NIGEL CAROLAN admits to experiencing mixed emotions whilst watching Scotland come up short against Ireland in round four of the Six Nations two weekends ago. As a proud Irishman, he instinctively enjoyed seeing Andy Farrell’s side take another step towards Grand Slam glory, but as attack coach of Glasgow Warriors he was naturally keen to see those Scotland players he works closely with at club level do well.
“It was bittersweet,” the 48-year-old acknowledged. “When Ireland scored I was the only one around me who wasn’t standing up and cheering! It was as much for our guys. And when Huw [Jones] scored I got excited and thought this is going to be a good one.”
The under-20s match the night before was much easier to take a position on. Watching any team at any level lose 82-7 is an unfulfilling experience, and it prompted Carolan to reflect on why the young Scots were so far off the pace against a team they have traditionally been closely matched to. Between 2013 and 2018, the two nations met 10 times at this level, with Ireland winning six and Scotland four of those games, and the average winning margin being just 1.5 points per match in favour of Ireland. In the last five meetings, Ireland Under-20s have won this match 24-5, 38-26, 38-7, 59-5 and now 82-7. They have now won back-to-back Grand Slams in 2022 and 2023, in fact their only Six Nations defeats during the last five years were against England and France, both in 2021.
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Having spent 13 years between 2004 and 2017 n charge of the academy in his home province of Connacht, Carolan is well placed to asses the player development pathways of the two countries, and his big conclusion is that Scottish rugby needs to dive deep and build long-term if it is to emulate the success of their Celtic cousins.
“The systems they [Ireland] have, especially at age grade, is a little bit ahead of Scotland at the moment,” Carolan explained. “When Scotland catches up, they’ll get there through local, indigenous players again, so they just need that foundation.
“Ireland are maybe 10 years down that road having invested in players as 14 or 15-year-olds, and the under-20s over the last three or four years have been successful off the back of that,” he added. “But that’s just a by-product of the system – it’s not like they invested in the under-20s.”
Since the turn of the century, the Irish national team have won the Six Nations championship five times including three Grand Slams, while their provinces have won the European Champions Cup six times and the URC (or its forerunners) 13 times. Ireland have only twice finished outside the top three of the Six Nations, when they ended up fourth in 2008 and fifth in 2013 (and on both those occasions they bounced back to win the championship the following year).
During that same period, Scotland have never managed to finish higher than third in the Six Nations table and their success at pro level is restricted to Glasgow Warriors winning the PRO12 (as it was then known) in 2015.
It is a stark contrast given that prior to the 21st century these were two closely matched rugby nations with Scotland tending to have the edge in one-on-one clashes (60 wins versus 45, with five draws). Scotland won (outright or shared) the Home/Fine Nations crown 15 times between 1883 and Italy joining the party in 2000, while Ireland had 10 such successes.
“They [Ireland] are in a golden era now and all they know is winning, so it’s become part of their DNA,” continued Carolan. “It’s all a by-product of getting them early but it will come in Scotland once they get the right foundations in place and the investment is put in the right area which is the young lads.
“There’s no point investing in the middle and hoping that the 20s are going to win. You have to invest in them as 15-year-olds and then you’ll get a product that will come through and rise to the top eventually.
“The desire is definitely here to get that through,” he added. “You need all the pieces joined up. There has to be an understanding that patience is required, and you have to start at the beginning. It’s not a top-down approach. It’s actually a bottom-up approach that has brought that success in Ireland.
“I was part of that in my previous role as academy manager at Connacht 10 year ago when these systems were put in place. It needs joined-up thinking, investment in the right areas and then patience. It will take time as there’s no quick-fix to it. It’s work and buy-in from everybody that’s required.”
Carolan will be involved in another match-up between Scottish and Irish rugby this weekend when Glasgow take-on Munster at Thomond Park in Limerick on Saturday evening.
There is plenty at stake for two teams battling for a home draw in the URC play-offs, with Warriors currently occupying that all-important fourth spot in the table but Munster only two points behind in fifth place.
“Munster are at home this weekend then go to South Africa for their final two games, whereas we’re on the road and then at home for our final two games, but we’re going there to win,” said Carolan.
“I’ll give it to Munster, with a fresh broom, a new coaching staff last year, they had a slow start to the season as they implemented a new style and DNA – these things take time – but if you watch how they’ve played since Christmas their game is starting to bear fruit. They move the ball around a lot more and it’s working for them.”
