Opinion: ‘The will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win’

Guest columnist Graeme Thompson says Scottish Rugby must be more strategic and patient when it comes to player development

Adding the FOSROC Future XV into the last Super Series Championship to provide Under-20s players regular rugby at part-time pro level seemed like a stop-gap measure rather than part of an over-arching strategy for player development. Image: George McMillan
Adding the FOSROC Future XV into the last Super Series Championship to provide Under-20s players regular rugby at part-time pro level seemed like a stop-gap measure rather than part of an over-arching strategy for player development. Image: George McMillan

“The will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win”

– Bobby Knight (American Basketball coach)

WHOEVER pulls on a Scotland shirt, their will to win is 100 percent. This includes the players involved in the opening U20s men’s Six Nations match versus Wales last weekend. Also, those who played in the past few years’ men’s U20s side, whose results have been the cause of deep concern.

The quote can be applied to the strategic topic of how to handle domestically developed players who should play a significant role in the future successes of the Scottish men’s team. The long-term trend is against domestically developed players, as evidenced by a drop from 80 percent to 52 percent homegrown players in the 2011 to 2023 World Cup squads.

Last November, John McGuigan, the new Chair of Scottish Rugby, stated a strong will to have more Scottish domestically developed male players in future successful Glasgow/Edinburgh and Scotland teams, but does the organisation really have the will to achieve this?

Key questions to this are –

  • Do they have the leadership expertise in this area to choose a strategy that will prepare young domestic players for the future in a way which will create competitive advantage for Scotland men in international competitions?
  • Will they see this strategy through, as it will take three to four years before a real difference is evident at under-20s level and even longer for the senior team?
  • Will the required resources be continually invested in this strategy despite the myriad of other financial demands on the organisation?

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The Board, along with leading executives, will play the critical role in deciding where the organisation deploys its resources. The Performance Director position is a crucial appointment. There is already a significant amount of Rugby Union knowledge within the SRU, so does this Performance Director need to have a long background in the sport? I think the priority skills are strategic thinking and implementation experience in performance sport.

Then it is about ensuring that the resources for an effective and continuous strategy is strongly represented in senior executive/ Board discussions.

None of the current SRU Boards [the Custodian Board, the SRUL Board or the Club Rugby Board] contain any non-executives with sports performance experience. There is an array of other skills, but not one on a core activity for the SRU. I think this weakens the organisation’s ability to choose the right strategy and implement it.

Whether it be in the Performance Director role or on the Board, the SRU should utilise the performance knowledge developed in the UK during 15 years of sustained success in the Olympics/Paralympics. In this arena, strategies for success by sports over four to eight years need to be robust and are scrutinised by the investor, UK Sport. This includes talent development, as the goal is to prepare sports for sustained success, not just one group of athletes for one Olympics/Paralympics.

I am talking about people of the calibre of Chris Spice or David Faulkner. Spice is presently Performance Director at British Swimming and was Performance Director when England Rugby won the World cup in 2003. Faulkner was an Olympic gold medallist in hockey, who went on to build elite programmes in men and women hockey as Performance Director of England and Great Britain Hockey. His last role was with as Head of Performance for Women’s Professional Game and Pathways with the FA.

I don’t believe that Super Series would have passed the scrutiny of the aforementioned people in what it was proposed to achieve for talent development. Personally, I never saw how it could meet two distinct strategic outcomes  – improve the club game and develop a much stronger talent pathway – at the same time.

Super Series was the major talent development strategy of the last five years and whilst it may be an improvement on before, that is not the key question to be asked about it. The talent development strategy needs to be benchmarked against international peers and be better than them. This is the strategic test that the Board should be setting themselves.

To achieve this, the SRU needs to establish effective full-time environments for the best young players from 17/18-years-old upwards. This status will enable them to fully exploit the critical elements to talent development that Sean Lineen highlighted recently – coaching, competition and conditioning.

Exposure to all three of these elements is critical. For many years, Scotland U20s have come up against opposition who are in these types of environments and the results provide evidence of how we are not giving our young players the optimal opportunity to compete.

