View from the back row: Remembering the first invasion of the rugby mercenaries

Image: David Gibson/Fotosportuk

Rugby ‘project players’ or should it be rugby mercenaries? I prefer the latter. It’s more honest and the other sounds like something from a Sean Spicer press conference.

I did hear that the Scottish Rugby Union considered an approach for the latest mercenary superstar, Denny Solomona of Sale Sharks. Possibly. He was once famously quoted as saying “my heart’s not here, it’s not for England,” and there had to be a reason for that. Solomona is also from Auckland and Kilted Kiwis were invented there, were they not?

If Scotland tried and failed I’m pleased. Scotland has had enough of them down the years.

Solomona played league for Samoa, Melbourne and Castleford with whom he is involved in an ongoing legal dispute. He strikes me as either a crazy mixed-up kid or, more likely, there’s a voracious agent behind him. The only thing that surprises me is that he wasn’t named with the other ‘British and Irish’ in the Lions squad for New Zealand.

Excluding the likes of Sean Lineen and Nathan Hines, the SRU hasn’t had much luck with their in-comers, even managing to sign a convicted doper without bothering to check out his background. Nor have they managed to hang on to them for long. Three to four years is the usual maximum before they head off for more lucrative pastures.

Centre John Leslie didn’t even wait that long. A brief spell with Glasgow Caledonians, an international debut and he was off to Japan. The SRU had to beg him to move back nearer ‘home’. He chose Newcastle.

Young brother Martin, so it is said, bought a farm back home on his Scotland proceeds. Good on him, though his 37 caps could just as easily have gone to a Scot who, when he retired, also had enough for a farmhouse …. in Ayr, or Jedburgh, or Tranent.

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Gordon Simpson, Matt Mustchin and chubby-chops Brendan Laney? I remember ‘The Chainsaw’ well.

It was November 22, 2001. Hacks, snappers and camera crews were waiting inside a Roxburghe corporate meeting room. Flunkies offered tea, coffee and snacks. There were nervous smiles and some chit-chat and nice views over Edinburgh’s leafy Charlotte Square … but in the air there was a crackle of expectation.  When head coach Ian McGeechan walked in, trailing the man he was selecting to make his Scotland debut that Saturday against the country of his birth, all hell broke loose.

This was easily the most abrasive rugby press conference I’d ever attended and I’ve seen a few of them. We’d come to bury Brendan Laney, not to praise him and even Geech’s legendary smiley charm wasn’t going to stop us. SRU press person Graham Law was almost over-run and poor Tom Smith, recruited as a sort of reluctant non-speaking bouncer, was totally lost. At times Laney must have wished he was on the next flight back home to Dunedin.

Picking a New Zealander for Scotland 10 days after arriving in the country was obscene, particularly as one or two home-born players would have to be dropped to make room for Laney. As it turned out, wing Cammy Murray never played for his country again while the gifted Derrick Lee had to wait three years for his next cap.

Not that that was going to give Laney sleepless nights. When it came to Q and A sessions Laney was well briefed, too.

“Have you learned Flower of Scotland yet?”

“Working on it.”

“How do you feel about taking the place of Scots?”

“I don’t make the rules.”

“Have you got a thick skin?”

“I used to box if that’s any help.”

Looking back 15 years, were Laney and the others worth the money and the bother? As it meant losing what amounted to a generation of potential Scottish players from the national side I don’t think so. Jim Telfer’s notion was for them to improve standards and bring home another Six Nations. In that he failed.

I started covering Scotland, at both national and club level in 1997, and though the sport went professional about the same time Scotland never really caught up. All the ‘foreigners’, around then were almost exclusively English born: Tom Smith (London), Ian Smith (Gloucester), Mattie Stewart (Dartford), Peter Walton (Alnwick), Andy Reid (Cornwall) and Damien Cronin (Wegber, West Germany). The Kiwis only started arriving when Jim Telfer persuaded himself that most of them weren’t good enough and that there was no difference between a qualified Kiwi and a qualified Englishman. As for the other nations, Wales had Colin Charvis (Sutton Coldfield) masquerading as a qualified Welshman, but the charlatans like Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson were still twinkles in the eyes of some mad Cardiff professor.  Ireland, France and England simply stuck with home-born players.

Scotland managed to win what became the last of the Five Nations in 1999 and even that needed help from Sinkinson and try scorer Howarth for Wales against England at Wembley. Cheats do prosper then

So the future looked rosy until the SRU (aka J Telfer) opted for the more the merrier mode. There was a squad with eight ‘Kilted Ones’ for the first match of 2000 in Rome, including for the first time in the modern era an Australian, Robbie Russell. The result was a 34-20 victory for Italy on their tournament debut. I’d never been happier top see a Scotland side lose.

As for Brendan Laney, he was to become a popular figure with Edinburgh Rugby until 2005 when he signed for Yamaha Júbilo in Japan, making it a total of four years he’d spent as ‘a Scotsman’. He has his own clothing shop in Christchurch and to this day is happy to tell customers of the 24 points he once scored for Scotland in Rome. A laudable achievement, but probably not as laudable as the 29 points stand-off Diego Dominguez scored to beat Scotland, also in Rome.


About Jeff Connor 12 Articles
JEFF CONNOR was born in Manchester, went to school at Bury and lives in Lytham. He has worked for a number of national newspapers including the Daily Express, Daily Star, Scottish Sun, Scotland on Sunday and Scottish Mail on Sunday. He is the author of 12 books, including: Wide Eyed and Legless, the classic account of the 1987 Tour de France; The Lost Babes, the moving story of the Munich air disaster; The Philosophy of Risk, a biography of the tragic mountaineer Dougal Haston; Pointless, a season with Britain’s worst football team; Up and Under, an inside account of the 2001 Lions tour to Australia; and Giants of Scottish Rugby, which contains exclusive interviews with 40 of the nation’s greatest players. He recently published his first novel: Looking for Lulu.


  1. Eh? Is there a point to this other than to be totally disagreeable?

    As stated, these players had Scottish qualifications which aren’t being challenged in the new era of looking at the 3 year residency rule. Did the SRU look at Solomona or is that just a handy way to try and make an article that is 15 years out of date relevant?

    Nobody is going to argue that the current rules and situation need looked at but this article adds nothing to the discussion.

  2. Also, these guys weren’t ‘project players’, they were Scottish qualified players. They didn’t qualify via residency, they qualified via rules that pre-dated professionalism and are still more or less unchallenged now; unlike the 3-year residency rule.

    It is also a massive stretch to say that these players caused the lack of success Scottish rugby has endured since 2000, rather than say the chronic mismanagement of professionalism by the SRU and the almost total absence of professional pathways for young Scottish players to follow. Would we have win the 1999 Championship without Leslie, Metcalfe et al?

  3. And this article is penned by an Englishman, whose relevance to Scottish Rugby is what ???

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