25 talking points from the 2022-23 season …

From schools/youth through to senior international level, there was a lot to of lessons learned during the last 10 months

Huw Jones celebrates his try during Scotland's Calcutta Cup win over England at Twickenham in February. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Huw Jones celebrates his try during Scotland's Calcutta Cup win over England at Twickenham in February. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

WE asked some of our regular contributors for their musings on the season just played and whether any lessons could be learned from 10 months of near non-stop rugby. Here’s what they came up with –

1.

Brevity seems to be the hall mark of the schools rugby season these days. Blink and you miss the few matches that make up both the Conference block and the now compressed Cup format.  The thinking from Murrayfield is that by clearing the decks before the end of the year, this will make way for representative rugby post New Year. That’s all very well, in a way, but with schools rugby virtually shutting down during October due to asynchronised half term holidays, the remaining calendar space makes for a short competitive season. (Alan Lorimer)

2.

But let’s be clear. When we talk about schools rugby what we really mean is the game in the private sector. Bar a few notable exceptions such as Peebles High School and Marr College, serious extra-curricular rugby in state schools is all but gone. That is why youth sections of clubs are such a crucial part of tapping into the state sector, which, in Scotland, accounts for 95 percent of school-age youngsters. The importance of the youth rugby sector, therefore, cannot be understated: in short it should, to a very large extent, provide the future of Scottish rugby, but is this reflected in central funding? (Alan Lorimer)

3.

Top clubs in youth rugby are, if not exactly closing the gap on private schools, then certainly narrowing it. Boroughmuir can lay claim to achieving this goal, evidenced by their performances over the past two years in the visionary Merchiston Rugby Festival. And judging by the vaulting ambition shown by other clubs, the Meggetland success will surely be emulated elsewhere.  But would the narrowing process be accelerated if the best schools and the best clubs played in integrated Conferences?  They do in lower leagues! (Alan Lorimer)


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4.

FOSROC Academies continue to play an important role in youth rugby by honing selected talent. Moreover, the FOSROC inter-district series puts this talent to the test and helps hugely in the selection of squads for international rugby.  Apropos which Scotland under-18s yet again punched above their weight as they showed in the Six Nations Festival. This was probably down to good coaching rather than the underlying youth system. We we need an under-18A team as well, to avoid prematurely discarding the late developers, and the same argument that could be used to promote an under-19 programme. (Alan Lorimer)

5.

Super6/Series is improving. Initially, there appeared to be mixed interpretations of how the funding should be spent. Now that seems to have changed and all the teams look to be set up to help develop young Scots, rather than use 30-something imports to boost the chance of winning the trophy. The result is a more competitive tournament and a better showcase for emerging talent. (Colin Renton)

6.

The downside of Super6/Series is that it has dealt a hefty blow to at least half the club teams of those who were awarded places. Watsonians continue to struggle at the lower end of National One, Stirling County have now been relegated to National Two, and Boroughmuir’s downward trajectory has left a once competitive side toiling in the National Two basement. Many now struggle to field more than one team. Resources, it seems, are now directed to the semi-professional tier of the six clubs, leaving their amateur sides scrapping for survival. (Colin Renton)

7.

Perhaps because of where it sits between the amateur and professional games, Super6/Series rugby has become a controversial subject in the minds of the Scottish rugby public. There is a recognition that having such an interface is needed but, arguably,  the circumstances in which it was set up, its artificial construct and its ambivalent association with clubs has not endeared it to rugby’s viewing public. Which makes one wonder if an eight-team Premiership became the vehicle for the Super Series, would it be embraced more warmly by grassroots supporters? (Alan Lorimer)

8.

According to official figures from Murrayfield, Super6/Series has produced 22 players who have stepped up to the pro game. Do the ‘math’ and you’ll find it’s a staggeringly high cost/player rationto achieve this end. Might it not be better to share what are limited funds between Super Series and Youth rugby; for without a strong stream of young players emerging from a ‘system’, Super Series rugby – which has a declared aim of being a stepping stone for youthful aspirants – becomes rather pointless? (Alan Lorimer)

9.

The Premiership is still a very viewable product but it would be even better if not diluted by the loss of players to Super6. Clubs not aligned to Super6 certainly enjoy much greater success and away from the big cities are able to maintain community identity and support. The increasingly physical Premiership is a tough ‘ask’ of players and that, in turn, begs the question of how many games should be played in a season. Would an eight-team Premiership be the optimum size? And should we scrap play-offs? (Alan Lorimer)

 

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10.

