Male Performance Pathway Round Table Part One: talent ID and what does winning look like?

The Duke's Umbrella gastropub on Argyle Street in Glasgow served up some top class food and drink when TOL and guests met to discuss Scottish Rugby's male performance pathway

David Barnes, Alan Lorimer, Graeme Thompson, Alistair Gray and Ruaridh Jackson were brilliantly hosted at The Duke's Umbrella on Argyle Street in Glasgow when they met to discuss the male performance pathway. John Fletcher - Scottish Rugby's Head of Pathways and Elite Coach Development - also joined the conversation. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
David Barnes, Alan Lorimer, Graeme Thompson, Alistair Gray and Ruaridh Jackson were brilliantly hosted at The Duke's Umbrella on Argyle Street in Glasgow when they met to discuss the male performance pathway. John Fletcher - Scottish Rugby's Head of Pathways and Elite Coach Development - also joined the conversation. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

The guests –

Graeme Thompson [GT]: Former Performance Director for the Rugby Football League, British Water Polo and British Curling/Wheelchair Curling. Ex Chair of International Rugby League, the world governing body. Played rugby union for Watsonians and West of Scotland.

 


Alistair Gray [AG]: Founder Director of ‘Renaissance & Co’ strategic management consultancy with over 40-years of experience working with leading European PLCs and sports bodies. Former Chair of British Aquatics, British Basketball, Scottish Hockey and other international hockey bodies. Founding Chair of the Scottish Institute of Sport.
Author of ‘The Game Changer’ published by Routledge in 2019, highlighting how organisations in business and sport have not only improved performance, but also changed the game in their industry.
Has consulted widely, especially at the performance end of team sports. Clients include The English, Scottish and Irish Football Associations, Irish and English Rugby Unions and English Rugby League. Chair of the SFA’s ‘Project Brave’ working group which initiated a radical overhaul of the academy set-up in Scottish football. He has consulted widely in Ireland including the strategy for the Irish Institute of Sport, the first development plan for Irish Rugby and several reviews of Ireland’s performance following the Rugby World Cups over the last 20 years. Managing director of Genesis, the consulting firm that authored a wide-ranging review of Scottish rugby in 2003.

Ruaridh Jackson [RJ]: Former Glasgow Warriors, Harlequins, Wasps and 33-times capped Scotland stand-off/full-back. Remains actively involved with the sport as a coach at Glasgow Academicals in National One. Came through Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen.


Alan Lorimer [AL]: A former track and field athlete of distinction, with over 40-years under his belt reporting on Scottish rugby for various local and national titles, with a specialist interest in the schools and youth game where he is universally respected for his deep knowledge and balanced opinions.

One of the original TOL reporters, mainly covering the Premiership and age-grade rugby.

 


John Fletcher [JF]: Scottish Rugby’s Head of Pathways and Elite Coach Development since December 2021. Previously spent a decade as England Rugby Head of Player Development Pathway between 2008 and 2018, and six years at Newcastle Falcons as academy manager then Director of Rugby between 2002 and 2008. Played centre for Tynedale, Northampton, Newcastle Gosforth and England A.

Appearing via Zoom for one night only!


The host –

David Barnes [DB]: Failed club player with Hawick, Edinburgh Accies and Trinity Accies. Freelance rugby journalist since 2004. Owner and editor of The Offside Line since 2016.

 

 


The venue –

The Duke’s Umbrella on Argyle Street in Glasgow offers creative takes on pub classics, including vegan versions, showcased in old-fashioned surroundings.  The Duke’s menus encompass an array of gastro-pub classics, from lunch to Sunday roast, fish and chips to sausage and mash.


Start at the beginning

DB: “The catalyst to this event was an article written by Graeme which we published on The Offside Line at the start of February discussing the male performance pathway in Scottish rugby, the challenges it faces and what needs to happen going forward. It prompted a refreshingly healthy debate in the comments sections on our site and on LinkedIn, which was largely thanks to Graeme’s willingness to engage positively with those who comments.

“Then, less than two weeks later, the Scottish Rugby Union released an update of their male performance pathway review, which revealed that Super Series is to be scrapped [almost certainly after this Spring’s Sprint competition], with the funding to be redirected towards an expanded academy programme where the age ceiling will be raised from 20 to 23, as well as a new focus professional ‘A’ team matches at international and pro level in order to provide our best emerging players with appropriate game-time.

“So, seeing as you started this Graeme, why don’t you kick off the discussion by giving us your thoughts on that male performance pathway update?


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

Q&A: Scottish Rugby’s Male Performance Pathway Review update

A whistle-stop tour of Mark Dodson’s 12 tumultuous years in Murrayfield hot-seat


GT: “I think my initial reaction was that it is headed in the right direction. Glasgow and Edinburgh academies being more proactive – with more competitive games, better quality of coaching, better environments for players in the 18-20 age bands, some of the things I think will make a difference.

“I have concerns around the birth of the strategy. To me, this is going to be a long, hard road, because as Nigel Carolan, the Glasgow Warriors assistant coach who has an intimate knowledge of Irish rugby, said last year: Scotland are ten years behind, so it’s going to take a long time to play catch-up, never mind get ahead of the game.

“This is a massive turnaround process we’re talking about here, and you’ve got to keep the resources going, you’ve got to keep believing in it even when it’s not producing results after two or three years.

“And there’s a lot of information to put around it, a lot of flesh on the bones, and an awful lot of work to do. I think that was admitted in the interview TOL published with Stevie Gemmell, Al Kellock and Keith Wallace.

“It’s a concern that Jim Mallinder inherited Super6, and now we’re going to have another Performance Director inherit another strategy, albeit there’s some signs that this could be one that is heading in the right direction.

“I just hope it’s going to be followed through, and I’m talking about the Board, the new Performance Director and the new Chief Executive. They’ve got to be really committed because this is five-year minimum to see a difference – it’s probably a six- or seven-year project.

“This can’t be an initiative, it has to be a long-term strategy to get us to be competitive so that domestically developed players who are coming out of youth clubs and schools are actually going to be part of the Scotland men’s national team future, because it’s gone from 80 percent Scottish developed players at the 2011 World Cup, down to 58 percent in 2019 and 52 percent in 2023.

“Now, you could actually argue: Does that matter if results are good? But I’d worry about the long-term consequences of that approach.”

