmell in his own defence. “It’s not been properly resourced and we haven’t done it systematically enough.

“We had players sitting on the stage this morning, Jonny Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Stuart Hogg, they have all come through a previous programme but what we need to do is to do it better to get more of those players through and to get them through more consistently.

“The BT money has allowed us to put in place the structures that we fundamentally believe will make a difference. It’s about having a foothold back in each region, having facilities, which we have never had outwith the central belt, and also having ownership of key parts, strength and conditioning and medical. We have traditionally had support from the institute (the Scottish Institute of Sport) which has been great but it’s very generic. This now allows us to be very specific in the support that we are giving those players.”

One of the benefits of being small is that very few talented players slip through the net with the possible exception of those that develop a little later in life, which begs the question, just how much more talent will the four new academies unearth?

“I don’t think there are masses more,” says Gemmell, “but players won’t slip through the net as much because we have a network now in place that we have not had before and the players that we do pick up will be better supported.

“This isn’t going to increase the number of players that are playing the game overnight. But we have had a limit on the number of players that we have been able to support (in the old academy system) because it has been in partnership.

“We had about 30 players which was the ceiling we had to operate to. Now we have taken that ceiling away. Eighty-seven were inducted today with 59 contracted so we have gone from 30 to 59.”

Sixteen of those 50 contracted youth players are girls, so the male numbers have actually only risen from 30 to 43 although it is early days and those numbers may well rise further over time. It is, as Gemmell underlines, a starting point rather than the finish line, a work in progress.

The main failing at age grade level within Scotland is a lack of intensity in the games that our young players experience. There may only be two or three good teams at 16s or at 18s who may only get one or two tough work-outs every season, when they play each other or the occasional English touring school/club.

The SRU is going to re-constitute the old inter-district championship at 16s, 18s and 20s where two districts play each other and then the winners play the winners and the losers face the losers to determine a pecking order. These district games will be populated largely by academy players but the limit to the academy places means that plenty of outside players will be drafted in to make up the numbers and so get a chance to impress.

The idea is that these inter-district games will take place in August and October, so as to avoid any clash with clubs/schools’ regular fixtures. There are also plans for the districts to play cross-border in the coming years with Newcastle and Manchester schools and clubs offering the most obvious opposition.

The question remains just how long it will take for these four new academies, into which the SRU have invested money, personnel and above all else hope, to begin to have a positive impact on the results of Scotland’s age grade teams which should be the first beneficiaries.

“In the next couple of years,” says Gemmell before rowing back a bit, “but it could be five or six years before we get the kind of benefit that everyone is looking for.

“If you look at the numbers coming in, the biggest impact will be the players we bring in at U16 level so they are four or five years away from playing U20 rugby. They will have four or five years of life in that professional (academy) environment and they should make an impact then but I expect to be seeing improved performances this time next year.”