Competition is the standout aspect. It needs to show players from a younger age the levels they need to aspire to, which are beyond Scotland’s borders. This needs to happen in environments led by coaches who are expert in talent development and using facilities to enable best possible conditioning.

 

Players should continue their education, including university, if desired. The two are not incompatible but need holistic management. Look at the success of athlete Laura Muir, who became one of the world’s top middle-distance runners whilst studying veterinary science at Glasgow University. In my own family, my niece and nephew are professional sportspeople and each have an honours degree.

There does need to be the avenue for the player who develops later than 18-years-old to become a professional player. Some may spend time playing for a club. However, I don’t see the club competition as having a core role in talent development.

I think there needs to be a strategic change as to who delivers this from 17/18 years onwards. In talent development, the SRU enjoys a monopoly. In other team sports, the professional clubs compete with one another for players, both financially and in the experience/environment they can provide to develop a player’s potential. This competition raises standards in all performance aspects, including facilities, sports science, medical care and welfare support.

The present monopoly in Scottish rugby union doesn’t encourage that competitive tension. Whilst there needs to be some financial controls, Glasgow and Edinburgh should be empowered to lead talent pathways from 17/18-year-olds upwards. Identifying the talented players from schools/clubs and representative pathways, employing them directly and being fully responsible for their development. The people leading talent development should be on the senior leadership executive team of each club, so that when resources are deployed, talent development is a priority.

These are changes, in my view, that demonstrate strong strategic intent towards the development of male domestic talent.

Performance sport is never an upwards linear journey of success for player, team or organisation. That’s why it is a test of will … in this case, to prepare domestic developed male players to be at the centre of future winning Scotland men’s teams.

 

 

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About Graeme Thompson 1 Article
Graeme Thompson has been Performance Director for the Rugby Football League, British Water Polo and British Curling/Wheelchair Curling. He has been Chair of International Rugby League, the world governing body. He played rugby union for Watsonians and West of Scotland.

54 Comments

  1. Only having 2 pro teams will always be an issue, given the cash available to win, be runners up, top 4 in each tournament , it’s also understandable why coaches select “battle hardened” players.
    Super Rugby could have worked but changed so often there wasnt much love for it. Maybe 4 regions plus Edinburgh and Warriors A ?

    one major issue is that there are many lads playing rugby away from the central belt. There’s major cities who are falling behind for various reasons but have talent and potential.
    Up in the North East and the Highland there’s some muckle teuchters who, given the right input could easily be pushing for rep honours in anyones front row.
    Whatever happens next must be for the whole of Scotland

    • Hi Kev
      We are a small nation geographically but I do think that can be strategically as an advantage as everyone should be able to access an opportunity. It should be possible to create games, squads and competition which enable the talented players to come to the fore from across Scotland. At 17/18 if a player has professional aspirations and potential, then they may have to move to, in my proposed approach, to Glasgow or Edinburgh. I appreciate that is a big decision but becoming a professional player, and being part of a successful Edinburgh/Glasgow senior team and Scotland team is not an easy personnel journey and challenge. If they dont make it always the way through, then they need support post leaving an Academy. Elite sport, like many careers in life, require this level of commitment, albeit sometimes coming a bit earlier in life.

      • I would like to see more localised centres of excellence, hosted by a club with good facilities. Having a good few of these per region for nominated players from local clubs and school at u15 to attend thro to U18.
        Then some selection thereafter once the lads are adults themselves. High quality S&C can be delivered to these groups of players around the country, so can high quality training.
        A huge barrier for some players to be part of the current system is the ability to get to the training facility for regional sessions. E.g Not everyone can travel to Motherwell two nights a week, especially during exam years. The regional set up covers too wide an area and narrows selection too quickly. Smaller catchment areas with promising boys getting extra S&C with quality training won’t do any harm in the long run to those who won’t eventually ‘make it’ but no need to cut them out. The end product will produce better, stronger players into the club game and feed the pro pathway with the best of them at the age of 18.

  2. We seem to be falling into the old public v private school arguments too easily while we ignore an awful lot of Scotland beyond Glasgow & Edinburgh.
    We cannot afford short term fixes nor can we ignore that which we cannot or will not see.
    If Australian city sides can sports talent spot in the outback, surely we can do likewise in a postage stamp country like ours.

