Co-operation will be key to creating a successful post-Super Series pathway

Former Scotland and Lions star Alan Tait got involved with Southern Knights to support player development but quickly became frustrated by lack of joined-up thinking

Former Scotland and Lions star Alan Tait had a frustrating spell as head coach of the Southern Knights Super Series side. Image: ©Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Former Scotland and Lions star Alan Tait had a frustrating spell as head coach of the Southern Knights Super Series side. Image: ©Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

DEPENDING on who you speak to, the creation of ‘Super Series’ will appear anywhere on a spectrum from ‘great for young players and ambitious coaches’ to ‘a complete and utter waste of time that damaged the game’.

The reality with such polar opinions is that there were invariably positive and negative aspects of a competition created for the right reasons – to enable talented players and coaches to bridge the gap between amateur club rugby and the professional game. We did witness the emergence of some cracking young players in the game, some of whom would otherwise have continued bouncing around as gym bunnies with no weekend outlet of games – the bit, remember, that draws us and keeps us all involved in sport. Young coaches, too, were given the chance to work at a more intense level.

The reality also, however, is that anyone with more than a decade-long knowledge of Scottish rugby said from the outset that this model was not the way to do it.


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Interestingly, for a man whose trade was roofing, Alan Tait is a down to earth character. He tells it as it is, so while most coaches leading Super Series sides are still involved, or at least retain a desire to be part of Scottish rugby and are waiting to know what comes next, he ended his contract after the recent Championship campaign and so can speak freely.

“It just didn’t work in the game we have in Scotland,” he said. “Look, I wouldn’t have got involved if I didn’t think it would help or that I could help young guys coming through, because that’s all I wanted. And I agreed that we needed a middle ground, because with only two pro teams in Scotland it’s not enough to produce the players to compete at pro level. The gap between club rugby and pro rugby now is massive.

“I came back to union after nearly ten years in rugby league, so I knew how much it takes to create strong professional teams. We obviously tried it with four pro teams in Scotland at the start [1996-97], which lasted less than a year, and then went back to three with the Borders pro side [2001-07], but that didn’t work, so for more than 10 years we’d been relying on two pro teams to give our quality young players the chance to step up, to learn how to be competitive, and compete and then win for Scotland.

“You have to say that Gregor Townsend has done brilliantly in his time with Glasgow and Scotland, to develop players and squads that could compete with the best. But, below that level, we’ve been in trouble for a long time. We’ve still got some great young lads coming through, some better now than ever, but they’re just not getting the chance to play now.”

Tait was brought in over a year ago to help the struggling Southern Knights, his experience of playing and/or coaching with Newcastle, Scotland and the British and Irish Lions, clearly helpful. He helped mentor young coaches Scott Wight and Lewis Carmichael at the Knights, but his attempts to develop young Borders players ran aground.

“I loved working with Scott and Lewis, and we had some great players, but it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to,” he said. “We had a good squad of boys, some who came from Ireland or England to play, and these boys put everything into the Knights, so you can’t knock them, but we had to look far and wide for them because many Borders boys who were possibly better wouldn’t play for us. Why? Because the rules and regulations were ridiculous.

“If they played for us they couldn’t go back to their club, and then we had the draft system come in, which meant some could go back to club rugby, but not their club, so they’d be hived off to another club. So they could end up with several different clubs over one year, and that’s not how young lads come together, learn, develop and push on. Instead, clubs are working hard to develop good team ethos, camaraderie, as you’d expect, and the boys would rather play there because it’s a full season, games every week, they get breaks, and crucially they can work full-time while training and playing with their mates.

“That became more important to them than the semi-professional stepping stone because it wasn’t a stepping stone. They couldn’t see any boys getting into pro teams, and Scotland squads seemed to them a million miles off. They were seeing their mates having great times at their club, and after a season or so of Super Series wondered what the point was. One really talented youngster recently quit rugby altogether, at 21 or 22, because he was sick of training all the time and not playing any games.

“The whole point of the Super Series was to bring on young players, but there was no age limit set [and] no restrictions on who you could sign or from where, so while we initially went with young boys at the Knights, other teams didn’t because winning was the priority.

“To compete, I had to go round clubs asking for a veteran tight-head, and the clubs are saying: ‘What are you playing at? We thought this was about developing young talent?’ That was when it got too much for me. I was falling out with clubs and friends. The series wasn’t doing what it was intended to do, and it had to go.”

 

 

It is no coincidence that SRU CEO Mark Dodson is departing this year and the ‘Series’ is coming to an end, Dodson having pushed its creation and refused to countenance criticism, constructive or otherwise. He sought to show conviction by replacing years of talk with action, but just six teams, with less funding combined than he put into the Old Glory MLS franchise, was never going to work.