AG: “In 2005, Scotland were already at least ten years behind professional rugby in Ireland. We did the first development strategy for Irish rugby in 2000, and that was built on the provinces, so you had the Ireland national team, then Leinster, Munster and Ulster, while Connacht fought like hell to get themselves a strong professional team. And the whole thing was integrated with the provincial branches having their own CEO, the pro team was part of it, then you had an under-18 squad, an under-16 squad, and under-14 squad. All of them were thinking ‘I am wearing Ronan O’Gara’s shirt and I’m playing for Munster’ from a very early age.

“And things like sports science standards weren’t left to individual schools. They have standards which the IRFU brought down through the provinces, into the schools, into the youngsters, and they all got good game time.

“I think your challenge is right, Graeme. Does it matter where the kids come from? And are we just trying to build on something that’s weak in terms of the early part of the pathway?

“It would be really helpful to have reliable figures for participation levels for boy’s rugby across Scotland. How has it survived lockdown? And how do we not only reach but also make a real impact with these budget-strapped schools who don’t play team sports because they’re too expensive and the teachers don’t want to spend the time? There’s a number of chronic weaknesses in the system.”

AL: “It’s not actually a weakness, it’s a reality that state-school rugby players have to seek their rugby through clubs – that is the only way because state schools bar the very odd exception, like Peebles High School, and Carrick Academy but even that’s gone now, have to play through clubs.

“The question is, are we doing enough to maximise the talent with, roughly speaking, 95 percent of youngsters educated in the state sector? Now, if you look at the numbers who actually come from the state sector and then make it to the upper echelons of the game … 95 percent is not the figure!

“So, we’re over-reliant on the independent sector at the moment, and this is unsustainable because even the independent sector is down to probably about five or six schools playing it seriously.

“And even then, it is going to creak. What happens if VAT is added to school fees or they lose their charitable status? Is there going to be an exodus from private schools?

“The top rugby-playing private schools have essentially set the height of the bar because what they do is fantastic, but they have all the advantages going for them – they can train in daylight, they’ve got acres of playing fields, they’ve got specialist people on campus to deal with strength and conditioning, and they’ve got very good coaches.”

 

BUTTERMILK FRIED CHICKEN CAESAR, cos, soft boiled egg, parmesan, anchovy

 

DB: “Where does the performance pathway start? We talk a lot about the players in the academy, but we know there are guys in the state/club sector who are not getting access to these advantages Alan has described, and the longer they go without that extra coaching and support the academy can offer, the wider the gap will grow, and the more reliant we become on the small number coming through certain private schools.”

JF: “It starts at 15, for obvious reasons around maturation. In terms of our playing base, there’s about 2,500 to 3,000 under-15s play rugby in Scotland, with about 25 percent of that number coming through the initial talent search by being nominated by their club or school.

“Other nations have different numbers and different environments – doesn’t mean it’s better or worse, it’s just different.”

Best versus best

RJ: “I’d be interested in seeing a deeper analysis of the Irish structure. It’s no secret that Irish success recently is very much built around Leinster, but it would be really useful to understand that better and maybe identify what we can learn from those guys. We’ve got five or six schools in Scotland who are doing really well. Ireland and Leinster are pretty much the same, where they have five or six top schools where a really high percentage of top players come through that school system.

“So, I don’t know if anyone here has any experience of that school structure and why it has been such a success?”

AL: “It’s actually a much higher number than that. Ireland have a huge number of independent schools, and one of the reasons for that is that the fees at independent schools are about a third of what is charged in Scotland because the Irish government pays the salaries of the teaching staff. So, the schools are very affordable for a lot of people.

“It’s useful to look at Ireland from a certain point of view, but I think we can’t begin to compare ourselves with them because we just do not have that high percentage of independent schools.

“We’d probably be better looking at what’s happening in Italy, who have done very well in the under-20 Six Nations, not just this this year but for the last six or seven years. They’re producing good players, and these players are now coming into the senior team. So, what are they doing that is so good?

“Well, it’s similar to France – although admittedly France have got huge numbers so in a way the system doesn’t matter – where it’s not done through schools, it’s done through clubs.

“I think we should be looking at this 95 percent who are in state school education and trying to make that work through the clubs.”

 

 

GT: “My understanding of what happens in Italy is that six or seven years ago they brought in this strategy where at under-18 level you went to an Italian rugby union school, overseen by the FIR, then at 19-20 you would move to what I would call the professional academies.

“Now, they have slightly changed that part over the last two or three years, so now they still have four academies but two of them are very much more aligned with Benetton and Zebre, because Conor O’Shea and Stephen Aboud from Ireland had created a structure which was quite centralised and people felt they wanted more connection with the professional club.

“But there are things you can do. If you look at what’s happened down south, you have a Premiership under-18 academy league [split into north and south] played over seven rounds of matches televised online.

“Most of the English rugby union fraternity will be independent schools as well, and because it has gone down to one term – as it essentially has in Scotland with the conference system – the professional clubs have a chance to intervene and begin to create their own environments for their future players earlier.

“You have to respect the school environment because they are autonomous organisations who do a really important job at the start of the player pathway, but these English clubs have made it very clear that they want best versus the best, and they want their kids coming into professional environments.

“That brings us back to the numbers issue. In Ireland they can produce four teams to play against each other, whereas in Scotland I don’t think we have the numbers to do that. But do we have the ability to create two squads, bring them together more often and maybe try to get some more game-time against peers – like go over and run a development camp with the Irish or the Italians – just give them more exposure to younger players so that they understand that where they are at domestically is really good, but you’ve got to benchmark yourself to understand where you are internationally.”

AL: “To be fair, we actually do that. We send two or three squads down to Wales to play a cross-border competition at under-16 level …

GT: “But I think it needs to be more than that. There’s not enough competition.”

AL: “Have we got the right competitive structure set up internally? The conference system went half-way, I believe, but if you’re going for the full 100 percent you have to have the best playing against the best and that means we have to have the clubs playing against the schools, which we don’t.

“The other thing is that the clubs who are managing to make an impact at under-18 level right now – Boroughmuir is the foremost of them, West of Scotland are doing well, Ayr are doing well  – they’ve realised what has got to be done within our youth structure and implemented that to get it up and working. In Boroughmuir’s case I know it’s taken a lot of business input and they have that expertise on their Board, but that is still only getting them maybe three quarters of the way to where Merchiston or Watson’s are.

