IT would be stretching it to say that there has been a backlash, more like some pretty fierce grumbling from certain quarters about the recruitment policy adopted by BT Premiership new boys Watsonians over the summer. Not that head coach Marcus di Rollo is overly concerned about those who don’t agree with the strategy his club have adopted in order to ensure that their return to the top flight is more than just a fleeting visit.
Di Rollo claims that a Home Office crackdown which prohibits players from outside the EU/EEA (European Economic Area) who are in the country on student or youth mobility visas from competing in the league left the club with little choice but to look closer to home for the reinforcements required in order to be truly competitive this year.
If that creates a bit of friction with the clubs who have lost out then so be it. Watsonians have in recent years been a peripheral entity in the Scottish club game, and have been on the receiving end when more prestigious rivals have come calling with chequebook in hand, so spare them the sob stories about the loss of traditional rugby club values.
“We knew that unless we put together a big, powerful pack we were going to struggle. It doesn’t matter how good our backs are, without any possession you are going to lose more games than you win. So we had a look around at what we needed and just tried to strengthen on that,” he matter-of-factly states.
“We had a few overseas players lined up to come and then this new rule came in so we had to call that off. That has probably left a huge hole to fill for every team because, essentially, the market in Scotland has become really small,” adds the former Edinburgh, Scotland and briefly Toulouse centre.
The capture of four Gala players (lock Craig Borthwick, back-row Euan Dods, stand-off Ewan Scott and winger Keith Young) has, in particular, drawn the ire of those who are desperately trying to hold onto the long lost illusion that club loyalty remains the most valuable currency in the Premiership. Prop Ewan McQuillin was also brought in from Melrose (although he jumped ship to London Scottish earlier this week after only one competitive outing), hooker Sean Crombie made the quick trip across the Union Canal and Colinton Road from Meggetland, while back-row Kenny Beattie arrived from Glasgow Hawks.
Di Rollo points out that thirteen members of the 20 man squad which defeated Heriot’s on Saturday were at the club last year, and a few others would almost certainly have also been involved if they themselves had not moved on to pastures new.
“We’ve got a core of guys who have been with us for four or five years and now they’ve got more experience we expect them to be key men for this season. This is Rory Drummond’s third season with us since joining from Howe of Fife and he’s been great, Rory Steele, Scott McKean, all these guys played when we were really struggling and they are key men now because they have been through the tough times and they want to enjoy some success at last. So, I think the secret is to keep a core of guys there and build around it – and that’s what you see happening at clubs like Melrose and Heriot’s, who have been successful in recent years,” he reasons.
He argues that the club’s short term recruitment strategy should be viewed within the context of their long term goals.
“When I first got back involved [in 2009, a year after his professional career had come to a premature end due to an unusual heart condition that later required surgery] we were losing a lot of players, we didn’t have a great 2nd XV, there was no mini section, we didn’t have a lot of people involved at the club willing to put in the work behind the scenes – it was in a bit of a mess, to be brutally honest,” he recalls.
“It’s taken a core of people who have worked really hard in the background, and now we’ve got a massive minis section, a ladies team, four senior men’s teams, and our 2nd XV won as well on Saturday against Heriot’s 46-15, which is a great result because Heriot’s have been a dominant force in 2nd XV rugby. We had a guard of honour at the game and we had a well-attended pre-match lunch, so there is a real buzz around the place at the moment. None of that was there four years ago. It’s taken a bit of time and a lot of hard work to get to where we are now.”
“It is an exciting time. We’ve got Edinburgh Rugby coming and we’ve got a ‘one-club’ motto – we had a family day a few weeks back which was great, with all the mini guys getting to meet the players in the 1st XV squad and the ladies section. We think that will make a huge difference to our longevity, because if you neglect what the club is supposed to be about then it can go pear shaped pretty fast.”
“And the guys we’ve brought in have been exceptional in terms of all that. They have almost led the way. There was a wee bit of a culture over the last few years where there has not been the involvement from the 1st XV on club days and helping out with mini training that we would have liked, but these guys have been really good and that has been noticed by the kids and parents involved in the mini section.”
“We had five of our 1st XV from Saturday along at Myreside on Sunday helping out with the minis – which really didn’t go unnoticed. That’s the culture you need to have. That’s how you grow interest and grow the crowds.”
To hear Di Rollo speak so passionately is slightly disorientating. He generally has a languid demeanour which could easily be mistaken for disinterest, and his assistant coach Simon Taylor, the former Scotland and Lions hero, is of a similar disposition. One former team-mate quips that this pair seemed like the least likely members of the Edinburgh side of the early noughties to end up taking on the demanding task of coaching club rugby. But we all know that we should not judge a book by its cover.
“I have always been an enthusiast. I used to watch loads and loads of rugby when I was a kid. I loved when Super 12 first came on the scene and I used to stay up at night to see it. I played football as well, but I always wanted to be a rugby player – so, when my playing career was ended for me rather than getting to finish on my own terms, coaching was the natural next step,” says Di Rollo.
“It’s the same with Simon. A lot people see his persona from a distance and think he isn’t that interested, but they couldn’t be more wrong – he just doesn’t shout and scream about it. You don’t have that level of success as a player without being highly motivated and passionate. He’s really clued up and he’s been excellent for us.”
“Your traditional rugby coach was an angry guy who got the best out of players by scaring them into doing what he wanted, but the game was a lot simpler then. Now it is more technical, and while there is a place for coaches to go bananas at the right time, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Instead of being this all-powerful figurehead who makes the decision and is never questioned – I would never have dreamed of questioning my coach or suggesting we do something differently when I first started out – but it is a lot more collaborative now. You can lose your rag when it is merited, but if you are shouting and screaming the whole time then the players will eventually just switch off because they’ve heard it all before.”
“In coaching terms, the only downside I see to it is: Where do you go next? It’s bloody hard to progress. You see John Dalziel has done it by going down to London Scottish, and hats off to him – but that’s a huge step to take,” he continues.
“There’s age-grade stuff up here and maybe the chance to get involved with Edinburgh on a consultancy basis – but I think you’d have to travel and that’s tough when you have two kids and one of them has started school. I’d never say never because it is definitely an ambition to coach at a higher level.”
For the time being, Di Rollo has plenty to keep occupied with in his day job as a director at Coulters estate agents, his family commitments, and helping negotiate Watsonians through their first season back in the top flight since 2010-11. It is certainly a case of so-far-so-good in the last of these challenges after last weekend’s victory over champions Heriot’s on the opening weekend of the season laid down a big marker.
“On paper we had a strong squad but when you are bringing guys together you never really know how quickly they are going to gel. So, I was confident about us being competitive, but it was still a big test because Heriot’s have built up a winning culture over several years and that will have carried on even if they have lost a few key players from last year,” he said.
“To be honest, I thought we looked a bit rusty, but we got the job done, which means we have something to build on.”
Next up is Hawick at Mansfield Park this Saturday. The Borderers struggled up-front when losing to Stirling County last weekend, but will be boosted by a couple of new faces in their pack for this one, including Edinburgh pro Kevin Bryce, who will be playing his first game at tight-head prop since making the switch from hooker over the summer.
Image courtesy of Scottish Rugby/SNS Group