Scottish Rugby issued a press release as they announced the news that Super Series was being discontinued unveiling a ‘New Male Performance Pathway’. It was an effort to suggest the scrapping the Super Series was part of a plan. The statement suggested the ‘Super Series’ would continue to November, the end of the current franchise agreement, but the coaches have no idea how they will persuade players to sign on again after the forthcoming ‘Sprint’, and most expect it to end this summer.

Players are already look at whether they stay in club rugby in Scotland, or try their luck earning some money elsewhere, with clubs’ recruitment already underway for 2024-25 season. SRU discussions with clubs started last week, with club reps expecting long nights of trying to work out the shape of next season’s club championships factoring in an unknown number of semi-pros being back involved. Bear in mind that the Super Series’ club teams are scattered across four divisions – Super Series winners Stirling are in the third tier and Boroughmuir the fourth.

However, let us not kid ourselves that there is a masterplan to take Scottish rugby forward. This is merely the start of another course, and one requiring swift movement as rival nations motor on. News that the Scotland ‘A’ team will return, along with Edinburgh and Glasgow ‘A’ teams are, on the face of it, positive, because they could provide that most valuable of missing commodities for far too many Scottish players – competitive game-time. But those of us who have witnessed all incarnations of this going back to the advent of professionalism in 1995-96 know that this is far from straightforward.

The first step is creating actual reserve teams. As well intentioned as they may be, it is unlikely that Sean Everitt and Franco Smith will make enough players available for a meaningful series of even 10-12 ‘A’ team games during next season. They have squads of around 50-60 players, but in the modern car crash of a pro game, 15-20 are typically injured or in rehab at any one time, and in the past pro coaches insisted they couldn’t risk those ranked 24-34 in case they were required for the next week’s pro match.

The other major issue is: who they will play? English clubs once loved the idea of their reserve sides playing against Scottish sides – I spoke to directors of rugby that liked the idea  and there was talk of games with Irish and Welsh sides too. But they came to little, despite the best efforts of Jim Mallinder, the recent SRU Head of Performance Rugby and former Northampton Saints chief, who was based in England but couldn’t get English clubs to engage.

The most promising aspect of this overview of the ‘plan’, is the creation is an under-23 squad environment. There are hurdles there too, but the major failing of Scottish rugby in the pro era is developing players from 17-21 with regular games, so an under-23 set-up could help.

The key, however, is that Scottish Rugby has acted to bring to an end a ‘Super Series’ that simply didn’t fit the Scottish game, despite some great work by good people. The opportunity is there again for the governing body and all who are involved and care about the sport to get their heads together.

 

 

The SRU have made use of on London-based Oakley Sports Advisory, a company that operates across a range of UK and international platforms, with south-based directors and partners who appear to have great experience of high-level strategic management, broadcasting, financial restructuring and heavy economics backgrounds. No obvious knowledge of Scottish sport or grassroots rugby, but I’m sure they are astute people with real passion for what they do, and their input from a range of backgrounds will be helpful to the SRU, if, and it’s a big if, they spend time with the people with real knowledge of Scottish rugby, particularly grassroots and club levels, so that they can understand what players in a unique Scottish system require to grow, develop and become quality pro players.

That doesn’t mean time on Teams or Zoom, but time at Scottish clubs, schools and academies. That means understanding how schools and youth rugby have changed dramatically in the past 20-30 years; how clubs have been left to fend for themselves with little warmth from Murrayfield, and the impact that has had on volunteers; how young players in Scotland think and what they need in 21st century sport; and how pro team managements can connect with grassroots volunteers in a mutually respectful and beneficial way.

Scottish rugby does not have enough resource for pro and amateur tiers to thrive without each other. Many people have come and gone from Murrayfield, from all corners of the world, with genuine passion to help improve the situatio, but without that intrinsic knowledge, in all its crazy, wonderful, byzantine depth, they have struggled.

Finding the solution to creating an effective pathway from the club game – the most important part of Scottish rugby because it’s where all player paths begin – to pro and international levels in a country with as few players as Scotland is difficult. But Scottish rugby flourished for 100 years because those involved made it happen, and changed and adapted to different challenges.

“A lot of knowledge still exists here. And the secret now is essentially the same – it requires all parts of the game to come round the table and to be genuinely supported, encouraged and enabled to act ‘As One’. Without that, you can come up with hundreds of pathway plans, spend fortunes on advisers and agencies, but none will succeed and more young Scottish talent will be wasted.