“So, it’s moving in the right direction, but there is only the three of them at that level. Stirling have tailed off a wee bit although hopefully they’ll come back again, and you’ve got the odd ones coming in like Mackie who have made a bit of an impact recently but face a big challenge to sustain what they’ve done in the last two years.

“One of the problems I see with youth rugby, and I see it a lot in the Borders, is that there’s not the coaching expertise going into it, and it would be rather good if we could see the top coaches coming down and giving sessions to the likes of Hawick Youth or Jed Thistle, to show their coaches and their young players what is required.”

DB: “That’s a real bee in my bonnet. We talk about needing more depth but speaking from personal experience of my son’s under-14 team of state-school kids in Edinburgh, I’ve never seen anybody from the SRU along having a look at what is there and how they are being coach. Now, I take the point that the pathway starts at 15, but I’m afraid I don’t have much faith that we are really looking closely outside the traditional ‘hotbeds’ for want of a better phrase.

GT: “You’ve got to be careful here because at under-14 there will be a lot of kids who haven’t gone through that maturation by that point, so you are investing in kids who haven’t had a chance to biologically make some significant changes.

“Every sport is different. Pathways are about giving experiences and giving evidence to talent ID to make good decisions on. And each year you should have to reprove yourself. So, I actually think where the pathway starts at the moment makes a lot of sense, and most in rugby league and union are probably starting around that same time.

 

 

“I think  what Alan said about the governing body grappling with this issue between clubs and schools is interesting. The schools are an autonomous body who do what they want to do, and the governing body negotiates with them and tries to get them to go for structures to help with talent development. But, actually, what most governing bodies end up doing, like the Premiership down in England, is say: ‘We’ve changed as much as we can and now we’re going to create our own activity, which is under our banner in our manner’.

“I think the SRU has got to acknowledge the schools programme, acknowledge the benefits, but recognise its weaknesses, and say this is what we are going to put in to try to add to the experiences there, so that when players come out at 17-18 they are more ready. That might be physical conditioning. It might be exposing them to more games. It might even be something more holistic like ‘what is the life of a professional player?’. It might be educating the parents about what they’re doing to support their kid.”

AG: “Best versus best needs to be competitive with the best referees and the best facilities and the best pitches. It needs to be these players playing roughly 20 to 23 games a year in a competitive environment.

“Ireland have it with their ‘Interpro’ – provincial – tournaments at different age group levels, and unless we get that from age 14 to 16 in terms of the performance pathway – forget the participation side – we are not giving ourselves a chance. Glasgow and Edinburgh should immediately start to develop that approach supported by the other regions in Scotland.”

Winning isn’t everything

JF: “I’m going to chuck it out there that just because you are successful at age-group, there is no correlation that you’ll be successful at seniors. There just isn’t.

“Does anyone know off the top of their head who the under-20 team is that have only won the World Cup once?”

DB: “The All Blacks?”

JF: “South Africa. And in terms of northern hemisphere, only England and France have won it .

“Having said that, we definitely need to consider what Ireland have done, because they have come off the rails a bit and are definitely ahead in terms of their under-20 performances and then into their seniors. It is really interesting because they weren’t that competitive a small number of years ago, whereas now they’re really competitive. To beat France in France at under-20 is a considerable achievement, and they’ve beaten England twice in recent years, so we definitely need to consider what they’re doing.

“They went to a centralised model through the work that Stephen Aboud did  [before he went to Italy], and they’ve had a big spike. They got the players in more often, they really intensified their training and their environment, more time on task and physically they do now mature quite well and quite quickly.

“Often with the French and the Italians, their physical maturity would be ahead of the Anglo Saxons, and it does make a big difference in a sport like ours because your physical maturity is a performance advantage, so we’re working really hard on our physical development, but, actually, it is just the case that lots of our players physically mature a bit later.

“Our genetic pool is different to other people’s – more like the Irish and the Welsh – and in Ireland they do now definitely have a bit of a spike around 16 to 18, mainly in their private schools, because they go really hard around their physical development. They have a big competition focus, and they know that you’ll win games of rugby if you’re physically quite able.

“Our private schools do a lot of amazing stuff but I think it’s only recently that they’ve been a bit more intentional around the physical development stuff, certainly compared to the Irish where if you look at their facilities and the schedule of their week it will be different to our private schools.

“It is something always worth considering that just because you’re good in age group, there’s no guarantee you’re going to be good at seniors. It makes sense and it should work like that, but it doesn’t always.”

 

PAN ROASTED CHICKEN SUPREME, mashed potato, braised greens, confit garlic and pan juice gravy

 

GT: “I take your point there but when I looked at the U20s World Championships, South Africa have only won it once, however their average finishing position the last ten years would put them up in the top two or three in my view.

“So, I would say there is still a benchmark that gives you some kind of trend analysis.

“I would never take one set of results, but there is stuff there … because we’ve actually seen the rise of Ireland and France in the last six or seven years which has correlated with their under-20s performances.

“I agree that there’s an unfair focus on results each year, and they’ve been particularly difficult for Scotland. But I think if you take trends, it is something that is worthy of benchmarking. Because when you’re trying to develop talent over six or seven years, you need to be able to say: ‘Are we on track?’ Are we improving our position over time? Over the last five years we used to be in the top five, and now we’re actually in the top three, even though we might not have ever actually won it.’

AG: “Points difference as well is quite important. Are we getting better? Are we getting closer to the top teams?”

AL: “John, are you saying, really, that because Scottish players perhaps mature a wee bit later that we shouldn’t get so tied up about the results in the under-20s?”

JF: “I’m not necessarily saying it as crudely as that, but I do think you always need to be mindful around age-group rugby that clearly winning is an important part and it is definitely something that we do measure, but it also needs to be considered that the two main things that will impact on your result in age-group rugby will be your physical maturity and your depth.

“In our sport – even at age-grade level – a percentage of your team will be injured, so the depth of your squad is something you have to consider.

“I do think we as people involved in the system need to be more explicit about what is important. And sometimes people don’t like to talk about it, but there’s certain parts of our program at certain times of year where it’s more important to win than others.

