THE Scotland Under-20 squad’s preparation for the World Championship in France, which kicks off at the end of the month, is being disrupted by the refusal of English Premiership clubs to release their academy players until five days before the tournament starts.
New head coach Bryan Redpath named his 28-man squad for the tournament this afternoon [Monday], and four members of that group are currently involved in English Premiership academy set-ups. Scrum-half Charlie Chapman (Gloucester) and number eight Devante Onojaife (Northampton Saints) were central figures throughout the age-grade side’s recent Six Nations campaign, while centre Fraser Strachan (also Northampton Saints) came off the bench in their famous victory over England and started the final two games of the championship against Ireland and Italy. Prop Sam Grahamslaw (Leicester Tigers) is a new face in the squad.
Flanker Guy Graham has been listed as a member of the Newcastle Falcons academy but hasn’t joined up with the club yet after playing for Hawick in the BT Premiership this season, so isn’t caught up in this dispute.
The decision not to release the players has been made by Premiership Rugby, the umbrella group which represents the clubs in England’s top flight.
“Our boys are not being released at present. There are no club games, but they are not getting released, so there’s definitely been a change somewhere. I don’t know why, maybe it’s just people flexing their muscles a bit, saying: ‘This is our patch, and this is how we do it’,” explained Redpath.
“But that patch has always been shared historically. If there is a Scottish connection, then I don’t know why a player wouldn’t be allowed to come up here and get a chance to play international rugby. If Scotland think he is good enough to do so, then he should be entitled to do that,” he added.
Redpath added that it is not clear at this stage when that quartet will be allowed to join the Scotland camp, but it looks likely that it will be a couple of days after the rest of the squad arrive in France. Regulation 9 of World Rugby’s Handbook states that players do not need to be released by their club until five days before the tournament starts.
“Certain powers – whether that’s Premiership Rugby or World Rugby – need to make a decision on whether the tournament starts on 24th [May] when everyone arrives, or whether it’s the opening dinner on the 25th or 26th, or whether it’s the first game – that’s for World Rugby to sort out with Premier Rugby,” said Redpath.
A spokesman for Premiership Rugby said: “Premiership Rugby is abiding by World Rugby’s Regulation 9, which governs the release of players. Regulation 9 states that release will only apply five days prior to the tournament.”
A Murrayfield spokesman confirmed that the SRU are in discussion with World Rugby about this situation, and are seeking clarification on when the players must be released by the Premiership clubs.
Despite the truncated build-up time Redpath is going to have with the players involved, it was never a possibility that the former Scotland scrum-would leave them out of the squad.
“We have to pick what I perceive to be the best players. I spoke to them last week on the phone and I went over the training and the reviews with them. I’ll explain what the calls are – discuss the good, the bad and the work-ons – and if I have to do that then that’s what I’ll do. Their conditioning levels are high anyway, so they have to keep that up with their clubs, and if not then we’ll manage that process,” he said.
Did the tanks on the lawn backfire?
The SRU’s top brass made a big play of unveiling their new SQ [Scottish Qualified] programme to the English media last October. This scheme involves an elaborate network of scouts across the globe – with a particularly heavy presence in England – hunting out players who might wear the thistle on their chest one day.
There is a long history of English-raised players being persuaded to throw their lot in with Scotland, but for the SRU to go out of their way to publicise this new level of magpie-ing was viewed by some as an unnecessary provocation. It has been described as Scotland parking their tanks on England’s lawn.
With Aviva Premiership clubs receiving handsome financial rewards from the RFU for having a certain number of English qualified players [EQP] in their squads, those who chose to dedicate themselves to the red rose have a higher market value. Since the launch of SQ, former Scotland Under-20 players Gary Graham and Ben Vellacot have been persuaded that their international futures lie south of Hadrian’s Wall.
And now the thorny issue of player release has reared its head once again, demonstrating just how difficult it is going to be for the SRU to infiltrate the English game.
Redpath conceded that English sensitivity to Scotland encroaching on their territory may be an issue.