  3. The other area not perhaps mentioned is 7’s. It has been intriguing to see some players coming through the system a bit later who have been involved in various 7’s squads over the years. It also feels a bit more how Scotland would want to play.

    We have 13 boys who have experienced beating South Africa and Fiji, and who could be developed in a different way to the norm. Alongside that, 2 coaches who knew exactly how to deal with that age group, as someone else has alluded to.

    Our pathways through Edinburgh and Glasgow are limited, so utilising another pathway through a sevens programme could be of benefit. Perhaps we are too far behind having given it up previously, but perhaps also there is a way back.

    • Totally agree Kenny but the Front 5 lads won’t develop here. What are their options?
      How do we get them up to speed ?

  4. Good article Graham, two comments from me; having been close to the age grade process recently, it seems leadership in its purest sense is lacking from the management/coaches. Just because a coach can plan a game doesn’t mean they are necessarily qualified to manage age grade boys, it needs to be remembered these are boys, not seasoned rugby players. Secondly any incoming director/age grade manager will have to address the current emphasis on fee paying schools supplying the age grade system. Seeing a fee paying school minibus arrive, with all seats taken, at an age grade selection day being driven by a coach helping with the selection is a particular incident that helps illustrate why this split needs rethought. So, how to do that and get local clubs on board, is a biggie for a director/manager regardless if responsibility is devolved to the professional clubs – add diplomacy and negotiation skills to the job descriptions please SRU.

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    • It wouldn’t happen to have been a minibus from one of the schools that advertise inside Scottish Gas Murrayfield during the 6 nations…? Funny how those schools have large numbers in the rep teams

      • Maybe Gravel… 🙂
        I was naive in those days, I initially thought “that’s nice, the janitor is on double time today to drive the bus”.

    • Hi DuncanJM.
      I totally agree with having age grade specialists. The key skill is the management of young people through what can be a difficult life time of moving into adulthood. Just as, if not more important than rugby union knowledge such as game plans as you highlight.
      I cannot comment on the present fee paying dominance as not close enough to regular activities to do so and hence, one of the reasons, why my article was at a strategic level. What I would say is that, as fee paying school pupil (over number of years ago!), I reflect and can see where it was helpful and advantageous to selection to rep rugby such as Lothian Schools and Scottish Schools level – yes that long ago when clubs and schools had seperate rep teams!!

      • Hi again Graeme, apologies for the name misspelling. I haven’t seen recent statistics on the fee paying vs state schools split in age grade, merely to say, as has been said elsewhere, the net needs to be widened, which has been mentioned by John McGuigan as needing attention, so by definition of the chairman’s involvement, a strategic issue.

  5. Thanks for this article Graham. We need much more of this kind of discussion.

    Strategy is critical and it requires difficult decisions to be made. For example, with the player base we have at the moment it is completely unrealistic to expect our national age grade teams to compete with countries who have several times more players at their disposal.

    There is too much talk about how a poor performing u20 team means a poor national team in the future. It is rubbish. The u20s are effectively choosing from two year groups. The national team chooses from about 15 year groups and also has the ability to add ‘project’ players. So, on average, only 1 or 2 players from each u20s side has to ‘make the grade’ to keep the national team fed.

    So, first of all, let’s question what the objective of the u20 and other age-grade teams is. Is it to achieve success at that level or is to provide the talent for success at full international level? Good strategy requires decisions like that to be made, much as we would all like to have our cake and eat it.

    My impression is that our desire for successful age grade teams is informing the youth pathway system all the way down to u15 level, when players are starting to be selected for the regional set ups. And I think it means we are always looking for the quick fix rather than properly investing in player development.

    The private school angle has been discussed by others. Yes, if you want to instantly create a winning Edinburgh age grade team, you would take the players who have been coached 4 or 5 days a week and get a competitive match at the weekend for years over those who get a couple of sessions a week with an often lopsided (or no) weekend match.

    But if we are looking to ensure that players reach their potential shouldn’t it be the other way round? Surely the players who shine without the benefit of full-time coaching is where the real value add can be extracted with professional coaching effort?