“The World Trophy is a results-based competition, where we have to go and win it. As simple as that. I personally feel as though the Six Nations for under-20s is not just about winning, and we are quite explicit about that internally, but I think we just need to be a bit braver in saying publicly that at this stage of development, certain games are a six out of ten or a five out of ten in terms of the importance of winning, and we’re actually going after other stuff like combinations, trying one or two people in new positions, style and identity of rugby, which is all more important at this stage.

“Obviously as they get older, everybody’s aware that the importance of winning soon becomes ten out of ten at Glasgow, Edinburgh and Scotland.

“This conversation has made me think that sometimes we don’t have those conversations or don’t want to put it out there about what we are really trying to achieve, and then we just end up taking a bit of a kicking.

“You can’t do everything all the time with young players. There has to be a curricular type approach to development, with competition part of that but not the be-all and end-all.

“Certainly, in my time with England, there’d be two games at under-18 where he number one measure is the result of this game, but that was only two games out of about a 12-game program.”

“My view around the Scottish youth system and the pathway is that our best players are as good as anybody else’s in the world. We have some very talented players and what will happen in the future is a number of these youngsters are maybe playing in teams that are not being that effective, but they will become really, really good players. But we just don’t have as many as the big nations.”

 

 

AL: “We’ve done reasonably well at under-18 level at the Six Nations festivals which which were introduced about four or five years ago, but it doesn’t seem to kick on. Is that perhaps because of the lack of an under-19 team? Would that be worth concentrating on again?’

JF: “That is definitely something that we’re currently looking at … what happens when they move from that quite protected world around the under-18s into, essentially, adult rugby?

“There’s also some things to consider with the under-18s, such as that the games are only 35 minutes [per half] long, and the the scrum is de-powered significantly and we probably all noticed that was a part of the game where our under-20s struggled against the likes of England during this Six Nations.

“And I’ll go back to it, from being involved in the pathway for a number of years, Scottish players are skilful at 18 and they can compete because not many teams at under-18 will really push the drive at the scrum and line-out. People take each other on in terms of ball in hand quite a lot instead. Whereas under-20s is more akin and closer to the senior game, where people are trying to tactically find an advantage. And currently people have worked it out over the last couple of years that they can go at Scottish Under-20 teams mainly through their scrum and their line-out drive, as we saw against England – not so much the French – during this Six Nations.”

Age is just a number

GT: “There was a comment in the pathway review update that we’re going to make decisions about players based on their performance, not their age, which is really important.

“You could be in the academy at 24. If that’s where you’re at, that’s where you’re at. I’m really interested in that because, to me, that’s where the gains can be made.

“Take physical conditioning: you’ve got to be in really great facilities with really great people giving you dedicated support and not just part of a 45-player squad all in together.

“So, John, do you foresee that there is a greater chance that they will be in more professional environments – world class is a phrase that’s often used – compared to over the last five or six years?”

JF: “That’s what the intention is. And it’s also bumping into people, isn’t it? Deliberately being inspired by the people around you, Scottish international players, players from all over the world. What we want is, when our best young players leave school they will be attached and more associated to the club, probably playing their systems a little bit earlier, wearing their shirt, coaches are much more likely to take notice of you in that environment than in the previous club environments.

“However, lots of the young players will continue to play in our club game as well, which I also think is important at times because you’re playing against men, you’re playing in a competition that has a different element as well. So, I think the blend is quite nice. It’s a combination of: a national age-group programme, so people your age; ‘A’ games, so you’re attached and you associate and you could be playing alongside somebody like Ruaridh a couple of years ago which will really challenge and stretch you; and then playing in clubland as well.

“And sometimes clubland gets a real bashing but I think it’s really important because occasionally players, especially around the forwards, will get a huge amount of benefit from playing in the top end of clubland.”

Back to the future

RJ: “It seems like we’re almost going back to the structure that was in place when I came through. I was at school in Aberdeen and Sean Lineen spotted me at a competition and pulled me into the Glasgow academy when I was 18. I was training every day with Glasgow Warriors and there were some sessions which were more separate and academy focused, but a lot of the rugby I was doing was integrated with the senior team. So, I was training with Dan Parks and all these internationals, and that experience was brilliant for me.

“However, I was also playing club rugby for Cartha in Premier Two – I wasn’t even in the top flight – and I was playing rugby week in and week out with and against adults, which is a big step up from schoolboy rugby, even if you’ve played Scotland Under-18s against other international teams.

“Club rugby is physical, it’s competitive and I think with Super6 disbanding and some of the better players dripping back in – which I hope is the case – we’ll make it even more competitive and professionalised.

“Then, the following year, when I was 19, it suddenly got centralised and all I was doing was training with academy kids – there was a couple of guys older than me but we were all kids – and it was just training, not playing enough and it was not as productive a year for me.

“So, I think the big thing that’s been missing recently, especially with the Super6, is young guys playing rugby week in and week out, and just learning rugby, because you can do all the training you want, you can do all the gym work you want, but unless you’re experiencing game situations, you will never develop into an intuitive, world-class rugby player.

“I’m not saying club rugby is the thing that’s going to define you as an international player, but it gives you a really good grounding and understanding of just playing rugby – and that is the ultimate learning tool.

“Yes, learning good habits, professional habits, how you train, the analysis of games, that’s all very important in a professional situation. But the biggest learnings you have is in playing rugby.

“I think the introduction of an ‘A’ league is very good. I don’t know how many games you’ve got lined up for next year, but if you’re playing against other professional outfits and you’ve all been training in that professional environment, it gives you that sense of: ‘I’m representing Glasgow Warriors’ or ‘I’m representing Edinburgh Rugby’. I remember doing that as an 18-year-old and being absolutely buzzing for it. It was a step up, but then when those games weren’t available I was back playing for Cartha, I was back playing for Hawks, whoever it was, and I just played so much rugby.”

‘A’ team principles

DB: “Is the ‘A’ team fixture schedule going to be competitive? How many games will there be? Will it be a league? How confident are you of getting a proper schedule of genuinely competitive matches?

JF: “People are working really hard on that, and everybody recognises that it is vital. The ‘A’ league is what we’re going after. Those games need to be appropriate. Ultimately, we know that young players need to play.

DB: “But is this plan realistic? English Premiership clubs seem to be looking less and less towards running ‘A’ teams, and more towards their guys being loaned out to play in the Championship instead. We also know from the Super6 experience that it is dangerous to align too closely to Welsh rugby because it has its own problems and cannot be relied on for cross-border games. Is it not a bit of a gamble to be putting our eggs in somebody else’s basket?