A number of 12 team men’s leagues being replaced by 10 team leagues should help a bit next season, but having league games starting in late August and going right through until mid-May is unsustainable in this day and age for amateur players. The Scottish weather plays its part, of course, and weekends will be lost, but the league season needs to be a lot tighter and that will allow for knock-out competitions to be given the importance they deserve in the calendar as well as a clear window for the Inter-District Championship and perhaps the return of the Club XV. (Gary Heatly)

11.

The reduction in size of National Leagues will declutter their season and provide those players and clubs who are interested to really embrace 7s rugby. It is an Olympic and Commonwealth Games sport which is one good reason why it should not be ignored. The showcase competition in Scotland is the Kings of the Sevens, a series that has survived the onward march into April and May of the 15s game and which struggled this season to retain its sparkle.  The ‘Kings’, perhaps, needs to undergo a slim-down exercise, trimming it from ten rounds to, perhaps, six tournaments, thereby ridding it from the over-demanding challenge of two tournaments in one weekend. Quality should trump quantity. (Alan Lorimer)

12.

The Kings of the Sevens series is not always fondly looked upon by rugby clubs and supporters outside the Borders, who often regard it as a complication in the rugby calendar which only really benefits one corner of the nation. Is there scope to set-up mirror series’ in other districts/regions so that the benefit of having a tournament – doubling up as an end of season open-day – can be felt across the country? There is scope to make a sevens tournament at your club a real event, played in good weather, attracting family and friends as well as committed rugby supporters, which could help grow interest in the sport and boost the host club’s bank balance. (David Barnes)

13.

The notion that a rugby club has a community value was underlined the season by various events, such as Kelso offering its clubhouse as a safe warm place, various clubs including Hamilton providing services such as food parcels, and collaborations with other organisations and charities by clubs including Dunbar and Haddington. (Colin Renton)

14.

Selling out BT Murrayfield for internationals is not per se a sign of success. There needs to be an effort to ‘cross-sell’ the sport. It would take little effort for Scottish Rugby to identify where a ticket buyer lives and, with GDPR agreement, a local club could contact these people and invite them to a Tennent’s Premiership match, a pre-match lunch or, for buyers of kids’ tickets, to become involved at junior level. (Colin Renton)

15.

There are clearly defined demarcations between the various tiers of rugby. International level should be able to look after itself but appears to get most of the attention from BT Murrayfield. The pro teams have a hardcore of regular supporters but complacency means it is precarious and could disintegrate if results are poor, prices rise or matches are scheduled at unsociable times. Clubs are largely left to their own devices, and this was illustrated by the lack of big-wig presence and support on Silver Saturday. And struggling at the bottom of the food chain are regional clubs which may be thriving in some areas but are struggling to survive in others – the disqualification of Royal High, Hillfoots, and points deductions for many other teams, is a sign that all is not well across clubland. They need help that does not appear to be forthcoming. (Colin Renton)

 

16.

Events south of the border over recent months are evidence of how precarious a rugby career can be. Developments at Worcester, Wasps and, likely, London Irish should be a warning for clubs everywhere. It is also a possible explanation for the number of players who are turning their back on Super6 to focus on life outside the sport. Support for life after rugby is an essential part of a work-life balance. Scottish Rugby needs to extend its education service beyond the professional sides, otherwise only players from more prosperous backgrounds will be able to play semi-professional rugby for a very low salary and take on the risk that entails. (Colin Renton)

17.

Scotland Women finally brought a 12-match losing run to an end when they beat Italy 29-21, and they followed that up a week later with a 36-10 win over Ireland. The obvious question now is whether that improvement can be sustained. The signs are encouraging. The team scored 11 tries across those two victories, eight of which came from the pack – testament to the effective work put in by forwards coach Martin Haag since he came on board – so they have clearly rediscovered their cutting edge up front. And behind the scrum, Meryl Smith and Francesca McGhie have quickly become integral members of the squad. (Stuart Bathgate)

18.

The progress made in the women’s game in the last six months or so post-Rugby World Cup has been, in general, positive. The Thistles helped bridge the gap between the domestic club game and the national team squad while 28 contracted players is a step forward. However, only four of those 28 play their rugby in Scotland as it stands and you’d imagine, given their Six Nations showings, that Meryl Smith and Emma Orr in particular will be attracting attention from the Premier XVs clubs in England. While it is good to see some of our best talent down there, the domestic game cannot be forgotten about and the standard of our own Premiership must continue to improve as the women’s game grows apace. (Gary Heatly)

19.