    I hear of the gym sessions even the u16s are put through by the regional coaches. Why? Is the reason to bulk them up to compete? Against who? And for what? Skills are what is important at that age. Muscle mass can be added at any time (and in my opinion should not even be considered until an athlete has reached full natural growth anyway) but the earlier that skills are embedded the better.

    Is it easier for coaches to just give players a gym programme and ‘supervise’ rather than spend the time working on skills WITH the players? FWIW, I also see evidence of player injuries whose genesis is, I suspect, their completely unnecessary load bearing gym work, meaning they can lose weeks of playing and skills development.

    Finally, participation. It is fine to use Ireland as a benchmark but they do not have anything like the same problem as we do with a football obsessed media which drowns out just about everything else. I can’t remember the detail but I recall a Scotland Rugby team story being relegated in the BBC Scotland news feed by a story about a non-Scottish ex-old firm manager being pursued by a non-Scottish club.

    It is not realistic to expect clubs to be able to overcome this landscape on their own. We need to work with government to embed basic rugby skills at a curriculum level and develop the links between primary schools and clubs to ensure that those who can and want to will be able to pursue rugby as their preferred sport.

    Kids love to play catch. They love to run around. They are all ‘natural’ rugby players. I have often wondered why a child would want to start running with a ball at their feet rather than in their hands and kick it to their pal rather than throw it if it wasn’t for the societal pressures they are exposed to.

    Isn’t a backline move just an extension of ‘pass the parcel’ which all kids love playing? Rather than remove a layer of paper when the music stops, the kid with the ball drops to the ground and the winner is the kid who can get to the ball first?

    There is so much that can be done even at a very young age to develop the basic skills and instincts that will serve them well as they progress as a rugby player.

    Hope that hasn’t sounded too ranty but it is certainly frustrating to see our young players being let down for the sake of ill-defined or misguided objectives.

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    • Hi Garry

      Lots there from you! And going across and deep into participation aspects, which of course have an influence on talent development.
      One comment on U20s is that results over a significant period of time have been trending downwards. One set of results I agree should not be over analysed but a trend needs to be heeded. Also from what I can see, the U20s results, over time, has some correlation to senior success, as top world ranked teams do win it and in past 8 years, Ireland have won twice, but never before that. 3 years missed due to COVID and I suspect they might have taken some more titles. France won in 2018 and 2019 and would seem to correlate with then senior result improvements, reasonably soon after.

    • Hi DuncanJM. No probs re name mis spell. It will not surprise you that it has been quite common in my life! As a relatively small country geographically compared to England, Australia and France, we should be able to turn this into a strategic advantage, that opportunities exist across all of it and talent can be identified from all over. At 17/18 years old, under my proposed approach, they would need to move to Glasgow/Edinburgh to be in environments and take on experiences that enable them to make it into a future successful Scotland men’s team. And other later developers could join still at 19.20,21 etc. We could do with some backs appearing as out of Saturday’s starting 9-15, by my analysis only one, was domestically developed.

  6. YRF The Warriors side was very club once you factor those who have late stages taken a scholarship (the Irish and South African system)

    RGB not sure you have a point beyond was Caledonias been everything you ever had.

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    • My point was replying to your suggestion that G&TW are club driven and winning well. Their last, and only, two games at u18 since the summer they have lost. When selectors picked the starting team for the warriors 18s they opted for mainly Caley players not Glasgow ones, only one Glasgow lad in the starting pack, as the warriors is an amalgamation of the two regions, which I’m sure you know. Maybe this weekend will be different and the Glasgow players will be the majority, we shall see.

      • That’s good to hear, the 18s used to smash everyone too but this season have definitely lost something. Many of the players cut at the start of u18 season were the club boys, a couple were invited back but some absolutely cracking players deselected, maybe that’s where the problems started, it’s the usual pathway problem, it’s who you know, not how good you are in many selection choices.

  7. I note there are some promising players turning out regularly for Strathclyde Uni this season – Jake Shearer, Johnny Ventisei, Thomas Glendinning, Iain Carmichael among them- and I think they are just one rung below BUCS super league. Do you think a Scottish team or two in BUCS super league could play a part in elite development, as both England and Wales are not featuring a number of players who have come through this route with Cardiff Met, Exeter Uni, Loughborough etc?

