FORMER Scotland captain Jason White believes that Scotland were undone in the recent autumn Tests by a lack of skills and has warned that, unless the culture in Scottish rugby changes, the national team will continue to struggle on the world stage.
The 77-times capped back row was renowned for his physical approach to the game and ferocious tackling in a career that made him one of the most respected players in Scotland, England and France. Currently leading the Xodus Steelers team of veterans in the Dubai International Tens Tournament, he has lost close to two stones since retiring from playing at Clermont Auvergne 18 months ago, and is back to a more ‘normal’ weight of 15 stones and a concentration on ‘bulking up’, he believes, is a major problem in the Scottish game.
“All the talk before we played South Africa was of how we had to match them physically, when actually, in my opinion, we are now of a size and shape that we were always going to match them physically and that was not where we lost the Test match,” he explains.
“The Scotland boys are bench-pressing the same if not more than other Test players around the world, but are we making the right decisions and executing our technical skills under pressure? No. That’s where we’re coming up short against the top sides – it was the case when I played and still is now.
“You have to work hard in the gym and improve your strength and conditioning, of course, from a health and safety point of view, because players are bigger and stronger now, but the key to beating the Springboks is not trying to match their muscles, but working harder on improving our skills under pressure.
“For that to happen we need a redistribution of the focus in Scottish rugby back towards skills, up-skilling more coaches. The gym is an easy way to improve, but it’s skills development under pressure that is letting us down.”
White, now 35 and so able to qualify for the veterans rugby circuit, is back coaching in Scotland with his old club Watsonians and former Scotland teammate Marcus di Rollo, another new member of the Steelers defending their international tens crown against Joost van der Westhuizen’s world legends select in Dubai today.
Di Rollo was always known as a skilful player, but agrees with White that too little time was given to skills coaching. White admits that he looks back on how his own game was known for its physicality and wishes it had been different.
“In my whole career I encountered about two or three coaches, from a large number in 15 years of professional rugby, who actually gave me real technical coaching,” said the former flanker. “Jim Telfer was one in terms of helping forwards, and other players, to get their bodies in the right position, to tackle properly, and I remember him stopping me in the corridor once at the Roxburghe Hotel [in Edinburgh] and saying, ‘look, you need to get your knees up and be more aggressive when you’re running’.
“There is a definite need for that in our game. My opinion of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia is that they must practise their skills much more under pressure. They have a wider and deeper pool of talent than we do, but there’s more to it than that.”
Another of White’s Steelers team-mates, Caleb Ralph, has 15 All Blacks caps, and he says that, from the first days, he remembers turning up to a rugby session and the focus being on honing skills, something that always weighed more heavily on the minds of players there than the size of an opponent.
I have written in these columns before of watching New Zealand training prior to playing Scotland at Murrayfield, where they started each session with a 20-minute concentration on a particular skill, be it tackling, passing or kicking. Every player did it and it started at walking pace and was gradually speeded up, days before a Test match, the coaches going back to basic each time to build in good practice. Remember that Caleb? “Of course, mate. Always.”
Thinus Delport, the former Springbok and top try-scorer in the Steelers team, believes New Zealand’s introduction of youth leagues, where players qualify by weight rather than age, is another key component in exposing their young players to more pressure on skills throughout their development. In Scotland, big players can still steam through youth leagues and not have their handling or tackling skills seriously tested.
White accepts that he has been out of Scottish rugby for a long time and that the picture is changing, in some areas. Many youth coaches do focus on skills as a priority, while, at pro level, Gregor Townsend, his former team-mate and now head coach at Glasgow, is big on skills work – as is Edinburgh’s new chief Alan Solomons.
So there are positive signs, but the ultimate testing ground remains the international stage and judging by Scotland’s showing this autumn, White feels it needs to go further and deeper into Scottish rugby.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “Poor weather is not helpful for developing skills, so let’s move all youth rugby in Scotland to the summer months. There are some clubs doing summer rugby, but I’d like to see the SRU moving the whole shebang to the summer, from coaching to the fixture lists. I would love to get involved in that and I know other ex-players who would get involved in skills coaching over the summer months.”