JF: “There is no ‘A’ league in England but the vast majority – if not all – will play ‘A’ team games. Everybody’s got the same problems. Big squads, people coming out of their academies at 18 and 19 and needing time on task and needing to do all of the stuff that you need to do in order to perform for your first team. It’s kind of like all of the mistakes need to be out of you by the time you get into the first team. So, ‘A’ team games happen all the time in all of the environments.”

AG: “Is there no interest in the URC clubs forming an ‘A’ League?”

JM: “Those conversations are happening. I’m not actually directly involved with that so I genuinely don’t know that much about it other than we are talking to all of the URC teams and the English clubs, who don’t have an ‘A’ league but play ‘A’ games and like us want their players in their shirt playing meaningful fixtures which they have more control over to develop their systems, look at combinations and so on.”

GT: “In most professional team sports over the last 15 years, they’ve got rid of ‘A’ teams. Football did it. Rugby League did it. Chief Executives hate ‘A’ teams because you’re paying a lot of money with only about four or five people who are either coming back from injury or coming through the ranks providing a return on investment. So, what you’ve seen in England is a move towards loaning them out to Championship clubs. Sale loan their players out to Doncaster, who are the layer below. So, it’s the loan system that has replaced it.

“But it’s like any business, when you’re creating a product or service: if you outsource it then you can’t control the quality of that environment, and that was my problem with Super6, who had just moved from being amateur to semi-professional, which was a fantastic achievement, but it wasn’t enough to create the kind of environments that people needed to progress to be Scottish internationals.

“We saw that they centralised the Scotland under-20s into one club in effect, which was essentially Scottish Rugby saying that we don’t trust putting these good players across the six Super Series clubs so we’re going to bring you into our own environment and control it.

“With an ‘A’ teams you actually have control of that environment and I think that even if there’s not a competitive league then you just try and pick up as many games as possible, because competition is great but there’s something there that Ruaridh said about it being great to get that learning of rugby at Prem Two level but the minute you pulled on that Glasgow shirt, that’s where your sense of longing was, that’s where your first loyalty was even before Scotland, because that’s who you’re with every day and that’s where you get your chance to impress your academy coach for your next contract, or so you get into the first team the next time there’s a space.”

Falling between the cracks

DB: “Is there still scope for a guy who is maybe not ready to play at ‘A’ team level or hasn’t made the academy to go to the club game and not be out of the picture altogether? Because I think there’s maybe a breakdown in communication, and I think it creates anxiety in clubland because it quite often sounds like: ‘We’re the performance environment, so we’re just gonna take all the players and you guys do what you want with what’s left over, but remember that you don’t have a role to play in what we’re trying to do’.

“I’m thinking of a game that I reported on recently, which was Marr versus Currie in the Premiership. These are two of the better clubs in that league and they will both tell you that they didn’t produce their best rugby that Friday night. It was a scrappy game. But it was a dogfight. It was an absolute war and you looked at it and thought: ‘That wouldn’t be a bad thing for a 19-year-old Ruaridh Jackson to go and play in’. I mean, he would come off it thinking he hadn’t played very well, but he’d have learned how he had to win that game no matter what.”

GT: “Not every player will get an academy contract first of all. The front row is the most obvious one where it might take two or three years until they are ready. But the majority of the players who will play pro in the future will go through the academy – maybe 60 or 70 percent.

“Somebody might come out at 19, 20 or 21 having only played the club game – Jamie Bhatti, who was 23 when he signed for Glasgow, is a great example of that – and that should always be possible, but you actually want to try and influence those careers as early as possible.

“There will also be plenty people who are stars at 19 and nothing at 23. That happens in every single sport. So, I see the club game as a chance to promote late developers and I also see it as an outlet for where people are contracted to academies and need a certain number of games as a learning mechanism. But they cannot be solely reliant on the club game for all their experiences because it’s not strong enough.

“I know it’s tough because I’ve been there in rugby league when I’ve sat with amateur clubs who are saying: ‘You take all our kids away at 16!’. Shaun Edwards signed at two minutes past midnight for Wigan on his birthday, because he was known to be really good, and Wigan St Patrick’s [Edwards’ junior team] were a bit upset. So, there’s always that tension whenever the professionals take the amateurs. It’s then also about managing those relationships, and what can the professionals give back in terms of knowledge, in terms of time and so on.

AG: “One of the first moves should be to really empower Glasgow and Edinburgh, like an Irish province. The worst thing you can do is centralise it into the SRU. Then you can surely rank clubs by tracking their record in bringing young players through, so that they can be recognised and rewarded as almost feeder clubs or support clubs.

“In the work I did with the Scottish FA, the key thing was playing time for 18- to 24-year-olds. Previously they bench-warmed, and we managed, through a working group called Project Brave, to actually make sure the clubs were rewarded for the number of first-team minutes the young players got.

“But more importantly, we redesigned the loan scheme. There is a brilliant story about when Kenny Dalglish joined Celtic, and in his first meeting with Jock Stein he was solemnly told: ‘Son, I’m loaning you out to Cumbernauld for next season’. And his dreams were dashed. Playing centre-forward for Celtic had been his goal. But when he looked back later he said it was the best thing he could have done because he was playing against these 35-year-old centre-halves who thought they could kick him around the place, and he ran rings around them to score 37 goals, but he learned so much in that environment.

“So, the SFA have transformed the loan scheme so that 18- to 24-year-olds are now getting game time, and the likes of Nathan Patterson, Billy Gilmour and a number of the other youngsters are coming through, not only the club academies but the performance schools which were started in Edinburgh and Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee. And there is a terrific record of those youngsters getting professional contracts at 18, and the much-maligned SFA have actually done quite a lot of good things as a direct result of that.”