    • Stirling Uni are being groomed by SRU with pathways lads told to go there centre of sport Scottish Loughborough makes sense

    • The Uni System is not being used to it’s potential. There’s so much talent available and unis have access to decent off field facilities, potential inhouse S&C , we really should be looking to explore that route

  8. Just look to Exeter and Rob Baxter, Exeter and Exeter Uni have a joint program that give the nearly there prospects the meaningful gametime they need… I dearly hope the Edinburgh Uni tie up is more than face value and window dressing 🤷‍♂️

    • I think the tie up will bear fruit.

      The issue more is that the path to Super BUCS rugby is tough – Edinburgh and Strathclyde are in the level below, but would need to win their league, then beat their southern equivalent, then beat the bottom team in Super BUCS who have been playing at a semi-professional level all year.

      It would be great to see the SRU make a play to see if they could parachute both these teams into Super BUCS and invest in it. Development opportunities are huge, as noted in other comments. It allows the Universities to take some of the Academy players for game time, but also allows others the opportunity to further their careers.

      In any case, they should be at least supporting the Universities in trying to reach the top level – Edinburgh also have a number of young Scottish players, including three that are in first year who are playing for the first XV and being exposed to a high level of physicality and skill.

      If the SRU are pushing to Stirling, the issue is that they are playing 4 leagues below Edinburgh and Strathclyde at the moment, which doesn’t make sense. So they may get good S and C, but perhaps not highly competitive game time.

  9. Grumpygrandad, make sure your youngster keeps digging in. My grandson was well behind when he got his break with the academy set-up and like all the boys, he’s giving it his all; he’s got a chance – but that’s all. No private school, but a solid West of Scotland coaching under Millan Browne was invaluable, though. I get the private school ‘advantage’ theory, but some boys will always be lucky – mine was with Millan. As for Graeme’s observations, plenty to think about, and pursue, there. Just hope the new man on the block, Mr McGuigan, reads his piece. It’s unlikely to be a best seller with the majority of clubs, a bit like those same clubs’ views on the SRU’s largely unpopular Futures pathway. An elite pathway is needed, the problem is agreeing a criteria and vetting team to do the job. Answers on a postcard, please.

    • I was lucky enough to play with Millan at 17/18. On from that he seems to have done some excellent jobs at various clubs and specialised in young player development.

    • Hi YRF
      Selection is always contentious in my experience in all sports.
      You can never get people who are truly independent. Always connections and actually if someone was to adrift of who the players were, people would question their suitability
      Ways to deal with the issue is I have seen and used are
      Be clear who are and who are not selectors
      But them through analysis and selection training in terms of what are they looking for.
      Have published selection criteria
      Work with a head coach, who say comes from a club with players in the selection mix and get them to understand that perception is reality. They need to be show impartiality, be careful what they say inadvertently and given one example on this forum discussion of turning up driving the minibus of players potentially to be selected.
      Let players and parents know that the process and again if they coach is from a related club/school that they are reporting to someone at SRU/Glasgow/Edinburgh, who is overseeing the selection and ensuring integrity
      I have worked with coaches who have been in this situation. Some overcompensate and less likely to pick own players and some don’t get the perception is reality issue and need guidance on how they conduct themselves.
      Even with all that in place, selection debates will go on… it’s sport, people are passionate about it and for young people and parents, it matters

      • This all sounds excellent, thanks for taking the time to reply. Unfortunately from a player and parent perspective, none of this is evident in the pathway. Protégés are ‘in’before they’ve even attended a trial and at times even dictate the position they want to play in order to avoid a stronger player who is another protege. Meanwhile, those with no connections are moved out of position so that they can’t truly shine and show their best skills, meaning they are always at a disadvantage and don’t outshine the select few.
        A means for players and parents to give feedback on the experience would also allow the SrU to make improvements where necessary, in our experience there was no way to feedback to the pathway about the player experience. They don’t want to hear it, which is very unusual in this day and age, most organisations look for feedback on their performance from those experiencing it. There is much to work on.