“Reading the papers and how it all panned out, there seems to be a bit of that,” he said. “The players are the ones who are suffering. And we suffer as a team – we’ve got four lads who are in that squad who are not playing anywhere else at the moment – and it would be great to give them a chance against Ireland [in a warm-up match] next Tuesday.”
Split loyalties in the Redpath clan
Another Scottish qualified player who has thrown his lot in with England is Redpath’s own son, Cameron, an 18-year-old stand-off or inside-centre, who was born in France while his father was playing for Narbonne and raised in England after Redpath senior moved to play at Sale Skarks, and then coach at Gloucester, Sharks and Yorkshire Carnegie.
The youngster has played for England at both Under-18s and Under-20s level this season and is expected to be involved in their Junior World Cup campaign. Redpath admitted that he would dearly love his boy to play for Scotland but added that he respects and understands the route the youngster has chosen.
“He knows exactly what my views are. Myself, my wife and the broader family would love him to be in a Scotland jersey,” said Redpath. “There have been conversations between him and Gregor about that. But he’s also had five England full sessions with the national team, he trained at that open session at Twickenham with them and he’s in another little group underneath that which they see him coming through.
“It’s hard. He was born in France and has only ever lived in England, but has a lot of respect for the Scottish mind-set and how they are playing now. It’s been tough for him at certain times. I have to be a dad, not a fan or supporter or coach. I have to support him.
“His head has been turned quite a bit by that whole set-up in England – the opportunities and how they manage everything – it looks great, it sounds great and the club like it because it is potentially revenue for them to claw back through EQP and EPS [elite player squad].”Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 3)
“Suddenly there’s over £200,000 per year back into the club if he plays full-time for 12 months. So, I can understand that side of it. But with my hand on my heart I would love him to play for Scotland. I was up in November and I sent him videos of the games – and I was saying: ‘You need to be here playing in this, do you not? Stuff that English stuff!’”
Scotland play England in their final pool match at the World Championship and Redpath says there is no chance of his offspring getting any special treatment if he happens to be involved.
“I spoke to him about it. I told him that if it was something he would find really awkward then I wouldn’t do it until he was out of that level. Do I want to expose certain things about him? I wouldn’t do that to him, but if there is a fundamental thing I can see in a video of a game he has played then I would have no issue saying to our boys that the 12 has been drifting, or that he is not as good on that side, or that he doesn’t pass as well off that side as the other, or whatever. I would do whatever it takes at the right time and in the right manner.”
Redpath added that he is hopeful that Cameron will one day see the light and follow in the old man’s footsteps.
“The door is never closed until you’re capped. Scotland need to keep the door open. Gregor [Townsend] was great about it. He came down to see Byron McGuigan at Sale and popped in to see us and I went to the game with him. He and Cam were together for quite a while, so it was good. They swapped numbers and Gregor is always there to keep in touch with him.”
Scotland Squad to compete in the 2018 World Rugby U20 Championship in France (30 May – 17 June) –
Forwards: Sam Grahamslaw (Leicester Tigers), Ross Dunbar (Boroughmuir), Finlay Richardson (Edinburgh Accies), Murphy Walker (Strathallan School), Euan McLaren (Ayr), Robbie Smith (Ayr), Finlay Scott (Jed-Forest), Ewan Johnson (Racing Metro 92), Jamie Hodgson (Watsonians), Charlie Jupp (Heriot’s), Marshall Sykes (St Joseph’s College), Martin Hughes (Heriot’s), Rory Darge (Melrose), Guy Graham (Newcastle Falcons), Devante Onojaife (Northampton Saints), James Miller (Watsonians).
Backs: Charlie Chapman (Gloucester), Kaleem Barreto (Marr), Ross Thompson (Glasgow Hawks), Callum McLelland (Edinburgh Rugby), Stafford McDowall (Ayr), Logan Trotter (Stirling County), Cammy Hutchison (Currie), Fraser Strachan (Northampton Saints), Kyle Rowe (Glasgow Hawks), Patrick Anderson (Melrose), Sam Yawayawa (Glasgow Hawks), Paddy Dewhirst (Ayr).