MICHAEL LINESS might not be good enough to be a professional rugby player, but he would like the chance to find out for sure. Unfortunately, there is currently no established pathway in Scottish rugby for ambitious native Scots like himself (who have missed out on the SRU academy set-up for whatever reason) to test themselves at the next level.
The 26-year-old hooker was a key figure in the Heriot’s league and cup double winning squad in 2016, and has been part of the Scotland Club XV squad for the last two seasons.
For a significant chunk of this season Liness battled it out for the number two jersey at Goldenacre with full-time Edinburgh pro George Turner. To accommodate both players in the side, Heriots head coach Phil Smith tended to deploy the Edinburgh man in the back-row. Given that Turner was a surprise call-up to the full Scotland squad for this summer’s tour to Singapore, Australia and Fiji, Liness is surely entitled to wonder just how far off the pace he really is.
“I know people inside the professional environment will say that I don’t really know what is required, and that my rugby knowledge isn’t up to it, but I just know that if I had a shot then I would do everything in my power to make the most of it,” says the former Scotland Under-20 cap.
“People keep telling me that I have loads of time but I’m 26 now and when you look at the good young hookers out there … I know that the dream is slipping away with every passing season.”
“So, when do you say enough is enough? I’ve had to set a time limit for myself because you have to start looking at other things like settling down and family, but I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet. I still have massive aspirations to go further. I still train, do my gym sessions, and do as much as I can in recovery to really look after myself so that if the opportunity does come then I am ready.”
Liness was given a flash of hope last month when he was invited down to London Scottish as emergency cover for three matches at the tail end of English Championship season. After receiving the initial phone-call on a Thursday evening, he made it to London at 10pm the following night after working a full Friday as a personal trainer at Village Gym Edinburgh. John Dalziel had sent him the line-out calls so he brushed up on that before meeting the rest of the team at 1pm on Saturday afternoon, and two hours later he was sitting on the bench against Richmond.
“I didn’t think I was going to get on, but then our hooker David Cherry got a yellow card with about 10 minutes to go, and it was another five minutes until there was a scrum and I was needed, so I got five minutes at the end. I was delighted. Then it was literally straight off the pitch, into the shower and back up the road to work on Sunday,” he recalls.
Liness was not required the following week, but then answered two more emergency calls for the final rounds of matches against Ealing Trailfinders and Nottingham.
“Over the three games I think I played 80 minutes in total, which I was quite happy with. You are off the bench at a club you don’t know, and nobody knows you, it’s the end of the season so they have been playing together all year, so I was the outsider – but I gave it my best shot,” he says.
“London Scottish couldn’t get relegated or promoted, and a lot of the guys knew that they were moving on, so it was a nothing sort of situation for them – but for me it was brilliant being in that professional environment just for a short time.”
“It was frustrating as well because I was just rushing in and rushing back out. They didn’t really get a chance to see what I was like at training, how committed I was to doing extras at the end of sessions, and whether my personality would be suited to operating in that professional environment.”
“And although I knew it was always an outside chance, when they phoned to tell me that I wouldn’t be needed next season because they had signed another two hookers it was still heart-breaking. It was like handing a kid a Christmas present then grabbing it back off them and saying it is for someone else. The set-backs get harder and harder to get over.”
Growing up in Carnoustie, Liness was not exactly in the shop window during his formative years. By the time he moved to Edinburgh, as a 17-year-old flanker with the sole aim of progressing his rugby career, he was already playing catch-up by. The question is, can a rugby nation with as finite playing resources as Scotland afford to close the door on so many players who were not quite in the right place at the right time when the initial assessments were being made?
“I would say I’m a late developer in terms of my approach to rugby. When I was younger I was aiming to just get through training and games the best I could, but now I look at it very differently. I need to push myself – it is the way my brain works now,” he says.
One positive that Liness can take away from his London Scottish experience is that he is more convinced than ever before that he has got what it takes to succeed in the professional game.
“Physically the championship is a massive jump, but the big difference is the time the players have for recovery, analysis and things like that, which means everything is that bit sharper and guys know their roles better,” he explains.
“I have things that I need to work on in my game during the season, but before that I have to get a full week of work in, then get home and sort out my dinner, and little things like that get in the way. If you start work at 6am in the morning and are not finishing training until 8.30pm then you are knackered by the time you get home.”