Munster’s record in 2023 is six wins from seven games played, with their only defeat being away to Toulouse (20-16) in their final pool match in the Champions Cup at the end of January, when qualification for the knock-out stage of the competition was already in the bag. During their last four URC games, Munster have scored 180 points and 27 tries.
“We won’t go there fearing that,” Carolan added. “We just have to stop that and impose our own game like we did against Stormers. Against Munster you need to be at 9 or 10 out of 10 in the physical tank but also bring your own game. Without the right mindset you’re not going to get a result there.”
It was around this time last year that Glasgow’s season really started to go south, culminating in previous head coach Danny Wilson losing his job after a 76-14 drubbing away to Leinster in the URC play-offs. Carolan he is confident that a repeat of that implosion is not on the cards this year.
“To be competitive or successful at the end of the season, it comes down to two things,” he said. “One is to have a full deck to select from and the other is to have momentum to the end. This time last year after the Six Nations we started to lose players – Scott Cummings, Rory Darge, Kyle Steyn – the list went on and it was a lot of key players, internationals. But we also felt that we had overplayed our hand. We lost a game and then another and lost momentum. If you have the full deck and momentum then that stands you in a better place. We’re fortunate that we have both at the moment.”
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Ireland got it right from the start, invested in the top, their 4 provinces and stuck by all 4, this has resulted in the National team performing well and generating real interest in rugby which is now percolating down the system. However we are not comparing like for like. The grand slam squad this year taking out the import players came mainly from the private schools in Leinster where rugby as a winter sport predominates. Leinster have now such riches players from that province are going to the other provinces.
They don’t have the same competition from soccer as we have and their National sport and biggest participation sport is played mainly in the summer months allowing youngsters to play rugby and Gaelic football.
Their U20’s play in a league, very few play senior club rugby unless they are of exceptional standard. What Ireland have done very well recently is in identifying talent at 14/15 if not younger and theses players are monitored by the local branches.
Where do we go? Firstly I would have all our U20’s playing in the Super 6 regardless whether they are the best player in that position. That could reduce the level of competition but at least these U20 players would get meaningful game time, coaching and help with their development.
Below that where do we start? Closer links with our private schools who run a very high standard of rugby in Scottish terms and also select certain state schools to develop rugby in the area. This of course would mean dialogue with the Scottish Government, we cannot invest in every school.
In Ireland young talent is also streamed at a young age, do we need to identify that talent and move into regional teams and summer camps during the 2nd half of the season ?
There is talent in Scotland, there always has been but somehow we must identify it and know what we’re doing with it.
The National team is attracting attention from the public and our financial situation appears more stable than it has been for a long time so now is the right time.
We didn’t capitalise in the early 90’s when we had success at a national level then made a real mess of the first 15 years of professionalism but I think we are in a position to grow.
One final point and that is the clubs have to play their part in growing the game. I will say it again, our current product is not attractive to as many young players as it could be. It brought me joy to hear that the Border clubs are now moving to regional rugby in their reserve league to increase the chances of 2nd xv rugby happening every week. This needs to be expanded throughout the whole country and more true regional leagues with the clubs running these leagues and making their own rules.
Time to stop the blame culture that currently exists and take responsibility of our game where we can.
Do you agree or disagree with the SRU strategy of “fewer, but stronger”?
“Time to stop the blame culture that currently exists and take responsibility of our game where we can.”
How much more time do we need to give Mr Dodson and his acolytes to take some responsibility and improve the situation?
Totally ignoring club rugby as they do is shameful and yet some still say we mustn’t blame. No wonder we are so far behind Ireland.
I think the Irish have it right with an U20 league. I have been trying to formulate thoughts on this for about a week! But what you have written is exactly what I would have done – U20 league attached to Premiership clubs with the better boys moving up when ready. This gives game time, and then allows peers to play against each other and develop at the right pace, appreciating that most players will gain pro contracts somewhere between 21 and 24.
Regarding school and youth level – competition is the biggest issue. There is very little. I would hazard a guess that most teams have at most 5 or 6 competitive games each year against teams of their own standard. For example, boys playing in the top schools conference had 6 truly competitive games in league and cup, and have not played a competitive game since the end of November.