    • He will keep going but is a bit disillusioned by the whole set up. I see the same underpar lads were rolled out at Scotstoun for Edinburgh. It is clear a fair few of them are just not up to standard. You are not telling me that those lads are the best we have across Edinburgh and the Borders. They arent. Favouritism and coaches pets from their own club/school. We have got to do better by these young lads. The future of Scottish Rugby depends on the right lads being put through and right now Im not convinced

      • Glasgow the same, was at the match, standard very average. Some players deservingly there but very questionable choices too. Players unable to do the basics across both teams. But they’ll be playing for Scotland no doubt, poor passing, poor defence, ok some can run fast but it takes more than that to be a Scotland grade rugby u18. One trick ponies, and continually selecting them will only be detrimental to these lads mental health as they will come crashing down when the selectors are no longer their coaches. Does them no favours keeping them in when they actually haven’t got the skills required. Meanwhile lads whose faces don’t fit are cut from the pathway but have all the skills necessary to be picked for these teams. Very sad state of affairs.

      • YRF. Glasgow were considerably better than Edinburgh. Lots of handling errors but Glasgow dominated. Its a sad state of affairs that the coaches/selectors think these are the best in Scotland at this age grade. Some are good players and with the correct coaching could be great players but none of them were stand outs to me and many should not have made it on to the pitch. I really feel for the lads left out who, if continuously overlooked will give up in favour of other sports and these lads could be excellent. No idea what the coaches are looking for or maybe they just cant see past their own. Something needs to change and they could start with a large intake in the pathways and more opportunities for a wider group. We all know rugby is a late development sport and we cut far too drastically and far too young.

      • I would agree Warriors were the better team but knowing the G&TW pathway players for a few years I know some players who have been cut who are far superior in all aspects of the game, but they were up against the favourites. The tendency for coaches to be dazzled by players who go thro puberty young needs to stop. These players spend the first 4 or 5 years of youth rugby crashing thro entire teams and looking amazing but when the later developers catch up in size the early developers are exposed as nothing more than average players. However, because their names have been on peoples lips for several years they just ‘can’t’ be dropped. Unknown players who threaten those guys are then put into positions they don’t usually play so that they don’t overshadow the favourites. It must change.

  10. Very interesting article. Thanks for writing it Graeme.

    Can you expand on where the 17+ development takes place? Don’t see that infrastructure in the pro set up.

    Clubs have a role here and working in collaboration with other parts of the game.

    • Hi Dom, thanks for the feedback. Some of my reply to you, is contained in reply also to Ronnie Kirkpatrick. To add to it –
      This infrastructure needs built, and as per my rationale in the article I would do it with Glasgow and Edinburgh leading on it. No SRU Academy programme – replaced by Edinburgh and Glasgow. A player aged 17 or whenever they leave secondary school can become an Academy player with them. A full time professional player. In the same way as you would see Rangers, or Hearts or Hibs with Academy set ups. They need to be in a professional set up. Then using same facilities as senior squads. Head of Youth at each club to lead this and they are part of senior leadership team as talent development should be a priority and discussed as such. Then competition needed. This seems to have been problematic in past as various intended international links up for Super 6 never materialised. Ideally Glasgow and Edinburgh Academy against equivalent teams in URC and English Premiership. Give them early exposure to international equivalents as doing so at U20 is too late in my view. Also scope for more Glasgow and Edinburgh A games, which could see combination of young players and older pros needed game time but not in Glasgow or Edinburgh 1st team.
      All told, a costly set up but that was one of my core points about the will to prepare (through such professional environments) to win and the need for sustained strategy with adequate resources given over time.
      And some of my experiences come from setting up the first audit programme in Rugby League for the governing body, RFL, to mark and assess clubs. Inter club rivalry drove standards, albeit resources where sometimes a constraint, but the tension of “what are our rivals doing?” especially if you are Wigan looking at St Helens and vice versa and also if they got a poor assessment, which was publicised, it was a spur to move it on

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      • Thanks for the response Graeme

        There is much to learn from other sports and I was also thinking about football. But perhaps the lack of progress of youth players in that code is a good example that “strong” youth pathways aren’t all that is required.