The pro teams and Scotland may do well with 50 percent-plus players from other countries’ development systems, and we will support as always, but Scottish rugby will be built on sand, more clubs will fold and more current and future players will walk away.

“Finding a solution is not easy,” acknowledged Tait. “But, for me, we need guys in there who have experience Scottish rugby and the pro game. Guys like, for example, Bryan Redpath, Carl Hogg and Graham Shiel, who’ve been in the pro game since the start, who know how it works, and how you develop pro players, but also know how Scottish rugby works, and have a passion for Scottish rugby. We need guys like that at the heart of this if we’re to open up the doors for young Scottish players and good young coaches again.”


Q&A: Scottish Rugby’s Male Performance Pathway Review update

About David Ferguson 22 Articles
David Ferguson has covered Scottish rugby for over 30 years. Starting out in the Borders with the Berwickshire News and Southern Reporter, where he was sports editor and also covered rugby for a wide variety of national newspapers, Radio Borders and BBC Scotland, David became editor of Scottish Rugby Magazine, working with then Managing Director Sean Lineen. David was then Chief Rugby Writer with The Scotsman for 14 years, during which time he covered club, professional and international rugby, including several Rugby World Cups and Lions tours. He started his own communications and media business in 2014, and has worked across a wide range of areas from Scottish and UK government to charities and corporate business, most recently as Chief Executive of the Observatory for Sport in Scotland, Scotland's only research think tank on sport.

11 Comments

  1. Seems wise heads on old pros are not listened to by Murrayfield. Great shame. Someone really needs to look at the IRish model and see what Leinster, Munster and co are doing; that certainly seems to be long term sucessful.

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  2. The last people they should talk to are those running the clubs. This has to be about the players – without them, no clubs.

    The ‘ay bins’ got us to where we are – they aren’t going to save the game as their thinking is too parochial and blinkered by what worked in their day.

    Player led has to be the way.

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  3. A sad article really, that such a brilliant player (and coach and motivator) Alan Tait felt to continue at the Knights would mean him falling out with friends and clubs. And if the legacy of Super series is talented 21/22 year olds walking away from the game that is even sadder. Whatever comes next it needs to come from grass roots up, reflecting the communities and identities still there. Fierce rivals at Border clubs still want to come together to play for the South district, but they didnt want to play for the Southern Knights because they had to cut off from their clubs. Come on! There must be a fix for this. There are still excellent young players emerging in the Borders – Conor Sutherland, Harris Rutherford, Fraser Wilson, Murray Woodcock, Mark Glen, Monroe Job, Ben Weir – we need a structure that enables them to enjoy their rugby and progress to the highest levels. Scotland needs Borderers.

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  4. Who ever looks at it should start at mini rugby and under 16 rugby. Sort that shambles out and the sticks will start to fall into line. This unfortunately is a 20 year program and not a quick fix.

    It’s not a great idea for example having mini rugby on a Sunday morning at the same time as Football in the East of Scotland. We need as many kids playing both not deciding between sports at 6 years old.

    State of Youth Rugby rant over again 😞

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    • and therein lies one of the problems, kids football in the west of Scotland tends to be played on a Saturday. But definitely agree, we need loads more kids playing sport.

      • one size will not fit all. Murrayfield should set the big picture goal and help Clubs build what works within their local communities to work towards that.

  5. Excellent piece David.

    Agree wholeheartedly with your comments @ we need all parts of the game to work together. That also means admitting last failings of exclusion and some parts of the game don’t matter.

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  6. Taity is spot on when saying the rules around players were ridiculous. No other country spends so much time and energy looking at ways to stop players playing.
    Have a close look at the names on the focus group tasked with sorting this out.
    Almost totally individuals who are on record as saying s6 was wrong and helped create those restrictions therefore did there best to prevent it working.
    Will this be revenge time or will they just pretend their previous gestations didn’t happen
    I worry about the future.this doesn’t look like a 10yr plan.
    It’s a total shambles.

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    • You agree with Tait saying that S6 was not the right fit for Scottish Rugby then accuse the working party of having been responsible?? We didn’t have 6 x 35 players in Scotland thats why it failed.

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    • The rules were out into place by the proponents of S6….your conspiracy theories are utter nonsense. Who was advertising and recruiting for players in SA NZ and OZ for S6 then??? There was no interest in letting young Scots participate which was why it failed. Certainly wasn’t the ‘enemies’ of S6!! These were the crazy rules that came with S6 initially and there was utter hubris when everyone else said it was crazy. Typical of the S6 cultists to use revisionism to blame everyone else!!

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