Stirling County women’s coaching team led by Mark Ainsworth must be congratulated for what they did this season. Quite a batch of players made the step up from the under-18s to the senior squad this term and it could have been a big jump, but they were given matchday squad spots early on and they rose to the challenge. The club won the Premiership title playing an exciting brand of rugby and their youth policy was shown in the final versus Corstorphine Cougars when teenager Lucy MacRae was named player-of-the-match. A number of the youngsters then went on to play for the Thistles and Scotland Futures, too. (Gary Heatly)

20.

After a deeply disappointing season which saw Mike Blair decide he had had enough of being a head coach, it remains to be seen who will succeed him at Edinburgh, and what direction the new man will take the team in. Blair was in many ways a necessary antithesis to his predecessor Richard Cockerill, enabling the players to express themselves instead of dictating to them. But interim boss Steve Diamond hinted that the liberal mood had swung too far when he said “The boys need to be harder on each other – I think we’re a little bit too nice.”  (Stuart Bathgate)

 

21.

Glasgow head coach Franco Smith surpassed expectations – his own included – in his first season in charge, taking the Warriors to the Challenge Cup final and fourth place in the URC. With a full close season in which to prepare this summer, the South African will aim for more consistent early-season form this time round. He will be under some pressure to build on this year’s achievements, but will find it tough in a league of increasing competitive depth. (Stuart Bathgate)

22.

Both Mark Dodson and Gregor Townsend made a pretty good fist of projecting the idea that the latter’s contract renewal as Scotland head coach was not a foregone conclusion, but it surely came as no real surprise when an extension running to April 2026 was announced in early May. Chatting to the likes of Warren Gatland and Leon MacDonald is one thing but getting a deal over the line at a time when Murrayfield is not exactly awash with cash is a whole different ball game. For Townsend’s part, he has unfinished business with Scotland after the disappointment of exiting the 2019 World Cup at the end of the pool stage, and his market value will go through the roof if he can somehow mastermind his side’s progression to the knock-out phases in France this Autumn given that doing so will require a win over either world champions South Africa or world No 1s Ireland. (David Barnes)

23.

The national team’s season has had some spectacular flashes, such as that excellent win in over England at Twickenham in round one of the Six Nations, but consistency continues to be a concern. The party line after defeats, or near slip-ups such as the Italy game at Murrayfield in mid-March, is that the team were as surprised as the rest of us to have not performed at peak level when the live ammo started flying. This begs the question: why can’t Scotland play to their potential more often under pressure in order to become serious contenders for more than one-off victories? Follow-up questions: Is complacency still an issue? Or are we not as good as we tell ourselves we are? (David Barnes)

24.

The new, long-awaited governance structure finally arrived in early November, with a ‘Custodian Board’ now overseeing the work of the Scottish Rugby Union Limited (SRUL) Board (which is in charge of of the day-to-day running of the organisation). Two figures with impressive credentials in the shape of former 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games CEO David Grevemberg CBE and Cheryl Black, an experienced Customer Service Director and Non-Executive Director from the telecoms and digital sector, were appointed as external directors of the Scottish Rugby Union Board in December, while the abrupt departure of John Jeffrey as Chairman of Scottish Rugby Limited in April to be replaced by another big-hitter in John McGuigan reinforces the impression that this really is a new era. But a number of important issues remain outstanding: not least the need to appropriately address the concerns raised by the family of Siobhan Cattigan last summer. (David Barnes)

25.

Meanwhile, the ‘Club Rugby Board’ has been created as part of this new governance structure, chaired by the SRU’s elected Vice-President, currently Keith Wallace. This body is “directly involved with the Custodian Board and the executive team of SRUL in the formulation and implementation of the strategic vision, mission, and development of the domestic game in Scotland, including the allocation of resources to member clubs and other domestic rugby bodies”. With a standing start in the middle of the financial year, the CRB has no time to waste given the huge challenges the domestic games faces. We are assured that a lot of positive things are happening, but communication is going to be key, and a few tangible wins which will make a material difference at ground floor level are required soon. (David Barnes)


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About David Barnes 3995 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

10 Comments

  1. Amused by the thought of Townsend’s market value “going through the roof”.
    Nota share I would reccommend investing in!

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  2. Too many within the SRU have a vested interest in the continuation of franchise rugby to see the Super 6 disappearing any time soon. There are questions on what to failing franchises; are they to continue limping along and undermining the credibility of the competition. Can the SRU take back or reallocate franchises? What avenues are available to ambitious clubs who wish to take on a franchise?
    The other question is what are the members of clubs, who are in decline having taken on a franchise, doing to hold to account those on the committee responsible, where the non-franchise portion of the club is subsidising the franchise part. How much of the income from the Melrose 7s propping up the Southern Knights?

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    • Interesting they aren’t franchises. Franchising comes with a whole lot of regulation and that was dropped pretty early on. They are actually licencees.