        Of course football clubs aren’t beholden to developing Scottish football merely winning games for their own ends. Something Super 6 suggests can daily happen in rugby if allowed.

        We agree on the radical shift that’s required to move our development pipeline into top gear. As the saying sayings the best time to start was five years ago. Alternatively tomorrow.

    • YRF. Could not agree more. Its a disgraceful state of affairs. If these poor performing players get through to the U18 Scotland Squad, then someone somewhere needs to take a hard look at the coaches/selectors. I feel for the good players who are being let down by having to play with lads who do not deserve to be there, especially as some of them will have been playing with much better team mates either at regional or club/school level. I feel even sorrier for the lads overlooked who are watching from the sidelines knowing they are better but whose faces dont fit or arent the coaches pets. I see a very disastrous U18 Scotland performance coming up and its not the lads fault, its the coaches/selectors

  11. Fewer stronger has failed entirely. Trying to bypass clubs is simply a variant of fewer stronger. The development programme needs to massively increase to offer more S&C to far more kids, more competition, more skills training and far more games.

    • Hi Rugby Fan

      I agree with your point on ensuring there is a core development programme for a larger base of young players. At some point though more specialist programmes are needed and they will involve a lesser amount of players as it does in every sports’ talent development structure. Age and number can differ due to aspects of the sport. So what would be your alternative age and structure to do this in Scottish Rugby Union?

    • Hi Dom,
      I replied based on infrastructure examples. I appreciate there is a further assessment of the quality provided within them. The same infrastructure I have seen in Olympic and Paralympic sports as well. Tae Kwon Do in Manchester is one example that comes to mind and they actually partnered with a local school to look to bring in 16/17 years old into their professional centre base for all athletes. British Cycling, albeit lots of medals for many years but been some cultural issues there a few years ago. Liverpool, Man City will have incredible infrastructures but same principles – quality facilities, great coaching and support services and strong competition structure to develop players in.
      Yes football clubs don’t have a priority of the national team interests. We had same issue in RL and it was Kiwis and Aussies players, past their best, who got invested in rather than English developed talent. We looked to change it through “Federation trained players”, which was in effect requiring squads to contain domestically developed players within legal terms (ie. no restraint of trade issues). Also St Helens and Leeds, the two teams who were winning most trophies, had best youth development. Leeds included the likes of Kevin Sinfield and Rob Burrow, who were both in professional environments at 16 but continued their education. I believe in far more autonomy for Glasgow and Edinburgh but SRU is still the funder and could set levels of domestically developed players in each squad as part of ROI into each club

  12. Very thought provoking article. One of the key observations – “I don’t see the club competition as having a core role in talent development” – goes against the consensus in many clubs and will be a hard sell. Reverting to a club premiership, followed by a (short) District type championship as the lead-in to international competition appears to have wide support but crucially, for me it fails to offer the year round coaching, competition and conditioning environment required to build international rugby players. Having Edinburgh and Glasgow competing in an academy competition with the Irish, Welsh and Italian pro teams would be a massive step forward.

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    • Thanks for the feedback Ronnie. I think the club game is really important to the overall health of the sport in Scotland. I think its main role is to increase participation numbers and provide engaging and enjoyable environments in local communities. Competition structures and important to it and I think some rep rugby for club players is excellent idea like the District Championship. But like you, I don’t see how clubs can be expected or manage to provide the complete and necessary environment for future Scottish internationalists. That is not a criticism of them but something I dont believe they are fundamentally set up to do. Totally agree with Edinburgh and Glasgow needing an Academy competition with other 6 Nations countries. I would add in tours to Southern Hemisphere as well. Costs money but that is my point – do the SRU executive have the real will to prepare the talented young players to win, at senior level? At present it looks to me that we will them to win and the players, eg U20 level, give everything but without a proper professional pathway of specialist support, competition and coaching from 17/18 years onwards – the required preparation to enable them to compete

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      • Thanks for the reply Graeme. Totally agree that the club game (both youth and senior levels) is vital and needs serious focus (and investment) – that could be the subject of another discussion. In the context of your article, ideally the club game can be strong enough to provide the bridge to the professional game for any “late developers” and also be attractive enough to any player who drops out of the academy or professional game. These are strategic aims, I’m under no illusion that any of this will be easy.