Talent ID

DB: “When we did the media briefing for the player pathway update, there was a lot of really positive things about how we’re going to invest in the academies and we’re going to work on improving the under-18s programme, but the clubs weren’t really mentioned until I brought it up. The response was positive – ‘we see the clubs as an important part of this’ – but it did feel like a bit of an afterthought. So, my concern is that there isn’t really a desire there to really push the club game so it can be part of the player pathway, and the danger is that we end up without a mechanism for the players who are not picked up at 16, 17 or 18 to still make it – such as Gregor Hiddleston who went from Dumfries Saints in National Two at the time to GHA in the Premiership in the summer of 2021 when he was 18, then onto Stirling Wolves in Super6, then onto a partnership contract with Glasgow and is now on a full-time deal with Glasgow. And if we don’t hardwire the club game into the performance vision, then we run the risk of that level becoming disenfranchised and just floating away from the pro game, and you won’t attract quality coaching or have playing environments where the likes of Hiddleston can come through.”

GT: “That comes down to the quality of your talent ID. The performance game and the club game are two separate entities in terms of what they provide. We could be like football where they’re signing six-year-olds in the English Premiership but I think that’s ridiculous because how you can actually predict anything there is beyond understanding. That’s more about fear of missing out.

“There’s some point in any kind of talent ID process where you have to make decisions because you cannot keep investing across the whole of the pyramid. But you should never then cut your nose off to spite yourself.

“I looked at rugby league and the retention rate of who from the 14-year-old national programme was still there at 15, and if it was up at 80 or 90 percent I’d be concerned because it’s like a self-perpetuating prophecy. It’s actually round about 55-60 percent, and you don’t want it to be down at 30 percent because then you’ve invested in people who were never going to make it.

“I had a conversation with the guy in Ireland who runs their 16-to-20 programmes. He talks about many different eyes and many different moments, so by the time they make decisions they have seen this player in different environments, including non-pitch. ie. What are they like as a person? What is their attitude?

“So, there is talent out there in the club game and there has to be a network – probably informal – where the SRU, Glasgow and Edinburgh still keep an eye on the 19, 20, 21-year-olds.”

RJ: “I think we have to spread the talent ID a bit further, it’s still got to get up north which I’m perhaps a bit biased about being an Aberdonian.

“But also, once they get into the pathway program, when they are 18 or 19, I think there is a couple of let-downs with the SRU which I have experienced in my role with Glasgow Accies because there’s no real links between the clubs and the academies right now. Players will maybe get farmed out to Glasgow Hawks because they are the Premiership team in the city, but there’s no actual dialogue with other clubs like GHK, GHA or indeed Glasgow Accies, and half these guys end up playing for Hawks twos which is not beneficial for anyone.

“We have a young nine, Stewart Black, who came to us as an 18-year-old and played 60 to 70 percent of our games as a starter this year in senior rugby. He’s now going off to New Zealand to play for a season out there and then he’ll come back and probably play with Accies again, but hopefully he progresses and makes the step up because that’s a success for me.

“But right now there’s no dialogue between the professional set-ups and the clubs in terms of identifying the best place for each player to be. I’d like to see an uptake in talent ID coming and watching the club games. I’d be very surprised if there’s been anyone from the SRU, Glasgow or Edinburgh who has come to watch a Glasgow Accies game. I’m not saying we’re setting the world on fire, but we’ve got some talented youngsters with about a quarter of our regular team under 22.

“What is the scouting network that goes out watching these players regularly in competitive games? Because that’s when you start seeing a few things that maybe you don’t see in a training session or a gym – these guys might not hit peak squat scores or bench presses or best Broncos, but actually on the field you might see something a bit like Finn Russell when he came through at Falkirk with a bit of X-Factor about him and somebody thought let’s take a chance on him.”

A two way street

JF: “I think it’s a great question. Ultimately, the focus will be on those players who are identified.

“I do think it works both ways, where a club coach can say: ‘I think you might have missed this person’, because the staff count is relatively small in the pathway programme which means we are thinly spread in terms getting out there and watching club games.

“In terms of agreeing where the players play, I think what you’ve said absolutely makes sense. I think we all agree they need to play. The report talks a lot about players ‘playing up’ to get that stretch and that challenge, however an 18-year-old in National One is ‘playing up’, especially in the forwards.

“All of this needs to be individualised and it needs to be the right thing for this person. It might be a case of going to Glasgow Accies until Christmas and then they’re looking to go to Hawks. The key is they need to play.

“But I’m not going to say that SRU academy staff are going to be watching lots and lots of club rugby just in case. There’s not enough staff for that to happen. As it happens, I do watch a lot of Premiership because my son played in that game which was mentioned earlier – Currie versus Marr – so I’m doing some social experiments at this moment in time!

“I’m confident that the club game will continue doing what it does all over the world – and the universities down in England do – which is help people get into those environments and thrive and then move into the professional environment and do well there if they are good enough. And that is much more likely to be a forward because there’s definitely some backs like Finn who this would apply to but it is much trickier to identify forwards and they don’t as often really stand out at a younger age.”

 

 

GT: “I absolutely agree about it being a two-way street, but I think it’s about relationships. So if you went down to Wigan Warriors, you’d see the guy there who is the head of youth bringing in all the people that he trusts in the local clubs probably twice a year, looking after them, inviting them to games, but also saying this is what we’re looking for and giving them some insight so that you actually feel bought in to being the eyes and ears. So, there’s got to be a talent interface strategy.

“That brings me to an important point which I think is a real issue: who is accountable for developing the talent? Because I can’t work out whether it’s centralised or whether it’s Glasgow and Edinburgh. In my view, it shouldn’t be overly centralised – Edinburgh and Glasgow should lead the way – but geographically the SRU as the governing body needs to put in something that allows the next Aberdeen kid or the next Borders kids to still gravitate into the pathway.

“Whose job is it to get more young players into Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors’ first team? Who is the head of youth? Accountability drives people and people know who to go to.”

JF: “In terms of the male game up to 18, that’s me. Then at under-20s it’s the two pro academy managers, Kris Burney and Shade Munro, with Kenny Murray from a national point of view. And what you are talking about is our intention of how it should work. At 18 years of age, and then for the next year to two years, there needs to be conversations about where players are going, and you’re probably aware that Caledonia, Glasgow and the West feeds Glasgow Warriors generally, while the Borders, East Lothian and Edinburgh feed Edinburgh Rugby. I think it is definitely our intention that those two environments have a stronger connection with those regions.

“The SQ [Scottish Qualified] programme is another big part of it. People who are out of the country, either they’ve moved out or they’ve been out for some time, but qualify to play in Scotland, that’s a conversation on where is the opportunities to play in Scotland.