      Given they are all limited companies and not clubs (unincorporated associations) purely from a liability perspective, it’s a moot point.

      It is a key point – what are these “licencees” getting out of this? County and Boroughmuir got relegation. Watson’s escaped the drop by a missed penalty in the second last game. Southern Knights bottom again. I would expect the questions at the AGMs of those license clubs to be Gascony

    • The Super Six was all wrong for a start. Individual Clubs should have been given the choice whether they want to become semi pro or not, as long as they can prove they are solvent and the financial muscle to support it. The Super six franchises are artificial.

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  3. As someone who thinks SRU player development gets a lot more right than it gets wrong, and as someone who enjoys Super series rugby, I still am not convinced it has had a major part in developing players for pro rugby.
    Those who have turned pro since its introduction, are mostly those who were in full time national academy and some of them played very little Super 6 rugby before going pro. (e.g Marshall Sykes (6 starts+ 2 subs at Super 6) Gregor Brown (4+1) Matt Currie (1) Alex Samuel (3))
    And among those turning pro this Summer it is really only Cam Scott that has had major Super 6 game time (14+6) Harry Paterson (8+2) Nathan Sweeney (1+3) Michael Jones (3+5) Patrick Harrison (2+2) have not actually played a lot of Super series rugby.
    It is arguable that really only Tom Jordan (15) Logan Trotter (23) and Jamie Hodgson (10) have won pro contracts on the basis of their Super series performances primarily.

    It is if/when the likes of Gregor Hiddleston, Jamie Sheddan, Lomond McPherson or Allan Ferrie get pro contracts (players who were never in senior Academy) that Super 6 will have proved its value as an alternative development tool.

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    • It is still relatively early days for the Super-Series, i am excited to see the progression throughout the next 5-10 years, the only thing holding it back are the Southern Knights.

      While the SRU could perhaps do more (particularly in scheduling), amateur clubs must also hold themselves accountable and rise up. Boroughmuir is an excellent example of what happens when you pull the finger out. If every club acted a similar manner, think how strong Scottish Rugby would be.

      I like that we just brush over wins away to England now, shows the progress we have made in this WC cycle (despite frustration’s elsewhere) have we ever had so much depth in talent in the pro era?

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    • Thanks for the informative comments Moody. This is the key question – What difference is Super 6 rugby actually making and is the 7 figure investment per annum delivering good value versus alternative options? Arguments over whether or not it has helped to improve the standard of rugby immediately below the professional game are immaterial unless this has had a knock on effect on the pro game above it. The fact of the matter is that it hasn’t and it won’t because the number of professional contracts available are limited and the best players will get their opportunities regardless. We had later developers like Fraser Lyle, Scott White, Fraser Thomson, Jamie Bhatti, Grant Stewart among others who all made the step up after doing their time in club rugby. Apparently the competition that they graduated from was deemed not fit for purpose though. We absolutely need to revert to a club rather than franchise based model as soon as possible and build from the bottom up not the top down. For all of the great work that may be being done at youth level at Meggetland, their senior section is a shadow of its former self and the Bears are nothing but an expensive liability playing a set of largely meaningless development games. The same goes for the Knights and Melrose who I have a particular interest in – what on earth are clubs wasting their members money on this for? I appreciate others may have different experiences with it but I’d be surprised if any aren’t asking themselves constantly whether or not the spend is worth it. I’m not sure if angry gala is a murrayfield plant but he seems to be pretty adept at trotting out the jam tomorrow argument as is murrayfield’s general tactic on such matters, see also old glory DC.

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      • Agreed, SA – anything that undermines or erodes the very base of the (sporting) pyramid must be viewed as an existential threat, and dealt with accordingly.

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      • If you think the Boroughmuir youth set up hoovering up all the best players in the region causing other teams to fold is success then I disagree. They do a good job with them when they go there rightly but at the demise of other teams in the area that fold once the best kids leave.

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    • It’s a good point to raise about the use of the funds. I’m sure they (SRU) are spending more now but they must have been investing something beforehand in the old Prem?
      Does anyone know who the 20 something pros who came through S6 are? I’d agree that the vast majority would have likely made it anyway as they were in the academy and would have the chance to prove their worth to the coaches direct. But the S6 isn’t entirely about finding a new seam of missed talent (although I think it could definitely do this as well). It was also about getting the top tier to a better overall standard so that any academy/fringe players or late developers who excel at that level are closer to being ready to step up to pro level. My personal opinion is it has lifted the standard upwards. But it will always be a bit of a leap from any S6 game to Leinster away so the players would need to train full time with Glasgow or Edinburgh anyway before making the jump.

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