Liness welcomes the opportunity to measure themselves alongside and against full-time professionals from Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors on a weekly basis as a result of the draft system, but this is an imperfect solution to the long-standing problem of how to bridge the gap between the top of the club game and the professional tier.
Players from Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors dropping into the club game at short notice can (and often do) raise the standard of individual matches, but the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of the relationship means that the overall value of the league is not necessarily enhanced.
Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson addressed the issue of where the cub game fits into the performance pathway when addressing stakeholders at last November’s Special General Meeting which secured permission to hunt for outside investment into the pro game.
“If money is generated over and beyond the amounts we need for our pro teams, it is our vision to make club rugby in Scotland as strong as it possibly can be,” he said. “And one of the things that we are talking about at council and board level is the strength of the BT Premiership here in Scotland. I think we have to find out just exactly what that can look like at the top of our amateur game? What does it look like as a semi-pro game? Because I, like you, believe that we need a stronger second tier to our professional teams – how you achieve that is something that the council and board are going to take away and work on in the next twelve months.”
“I am concerned that there is an increasing gap between our professional teams and the next layer down, and if we’re absolutely honest there is an increasing gap between the Premiership and National One – and we need to be very clear about what we can do about that,” he added.
With that in mind, John Ryle of consultancy firm Collinson Grant, has been canvassing opinion of Premiership clubs and key figures in Murrayfield’s performance and domestic divisions in recent months, in an effort to pull together a vision for how the top end of the club game can become more relevant to the professional tier.
The issue was discussed by the SRU’s Board meeting last Thursday, and the Premiership Forum – the umbrella group for all ten top flight clubs – are expecting an update when they meet this coming Wednesday. However, it seems likely that it will be towards the end of the summer before any concrete proposal is put forward.
There is talk of a six team ‘super-league’ being set-up, along similar lines to the eight team competition championed by the same consultants when the SRU issued a paper with the catchy title of “The Way Forward: 2016 and Beyond: Policy Initiatives” back in December 2013.
Teams in this league will consist of some contracted semi-professional players, as well as drafted full-time professionals and academy players. The clubs involved would remain self-governing and autonomous but would enter into an extended participation agreement with the SRU in recognition of its investment in them.
Entry would presumably be by application, with clubs having to prove that they can put in place the sort of infrastructure required to really push up standards. There seems to be a six-four split amongst the clubs in the top flight against this idea, although that could easily change depending on the details of whatever is proposed (if indeed any such proposal materialises).
Opponents of the idea argue that finding enough meaningful fixtures will be problematic, although a return to the British and Irish Cup will bolster the number of games, and the SRU may also look to extend their link to Italian domestic rugby which saw Heriot’s play a double-header against an Italian select side back in November.
For the clubs who are not included in this breakaway six, the whole schism could prove to be a blessing in disguise. Free from the challenge of trying to match the financial outlay made by the clubs determined to push towards professionalisation, those left behind could finally start to cut their cloth to suit their own circumstances. An authentically amateur league might even be possible, rather than the shamateurism which exists at the moment.
Edinburgh’s four Premiership clubs – Boroughmuir, Currie, Heriot’s and Watsonians – have produced a couple of discussion papers promoting an alternative route forward, based around the establishment of professional/semi-professional back-up squads for both Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors, which will play in the British and Irish Cup and in other cross-border matches against similar outfits from elsewhere in Europe. The idea is that players will be drafted upwards from the Premiership as opposed to down the ways from the pro game, aiming to give players such as Liness a clear route towards the promised land.
These discussion papers also advocate a rebirth of the inter-district championship, with teams picked from the best club players, excluding the Under-20 International squad, to be played on stand-by weekends not currently being used by the Scotland Club XV.
One thing is clear: a status quo is unsustainable. Finding consensus, however, is not going to be easy. Meanwhile, a generation of talented and committed club players kick their heels and wonder what they need to do to get their crack at the big time. Heading to the English Championship is increasingly their only option.
“My biggest fear is that I wake up one day and think I should have given it a better shot,” concludes Liness. “Even if I played five minutes off the bench for Edinburgh in a meaningless end of season run-around, it would be a dream come true – to get that shot.”