“And we do run quite sophisticated depth charts, so we have quite a lot of information about what’s coming through from under-15 all the way into our senior international set-up, and there are sometimes some quite robust conversations about where a player should go.”

  • Part two of The Offside Line’s Male Performance Pathway Round Table will be published tomorrow [Thursday].

Six Nations: Dublin weekend provides Scottish rugby with food for thought

19 Comments

  1. The ‘disconnected nature of youth development through to the professional ranks’ comes down to one thing: the SRU is only looking at the international, professional game, which is where the bulk of its income comes from.

    Anything below that level has been passed to club and school volunteers to organise, with very limited SRU financial or practical assistance.

    The reality is that this model has simply not worked over many years. Player numbers have reached a nadir, regular schools rugby has just about vanished, clubs struggle to put out youth teams and eviscerate schools rugby in the process, the nunber of clubs declines year on year and the international and age grade teams are selected from a worryingly small player base.

    The whole failed strategy needs an urgent reset. There needs to be a smarter and better-funded schools programme in every region. The clubs need some regular finance from the SRU – I would start at £1,000 pa for every club in Regional 3, up to £2,500 for the Premiet clubs, we need a cadre of senior volunteers to do the schools encouragement bit and the club and district scouting and so on.

    That would cost about 2% of the SRU’s income. It would mean that the SRU had to think a bit more about the overall health and growth of Scottish rugby, rather than focusing solely on the short-term international endeavout.

    The success of the latter will be dependent almost wholly on the diligence applied to the former.

  2. An interesting aside to this is, with the demise of super6 there will be a lot of good coaches looking for something to do. Ayr Heriots Melrose Watsonians all have interesting decisions to make as to who coaches the prem teams. Either way there is going to be some great coaches with proven track records in developing youth available to spot and develop pathway talent.
    And definitely of moving the U20’s forward.

    3
    1
  3. John Fletcher mentions how players develop at different rates & especially for certain positions, e.g. props. It’s nice to hear the SRU has eventually realised this ……….. they just now need to redesign their pathway system to reflect this. It’s also naive of the SRU to expect youths to continue dedicating their lives & investing vast amounts of time & effort trying to break into pro rugby after their teen years, especially if there’s no positive feedback given to them from the pro organisations. If players, like props, are not getting any recognition during their teenage years then where’s the incentive for them to continue into their 20’s? Blind faith is one thing, but pragmatism will lead any sensible player to instead change their focus onto getting a good long-term career & having a great social life. What I see far too often is the SRU only looking at things from their one-dimensional perspective & not making any effort to try & understand the perspectives, drivers & challenges that young players face in reaching the pro ranks.

    10
  4. Very insightful comments from all the contributors especially from RJ. Playing time is a must.

    Relationships are also key.

    The accountability question is a fascinating one and it’s uncleared to me despite Fletchers answer where that lies.

    Fundamentally, clubs need to be involved in this. The degree to which will vary but they need included.

    • I thought it was interesting how RJ mentioned training with Dan Parks in day-to-day sessions and then going back to a club for the games. I think it’s important, no matter what part of the player’s journey to the international level, that spending time in the same training (gym and training ground) or playing environment with the right experienced Pro matters.

      We may moan about players like Duncan Weir or Henco Venter getting contracts, but how much time is Weir spending on the paddock teaching players like Richie Simpson or other young fly-halves?

      Now a young Simpson would go back to a club and impart some of that training knowledge to that club, raising the standard there.

      This could apply to any player from 16 to a player breaking through to first team Edinburgh or Glasgow.

  5. I can’t help feeling that this would be far more digestible if it had been filmed and edited rather than transcribed, nevertheless I appreciate the effort and motivation behind it.

    (Sorry in advance for the length of this comment – hopefully it has some merit)

    It all comes down to participation for me. Until we have enough players at youth level, we will always have to look for competition for our best players externally. In turn, that forces us to try to be competitive on the terms of other nations. In turn, that means we adapt our pathways to serve narrow, short terms needs rather than broad, long term benefits. In turn, this means that we focus far too much on solving problems that are not real instead of solving the really basic things like getting more players involved in the first place.

    We can see that Ireland has now hit that critical mass where they have enough internal competition to deliver pro-ready players, serving four teams, without any need for international competition. I am heartily sick of watching young player after young player that we have never heard of turn out for these teams against Glasgow and Edinburgh and look every bit as good as our seasoned veterans. But good for them.

    Ireland can now focus on winning u20 international tournaments as an objective in itself rather than using it as a tool to develop their players because their internal systems have produced the players to be successful there. Scotland is stuck using these tournaments to develop our players into the kind of players Ireland are delivering into that environment. It is not a level playing field for our lads and simply staying in the game against some of those other teams is hugely creditable.

    So, why is it important to us for our age grade teams to achieve good results? If these are part of the process of delivering players to the national / professional teams, then the success of our age grade programme should be measured years after players have played in it rather than results they achieve at the time.

    At the moment, it seems to me that our pathways are not focussed on a single objective. Unlike Ireland, we do not have enough players to serve more than one objective at the moment, so I plead with all those involved to think less about the the results of the age grade teams and think much more about developing players in the pathways to be the best players they can be when they get to the senior ranks.

    For me that means much more focus on skills, technique, tactics and game management when they are young enough to absorb all of that. S&C can wait until bodies are fully grown rather than compromising natural growth with gym interventions which often seem to be the root cause of many unnecessary injuries, reducing the playing pool still further and robbing young players of critical training and game time just when they should be taking the largest strides in developing their skills and game awareness.

    Resources are limited and hard choices need to be made. If we continue on the road we have been on we are never going to sort this out. Much more effort and investment is required to broaden participation in schools. Every kid should be learning basic rugby skills in primary school as part of the curriculum; most of the skills appropriate for very young kids are transferable to other sports, so there is a great argument for rugby to be adopted as our national ‘starter’ sport. Every teacher should therefore be trained in how to encourage these skills during school PE sessions, which should be happening every day.

    Some thought will clearly be required as to how clubs take fledgling talent forward but maybe we can get to the stage where primary schools engage in mini rugby directly and let clubs focus on the secondary / youth teams and supporting the primary schools in their cluster. Imagine how much easier it would be to arrange matches and festivals if every primary school played mini-rugby.

