JIM MALLINDER, Scottish Rugby’s Director of Performance, hosted a press briefing on Monday afternoon during which he was joined by John Fletcher and Kenny Murray (the two key appointments in the recent restructuring of his department) to outline their vision for improving the player development programme in this country.
A lot of ground was covered over 45 minutes, starting with the specific roles of Fletcher and Murray, before travelling through the merit of Super6 and the value of having a season structure which allows the nation’s best young player’s to build into the Under-20s Six Nations.
Fletcher is a former ‘England Rugby Head of Player Development Pathway’ and Director of Rugby for Newcastle Falcons, who was appointed Scottish Rugby’s ‘Head of Pathways and Elite Coach Development’ last November.
“John has a massive job and that could easily be two different roles, and potentially in the future they may be,” explained Mallinder. “We have not had an elite coach developer in Scottish rugby since I’ve been here. We’ve got some brilliant coaches who work with players, we do that really well, but the question is: Who is looking after the coaches? And we haven’t got anybody. Part of John’s role is to look at this aspect.”
By developing more good coaches, including specialists, and putting a structured emphasis on a range of rugby fundamentals the Scottish game is suited to (such as ‘innovation’, ‘problem-solving’ and ‘tenacity’), the expectation is that more players will reach a level where they can contemplate entering the selection mix for Murray’s area of responsibility.
He coached Ayr to two Premiership titles in 2008 and 2013, was then appointed an assistant/defence coach at Glasgow Warriors where he served for eight-and-a-half years, before being appointed Scottish Rugby’s ‘Head of Player Transition’ in January, with the head coach role for Scotland Under-20s part of his remit.
“We see what John does as a pathway, what Kenny does as a pipeline … so pathways is wider whereas what Kenny looks after is: who are these next players coming through [to the elite level]?” continued Mallinder. “This includes the contracted academy players, so that we don’t just give Edinburgh and Glasgow 30 players and say ‘these are your players’. Because they may have four fit choices, and they may have them holding bags, and the reason we contract academy players is so we can look after them.”
Mallinder also highlighted that Murray is point man for the SQ programme, which seeks to identify the best Scottish-qualified talent from around the globe and hook them into committing to Scotland.
“SQ is here to stay … we need Scottish-qualified players,” he stated. “Yes, we need to develop our own better, I agree with that. But we also have to get good Scottish-qualified players from outside the country, and Kenny is leading on that as well.”
Mallinder and Murray are both clearly aware of concerns about the SQ programme becoming a shortcut to avoid tackling the trickier challenge of developing players internally, so were quick to stress that the two approaches should be complementary
“The SQ programme is massive for me,” said Murray. “I think we’ve got 10 or 11 boys in the U20 training group that are from SQ programmes and that’s not too dissimilar to what’s happened in the past.
“When I looked at the Ireland versus Scotland full international, I think I counted eight or nine guys in the Scotland team who hadn’t come through the domestic programme, so that highlights the importance of the SQ programme for us as a country.
“There are big challenges in our domestic game, as everyone knows. Ideally, we’d bring our whole Scotland playing group through the domestic system but at the moment we’re not quite there.
“My mindset and aim is not to look at the SQ programme as an easy option to get players. I want to develop the best players in our country and bring them through, but the SQ programme is there to support that, and we need it at the moment.”
Turning his attention to improving performances of the Scotland Under-20s team, who were whitewashed in both the 2021 and 2022 Six Nations, Murray highlighted the need for joined-up thinking – beginning with a bigger focus than we ave seen in the past on giving the nation’s best youngsters the chance to get regular competitive game-time in the Super6 Championship, which kicks off at the end of the summer.
“That will start in early August and finish in October which is actually perfect timing for me because we can then go into our under-19 and under-20 development window, which will include 1872 age-grade games,” Murray explained. “Then we’re looking at internationals for the under-19s before Glasgow A and Edinburgh A play Scotland under-20s during December and January.
“So, suddenly, we’ve got a neat competition window that should take our under-20s on a nice clear upward slope leading into the Six Nations at the start of February.
“I think that’s something we’ve not done as well in recent years – getting those games into place early enough – but we’ve got the two pro teams on board with that, and it will really help our under-20s guys. If we can play at that level against good A sides from Glasgow and Edinburgh, then when we go to play the Six Nations, we will be much better prepared.”
Mallinder and Murray spoke in favour of Super6 and its role in the development pathway, but it was Fletcher who gave the most forceful endorsement of the league.
“Actually, Wales have been in touch, we speak to Ireland quite a bit, and England have been trying to solve it since the game went professional in 1995 and haven’t yet solved it in terms of what is the playing environment for players when they leave school,” he said.
“Super6 is not perfect, yet, but it’s not that far off in terms of its timing, providing quality competition, full-time coaches, and coach development.
“There’s a lot of things should be celebrated in terms of Super6 because I actually think other unions look at us in envy in terms of the fact that we have a competition and we have some flexibility around it, compared to other parts of the world, and certainly the northern hemisphere because it is slightly different in the southern hemisphere.”
An alternative model for providing rising stars appropriate rugby is through professional A team leagues, but Fletcher reasoned that his approach is not practical.
“History tells us that A leagues have always been problematic when you’ve gone through injuries, or you have coaches who are not as engaged with it, and that’s why in England they have scrapped that approach,” he pointed out. “You’d have one team basically having 22 invited players and the other team full of internationals, so the mismatches were quite significant
“Occasional A team games are part of the solution, but to do that week-in and week-out in a league is, quite frankly, not viable financially and in terms of player depth.”
Meanwhile, Mallinder conceded that there is still no prospect of a cross-border element being added to Super6 in the foreseeable future but insisted that work is being done to broaden its scope and appeal.
“We’ve done lots of blue sky thinking and cross-border would be brilliant, so we’re still talking,” he said.
“Kenny has spoken about what we do with our under-19 and under-20 cohorts, and we have had discussions, such as: Can we put a team in, for example, to play in Super6? Will that be a nice five or six games to move into the Six Nations programme with that game time together? All these things are being discussed.
“We certainly don’t have all the answers at the moment, but I think we’re moving in the right general direction.”