JIM MALLINDER is looking forward to rolling up his sleeves and getting back involved with rugby at the sharp end as part of Scotland’s backroom team this summer, but Murrayfield’s Director of Performance Rugby is quick to confirm that he will fulfil a support rather than supervisory role for interim head coach Mike Blair.
“I’m going to be fully immersing myself in all of the tour – it’s a great opportunity for me to get to know the players and the coaches,” said the 55-year-old, who had successful spells as head coach with Sale Sharks and Northampton Saints, then a year in charge of the performance pathways for England Rugby, before taking up his current position at Murrayfield in January 2020, just a few months before the start of lockdown.
“Over the last year or so with Covid restrictions I’ve not been fully involved with the bubble with the national team – I’ve been watching training and games but not been fully immersed – so I’m looking forward to going away for a couple of weeks and doing whatever Mike Blair wants me to do. If he wants me to give him hands-on help then I’m happy to do that. But I think it will be more of a watching role.”
“I guess if any of the full-backs want some work with high ball stuff or anything specific then I’ll have the time on tour to help out. I really enjoyed my coaching days, being on the grass with the whistle and the boys. But you know when it’s time to move on and what I’m doing now I’m really enjoying.
“One of the reasons I’m going is to help and assist,” he added. “Mike is relatively inexperienced but he’s a very good coach, we know that. It will be a new experience for him leading the team, telling players when they’re selected and when they’re dropped, dealing with the media and so on. All these different things will be new to Mike. So, I can assist him with that and the other coaches as well. Pete Murchie is a good example of someone who is relatively new to the system, doing a little bit in Glasgow.
“So, I’ll be watching and assessing them, but Mike and Gregor [Townsend] have done all the planning and picked the squad and I’m very happy with that. I hope Mike doesn’t see me as someone looking over his shoulder all the time. That’s not the reason that I’m going. It’s to get to know the coaches and the players. I’m away for two weeks and I don’t want to be sitting in a suit at the back of the room. I want to get involved.”
Of course, Mallinder’s remit stretches well beyond the national team, and with Scotland Under-20s starting their Covid-delayed 2021 Six Nations campaign against Ireland in Cardiff this weekend, Super6 returning at the end of next month after almost a year and a half in Covid-induced hibernation, and both Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors needing to kick-on next season after generally frustrating 2020-21 campaigns, there is plenty to keep his mind occupied this summer during those moments when he is not out on the training paddock.
“They [Edinburgh and Glasgow] have struggled over the last year,” acknowledged Mallinder. “Covid hasn’t helped both those teams. I look at the sides that we’ve put out and we’ve been missing a lot of our best players. The positives I take from it come particularly from this Rainbow Cup period when we’ve been blooding a lot of youngsters who have shown they are worth a place in these squads. I’ve been really encouraged by that.
“And even the style of rugby has been good during the latter games. Glasgow winning those last four games with an impressive style. And we’ve seen Edinburgh, too, trying to develop their game a little. The Scarlets game at the weekend was a good example of that; very open … if a little bit too loose for Richard Cockerill’s taste! But it was exciting and showed that we’ve got some very talented players who can play a good attacking style of rugby.”
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While it has been gratifying to see several youngsters looking comfortable when they’ve got their chance with the pro teams in recent months, it inevitably raises questions over whether some of those players might have benefitted from being selected earlier.
22-year-old stand-off Ross Thompson made his debut in January after two and half years as a full-time member of the Scottish Ruby Academy and took to it like a duck to water, being named the club’s player of the season and earning selection to the national squad this summer.
21-year-old flanker Rory Darge was given just 17 minutes by Edinburgh, off the bench at the end of the capital side’s 50-10 drubbing by Leinster last November, before switching to Warriors for the last month of the season, and immediately picked up the McCrea’s player of the month gong for May.
23-year-old centre Cameron Hutchison had more or less dropped out the system altogether after spending the 2018-19 season in France with SRU partnership club Stade Nicois, but was outstanding for Heriot’s during the inaugural season of Super6 and looked more than comfortable when he finally got his chance in the last two games of Edinburgh’s Rainbow Cup campaign.
21-year-old Connor Boyle, another flanker, who came through the ranks in tandem with Darge, made his first start for Edinburgh in their final game of the season on Sunday, and will have to battle for game time again next season against several more experienced back-rowers on the capital side’s books.
Blooding players is a balancing act, and throwing all of the dozen or so youngsters in and around the pro squads in at the same time would be crazy, but leaving them on the shelf for too long can also be damaging for both the individual and the bigger picture. Mallinder indicated that he is satisfied that both Cockerill at Edinburgh and Danny Wilson at Glasgow have got a handle on how to manage that.
“We’ve got to remember that professional sport is about winning,” he said. “We’ve got our two pro teams, and, yes, their job is to develop players for the senior team, however we want to develop through winning. So, we can’t just blood all our young players all in one go and just say: ‘Well that’s great, because in 2023 it’s going to suit the national team’.
“We need a good combination of experienced players. Ideally they are all Scottish, and Scottish-qualified, however we may have to bring in some non-Scottish players to make sure we’re still competitive.
“But as we’ve shown we have some excellent young Scottish players and we need to give them time to grow. Hopefully we’ll see that in the next month with the England A game and the tour and then into next season.”
Mallinder added that he will be disappointed if this drip feeding of youngsters into the pro game we have seen during the Rainbow Cup – a meaningless tournament if we are being brutally honest – dries up when the live ammo starts flying again at the start of next season.
“Only because I think some of those players are good enough to play,” he stressed. “I wouldn’t be saying it if I didn’t think they were good enough physically and have all the skills to be ready to play. But I do think that some of those youngsters are good enough and should be playing regularly.”
Turning his attention to Super6, Mallinder threw his weight behind the case for pushing forward with that league, but indicated that he is in no rush to see the number of teams involved climb to eight (it is anticipated that London Scottish and a Glasgow franchise will join the party at some point in the future).
“I’m a massive believer in Super6,” he stated. “I think the principle of getting our best players playing against the best is the right thing. We have a number of teams there, there is talk about potentially growing in the future, but I don’t think we should rush that. I think we should concentrate.
“Ideally, we’d have some teams in different areas, but we’ve got what we’ve got at the moment, and I think that we should really encourage and try to grow that competition.”
A motion which will be debated and voted on at August’s AGM calls for a shift away from Super6 to a representative inter-district model for giving the country’s top non-professional players a chance to compete at a higher level.
“I played for the North in England, in an inter-regional competition, and I enjoyed that, but it was 30 years ago,” said Mallinder. “I think sometimes we just need to look at what we’ve got, and from my high-performance point of view this is the right way to go.
“I think if we go under Super6 to the Premiership and they want to do some sort of inter-regional competition there, that’s fine, and no issues. But we need to be trying to get a season which involves at least six clubs that can play against each other.
“I was on a Super6 meeting last week with administrators, coaches and players, and there’s a massive enthusiasm to start this season. They enjoyed last season, we’ve got some broadcasting rights, which is great, so it’s actually going to be on BBC, we’ve got some good sponsors all involved and lining up. I think it’s exciting times for Scottish rugby and I’m really looking forward to seeing it.”