WE can either accept that Scottish people – and Scottish boys for the purposes of this article – are genetically inferior to kids from the other rugby playing nations, or we can acknowledge that the supply chain for identifying and developing rugby talent in this country is not working as well as we need it to.
The Sunday Times told us two weekends ago that Richard Cockerill has signed two Scottish-qualified players and immediately added them to Edinburgh’s European squad ahead of last Saturday night’s Champions Cup curtain-raiser against La Rochelle at Murrayfield (although neither played).
20-year-old Charlie Savala joined the club in October apparently – although there was no public mention of it at the time – from Australian Rugby League side Sydney Roosters. He qualifies for Scotland through his Ayr-born father, while his grandmother still lived in Ayr until moving to Australia this year.
“Savala still has a number of strong family connections in Ayr and even turned out for the Millbrae club aged nine, when visiting family on holiday,” the Edinburgh website informs us.
Korie Winters is also 20 and joined Edinburgh from Massey University, based in Palmerston North on New Zealand’s North Island. He qualifies for Scotland through his Edinburgh-born grandfather.
These are just the latest two overseas players brought in to shore up the professional sides during this difficult season when threadbare squads are having to spread themselves thinly between hectic domestic and international schedules.
Good luck to the boys – they are grabbing an opportunity which any ambitious rugby player would jump at – but, surely, I am not alone in wondering why there doesn’t appear to be a queue of homegrown 20-year-olds ready to step up to the plate … or not a queue that the pro coaches are prepared to show faith in at any rate.
It’s a global game
Can I state early on that I have absolutely no problem with overseas players adding their experience and expertise to the game in this country, but it feels like this is increasingly the policy being adopted as a sticking plaster solution to our failings in developing talent internally.
If we increasingly rely on imported players to populate our professional and international teams, then we will ultimately cease to be positive contributors to growing the game globally. We will be the magpies or world rugby.
Super6 was set up to bridge the gap between the club and the professional game, and Covid means that we have not yet really had a chance to see how effective this new semi-professional tier can be in fulfilling that role – but, for me, the big issue is tackling the supply chain closer to the starting point, by offering more and better opportunities to kids at the beginning of their rugby journey.
And it is not just about the top of the pyramid, but also keeping kids motivated and engaged so that the ones who don’t go all the way carry on playing at club level. Our current players are our future coaches and administrators. The more people involved, the easier things get.
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I am aware that there is a tendency these days to slate the system without offering a solution – which doesn’t help anyone – so here is my tuppence worth, from experience as a player, coach, development officer and fan of the game.
The solution may seem simple to many – it is amazing how often the most obvious answer is the best answer!
We need to go back to areas within districts from Under-13s up to Under-18s, using our development officer staff to run these teams and identify the talent. I have worked as part of this workforce and I trust them to do this effectively.
When I say areas within districts, what I mean is, for example, a North Lanarkshire Under-14 squad or a Renfrewshire Under-14 squad, playing in a series of internal district festivals where kids can get plenty of opportunity to show their skill-set.
From these festivals, talent can be identified over a number of weekends which would allow district age-grade coaches several opportunities to select the kids who perform consistently well.
Once the top performers from these festivals have been selected, they should play in a trial game which will allow the best of the best to play-off against each other before District selection is finalised.
Let’s then see a return to the sort of District championship we used to have, but run it all the way through from Under-13 to Under-20 level, played in a league format which allows national selectors to see our aspiring players over three games as they look to select their Scotland age-grade sides.
In previous years, Scottish Rugby has – in my opinion – been too focussed on the big rugby-playing private schools, and overlooked the role that clubs and state schools can play as supply channels for our next generation of adult players.
I absolutely agree that the private schools are vitally important but there has to be a bigger investment in state schools. We must fight football tooth and nail for our young kids, by creating stronger links between schools and clubs, and then further strengthening that relationship through serious investment into facilities by Scottish Rugby.
The drop-off from kids playing mini-rugby at their club whilst at primary school and then disappearing without trace when they move on to secondary school is arguably the biggest hurdle to growing the game in this country at the moment. That needs to be addressed with bold and decisive action as a matter of urgency.
Key areas of focus
- Pay experienced coaches to assist the development officers to select and coach these players
- Pay travel expenses or a daily rate to knowledgeable selectors to identify the kids at these festivals with potential to move on to the District programme