  13. All good points and I would add that it is crucial that the people selecting the pathway talent are impartial, not connected to schools, clubs or giving private one to one coaching to any of the players coming into the pathway in that region. Far too many selections and deselections are not based on skill or talent but based on who you know, or indeed for deselection, who you are a big threat to. This is a fundamental problem in the pathway which is overlooked by blinkered SRU performance teams and why talent spotting should always look beyond the pathway.

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    • couldnt agree more. Many young players being overlooked. My grandson is at U15 level and I see boys being put through pathways from favouritism rather than potential while other lads being left out. Certain private schools seem to hold a lot of clout over the selection process. Look at the U18 inter city match on Sunday. Almost all private school boys from the Edinburgh side. Not all deserved to be on the pitch. Where was all the talent that is coming through from the club side. Did the selectors not attend the U18 Club Cup Final at Murrayfield or do they just scout the private school boys. Plenty talent on show that day, especially from Borougmuir who had some tasty players but no Boroughmuir players involved in the Edinburgh side. Surely that smacks that the private schools are pulling the strings here. Something drastic needs to change to ensure more boys are playing rugby at a decent level and being noticed. All this is noticed by my grandson and the club players must wonder what the point is

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      • I was at the game, and have been at the 18s games over the past few weeks. Quite a few players playing who have left spectators scratching their heads as to how they managed to get to this level, no wonder people question the selectors’ abilities; too many have a conflict of interest in selecting and deselecting particular players. Not the players’ faults but the fault of the selectors, some of whom can’t see past their own protégés.
        The problem becomes more exposed as these players move up to u20 and still have glaring gaps in their game. The viewing public are then under the impression that these players are the best we have. The bottom line is, impartiality is key in any selection process, if the SRU truly want the best players then it starts with that.

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      • Darren Ferguson has a winners medal for Man U. Frank Lampard was brilliant. Jamie Redknapp middling. Nepotism is a thing not always bad (see Cameron Redpath who is class) … At youth level the better coaching and S&C of the privileged few does mean like for like will stand out esp at U15, U16 – Interesting though that Glasgow & West is increasingly club led and er… winning, well.

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      • The Glasgow warriors team on Sunday was vast majority private school players, only a small number of club boys, 16/6 if I remember correctly, and the quality of the game wasn’t anything you wouldn’t see week in, week out in u18 club rugby

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      • Coach potato. The 18s Glasgow and the west team played Edinburgh and Caley in recent weeks and lost. The Glasgow warriors 18s beat Edinburgh on Sunday but was mainly comprised of Caley players from private schools so…?

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    • Hi YRF

      It should never be harder to get off the pathway rather than onto it. It needs to be clear that players need to re prove annually they are best ones to be on it. A pathway is as series of experiences that help to develop players rather than you are on it and set to make it.
      15 years ago when in Rugby League, as the governing body we ran a critical part of the pathway and which helped the professional clubs to identify talent from age 13 and work with them. The retention rate from players moving from one year to another was around 55%. I don’t have benchmarking data but it felt a healthy figure as you want to invest in players over time but new talent would emerge each year, especially as kids matured and so players came onto the pathway

    • Hi Ronnie
      Agree fully on those two important roles for the club game. Late developers bridge and somewhere for players who come out of Academy and professional game. The latter is not easy as players can be very disappointed and feeling let down but the professional clubs need to provide good post Academy professional transitional support. A number of football clubs down south have improved this as the % of those who make it to first team regular playing are so low. There is an ethical responsibility.

  14. Borders College runs a course that impressed me where rugby players develop their skills while completing academic qualifications so should the worst happens and injury forces them out of sport they have an academic qualification to fall back on. BASE can be investigated and previous successes studied.

    • Actually Borders College did not have a rugby based course in 22/23 due to the lack of numbers. Subsequently, SRU withdrew their rugby coach from the Borders. What happens to the students who struggle with Academic work but are focused on rugby.

    • May, hope I’m mistaken, but the BASE academic qualifications appeared pretty low-level in the overall context of sport / sports management.

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