    The other part of the puzzle is that those kids need role models to aspire to. This means that we also have to keep investing in professional teams to ensure they are successful and also to much more effectively market them and their players. The controversial part here is that until we can generate sufficient talent natively, we are going to have to spend money on overseas players. But don’t tell me players like Schoeman, DVDM and Bill Mata would not inspire Scottish kids to want to play.

    At the moment we are lucky enough to have some great talents across the men and women’s national squads and two professional teams performing reasonably well. Are we really making the most of the opportunities that gives us to sell the game to kids? Far from it.

    I accept it is a challenge in the football dominated Scottish media to do so but, if we start investing properly in schools, then there is a direct route to the kids which can get around that.

    In some ways, and as the experience of larger nations demonstrate, the pathways part is the least important to invest in if there is enough participation. Making the transition to where we need to be from where we are now will probably require some short term pain in that area as efforts are refocussed but, if we get the increase in participation and broaden out the responsibility for nurturing it, the clubs will be able to develop much more talent at a much higher standard into it.

    4
    1
    • My 9 year old loves Schoe. I could never get him interested in rugby until Edinburgh/Scottish Rugby ran a session with his school and Schoe was there. He then started watching the World Cup, coming to Edinburgh games and now the Six Nations. The excitement of seeing Boffelli after an Edinburgh game.

      He is now getting his football-mad friends to only play rugby in the park. It was great to see. Still to get the shift from the three-times-weekly football club to rugby.

      Rugby traditionalists may hate it, but the marketers are right – the Product matters. In the current day of the glitz from Premier League football, it needs to be the right product to attract non-rugby community kids.

      • Great story Chris. Just shows what is possible when kids are exposed to the right people and experiences.

      • Really interesting hearing this and it’s an obvious win win. Despite what anyone says the vast majority of Scottish lads play football. Now it would be like picking low hanging fruit in marketing terms to have a concerted campaign to get young lads who are not best shaped or equipped physically to be a footballer to try rugby. It’s a no brainer to resource that campaign. I remember Geech saying something of this ilk at a club dinner many moons ago. Target football. Even if you got 5 %or 10% to come across we would be increasing the player numbers and introducing new families into the game who have possibly never experienced rugby club culture.

  6. This debate us long overdue. We have been fiddling while Rome burns for a few decades without ever really grasping the thistle.

    Where this discussion becomes a bit disjointed is that there are two major, connected strands but only one of them features in this Pathways strategy.

    The Pathways bit looks promising and on the right lines. Pro A games instead of S6, expansion of academies to U23 players, Scotland A team and so on. To work, it will need some very good coaches and much emphasis on skills training, not sure we currently have the level of domestic coaching talent needed to change up a gear and we may need to bring in outside talent, in as much as resources allow.

    The Pathways strategy seems to start at boys leaving school and getting a chance in the Pro academies. The second strand, that doesn’t really feature in the strategy is, how do we improve things at age grade level up to the U20s, before this elite academy plan kicks in?

    We have very limited player numbers at secondary school level, very few state schools playing regular rugby, a club youth system that does not (and i would argue, cannot) deliver the player numbers, inter district games that don’t get the coaching and scouting attention they deserve, a selection process at age grade level that seems rather flawed in terms of objectivity and so on

    The SRU had consistently and for many years paid scant attention to, and provided minimal resources to, the development of young players below U20 level. It is all very well charting the strategy for players post-school. But if we do not improve the playing numbers and district pathways at school-age level, we will just be dealing with the usual very small crop of boys, and not always the best ones, to select the academy level from.

    To make any useful change, the resources the SRU can make available need to be split between a) the 12-18 schools/youth game and b) the upper, Pro Acadrmy echelons of the Pathway.

    The latter will only ever be as good as the player base we have to select from.

  7. Please don’t make me laugh at the sophisticated depth chart. A good example of this is how they are driving Ollie Blyth-Lafferty to be the next Zander Fagerson. List him to play in the first U20s 6N game against Wales, then realise 3 days before the game that he wasn’t aged to play U20s…

    6
    1
  8. Really interesting discussion!

    I wasn’t aware Glasgow and Edinburgh had pro academy managers… given the academies don’t actually have teams out there playing games you have to ask what the responsibilities of those roles include? Overseeing gym sessions? Tackle bag-holding technique?

    2
    4
  9. First step for credibility in the rugby community, get rid of everyone involved in the existing Glasgow rugby academy from coaches to admin staff. Second the replacements, actually get out and watch school and youth rugby. Thirdly, get players playing the game. Not rocket science.

    12
    6
    • 100% agree. When I coached a U16s group, I was e-mailed an excel document where I had to advise what one of our players was potentially a “Glasgow and West”, “Glasgow Warriors” or “Scotland” level player. Probably the most flawed attempt at Talent ID I have ever heard of. As you say John, go and see how these guys compete. Above all else we need competitors.

      • As said in the article though, the SRU staff numbers in the Pathways programme is pretty small and thinly-spread. They just don’t have the people to go out watching umpty club, youth and school games.

        The same applies in the SRU’s schools setup. There is but one Schools officer per District, who I would guess is primarily doing paperwork, albeit that is necessary.

        The SRU gets criticised for having too many on the wage bill, but when you look at how thinly spread they are across the various departments, there are no easy answers.

        I think what we probably need is a voluntary scouting network, utilising experienced former players and coaches, to do the legwork at school, youth and club level. 9 of them maybe, each doing a smallish area, liaising with the coaches, etc. 9 small honorariums and expenses for the SRU to pay, basically a very small drop in the bucket in the wider scheme of things.

  10. Jackson makes great point of getting boys playing. 17, 18 19 years olds will learn way more playing Nat 1 and Nat 2 rugby than playing 2s for a Prem club. SRU need to stop telling playing to move.
    Needs to be a connection with Clubs, few name checked clubs, Peebles. Boroughmuir, Ayr, Carrick are the SRU talking to these clubs and why they are having success.

  11. I look forward to reading Part 2 of this article tomorrow. John Fletcher’s comments certainly confirms the disconnected nature of youth development through to the professional ranks, which leads to the question: “what had Jim Mallinder being doing through his 4 years tenure as the SRU’s Performance Director, & where has the accountability been?” There appears to have been no holistic thinking by the SRU’s executive management, which is shocking given the amount of executives & managers the organisation has.

    10

Comments are closed.