Looking everywhere else, schoolboys play 10-15 competitive games each year, plus a full sevens programme.
Ah yes, Connacht, that great example of development pathway for the Ireland national team that managed to provide exactly 2 players for the Irish six nations squad from their academy, one of whom has 1 cap. The entire Irish system is based on the Leinster (I.e. Dublin) private school system into which the IRFU has limited involvement.
Scotland has so much to do, but we shouldn’t be trying to learn it from Connacht rugby, we should be speaking with the Irish private school system and trying to replicate that.
Look at the position of the other 3 teams in the URC table. They might not match Leinster but compared to the rest they are a serious proposition. The collective standard of their rugby means there is a baseline of acceptability throughout the island that drives success.
Connacht have won as many titles as both Scottish sides combined. They’re a mile ahead of Scotland in terms of player development not least because at the last 1872 games only one third of the players came through the Scottish system. We won’t start fixing our system until we actually admit that it’s broken and clear the trough out of the people who broke it.The future for Scottish rugby is currently very bleak.
David’s comments are unaccurate: Leinster may be the leaders but Ireland Senior squad members, Rob Henshaw, Cian Predergast and Finlay Bealham came through the Connacht Academy and there are four Connacht Academy players on the Ireland squad that won the U20 Six Nations. That’s a decent return from the least populated province where GAA dominates. Also, not all the Leinster players on the Ireland senior and U20 squads came through the schools system, a growing number have come through the clubs pathway. Senior players such as Tadgh Furlong and Jimmy O’Brien for example. Furthermore, the schools rugby system is also strong in Munster and Ulster but they have less private investment compared to Leinster schools. Furthermore, both the Ulster and Munster senior squads are seeing large numbers of players coming through their academies on the back of well-developed schools and club systems. Ireland is much more than Leinster.
So Connacht taking on an Edinburgh side packed with international players and Connacht with largely home grown talent have wiped the floor with Edinburgh sticking more than forty points on them. They are light years ahead of us.
A book could be written on the reasons for our predicament. Short-hand, the main factors are:
1. An ingrained culture of nepotism in youth sport. Yes, it happens everywhere but is disproportionately high in Scotland. Football is the same with little platoons of fathers running youth teams for the purpose of giving their son(s) a starring role beyond ability. Similar outcome there as we now produce a trickle of top football players.
2. Cultural disassociation from rugby. It’s looked upon as a game ‘others’ play while we exist watch two football teams play each other 5/6 times a season.
3. Disinterest of the state. Ireland is the best example of advancing rugby from the top down as it is seen as a way to improve national prestige. Our civic society is too fractured and guided by self-interest. We want success but don’t want to plan for it. This allows nepotism (see point 1) to flourish as the state doesn’t curb the influence of pushy parents.
4. Our population is squeezed into a small, urban and unsporty central belt that lives on a diet of sugar and carbohydrates.
5. We can’t offer the same tax incentives that Irish sports people for staying in the country and advancing the domestic product.
There are positives.
In lots of places mini-rugby is massive.
But the way our U20s have simply dropped off a cliff in the last 6 or 7 seasons suggests someone asleep at the wheel.
Unfortunately nothing will change while Dodson and his acolytes are in charge. The only vision they have is for their self advancement.
‘Still a bit behind’? If Scotland get to where Ireland are in ten years then I will die a happy and yet utterly astonished man. My nephew had to make a 30-mile round trip to play for Currie Colts back in the day – in the same team as Kinghorn – because the school he attended and lived right next door to had absolutely no interest in playing rugby. Like most of them I doubt it ever will, while not every father will support his son by volunteering himself as a part-time taxi driver. That U-20 result should have been a wake-up call, humiliating for the poor lads involved and a kick up Scottish rugby’s concrete erse. Grass roots can’t grow in shallow soil.
Sad, but true, Paul!
Think the last strategy I heard from Murrayfield for developing Club and youth rugby was – Fewer, but stronger.
Scotland will catch up! Based on what?
I admire the positive mental attitude here but first one has to admit to the issues. Identify the problems and put in place lasting solutions.
Mr Carolans comments suggests more of the current approach. We already focus on the 15s. Something is happening by the time they get to 19 in comparison with other countries.
No real hunger for some who get there on “who they know”, plus the bevvy for others.