ONE of the enduring themes of the professional era in Scottish rugby has been Murrayfield’s constant promise of an effective pathway programme for young players, and their continued failure to deliver on that front.
Back in the early years of the millennium, they got into bed with the Scottish Institute for Sport and insisted that everything was hunky-dory, whilst the evidence in front of our eyes continued to show that we were falling further and further behind our friends elsewhere on these islands.
So we moved to an academy structure – four or two – attached to the pro-teams – then unattached – before being, if I remember correctly, re-attached.
The arrival of BT’s money in May 2014 was a game-changer, and a few months later the first of four brand-new regional academies was launched for the Caledonia region based at Aberdeen University, with the emphasis on young players having full access to the best facilities going. The other three academies – at Edinburgh Napier University, Heriot-Watt’s Netherdale campus in Galashiels and Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld – were unveiled over the next 18 months. This initiative was the brainchild of the SRU’s Australian director of rugby Scott Johnson and was often wheeled out in mitigation whenever any criticism was lobbed his way; a fairly regular occurrence, I have to admit.
This was the country’s youth pathway now finally sorted, or so we were told. A regular production line of young talent from the four academies would fill our two pro-teams with an abundance of domestic talent. Herald a new dawn for Scottish rugby. Huzzah!
EXCEPT it never happened. Six years on and the four academies have produced a meagre 14 of Gregor Townsend’s latest 35-man Six Nations squad. That is exactly 40 per cent or, to put it another way, a crushing failure.
“In the six years they have been going, I think the academies have produced 60 players who have signed a pro contract, that’s ten a year, and 15 have won full caps for Scotland,” counters Jim Mallinder, the SRU’s director of rugby.
Mallinder is a level-headed character with a rich rugby hinterland who talks a lot of sense. He argues that there are a lot of good people doing an excellent job in the academies and he’s right, there are … But the overall system, very obviously, isn’t working.
Does Mallinder really think that 15 full caps from the ranks of four academies selecting from all of Scotland over six years is an impressive statistic when Gregor Townsend has handed caps to 32 international debutants in his four years at the national helm (and more to come in the Six Nations)? Again, less than half of Townsend’s debutants came through the academy system.
Of course there have been successes, and good players have emerged. But the likes of Zander Fagerson and Scott Cummings are going to rise to the top whether they are placed in an academy or a pig pen. It’s the rest of the players that need value added and it is not happening for various reasons, both good and bad.
Ireland, and especially Leinster, rely on their very strong schools system to an eye-watering extent. When Leinster played Ulster a few weeks back, the starting XV boasted ten local Leinster players, every one of whom emerged from the fee-paying schools which dominate rugby in the capital.
There are six leading rugby schools (Blackrock, Belvedere, Clongowes, St Michael’s, Terenure and St Mary’s) backed up by another eight to ten middling schools. Their season culminates with the Leinster Schools Cup Final, held annually on St Patrick’s Day in front of a 10,000 strong crowd at Donnybrook, at least when Covid relents.
The Irish system is probably the best in the world at producing players. Indeed, Leinster produce so many that the likes of Jordie Murphy, John Cooney, Jack McGrath and Marty Moore have all moved to Ulster to get a game.
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THE important point is that Irish players are not intrinsically better than Scottish ones, but rather that Irish players aged 14 to 18 enjoy a hugely competitive structure that tests them almost every weekend of the season. Their Scottish cousins do not and are being failed by the system.
Furthermore, no-one in Ireland bitches about the ubiquity of ‘posh boys’. This is partly because their system works, partly because these schools charge less than £8,000 per annum, which makes them more affordable than their Scottish equivalents, and partly because they often sign up the best players from the state schools to boost their chances of a cup win. For instance, Munster out-half Joey Carbery spent his sixth form at Blackrock College just as Magnus Bradbury enjoyed a stint at Merchiston Castle, both players emerging better for the experience.
Edinburgh has a similar set-up to Dublin, albeit on a smaller scale. There are four really strong rugby schools in Scotland with three in the capital (Merchiston, Stewart’s-Melville and George Watson’s) and another not far off (Dollar Academy). Edinburgh Academy, Heriot’s and Strathallan make up the top conference but are not quite so strong on a consistent basis. It wouldn’t take much to drive those three schools and a few others a little further up the ladder, but, as things stand, some players may only get three tough games per season.
When the top four schools play each other in the top conference the matches are an excellent test for the young players involved, but most weekends those stronger schools will walk over the weaker ones – and players learn nothing but bad habits when the winning is easy.
While Scottish Rugby does have a regular dialogue with the fee-paying schools on its doorstep, it isn’t always positive or productive. One Murrayfield appointee spent the afternoon talking to a private-school coach about the ‘Spoons’. When challenged, it turned out that ‘Spoons’ referred to the silver spoon with which all private-school kids are allegedly born.
Schools have a natural advantage over clubs in that they have access to their players five or six days a week, and Mallinder makes the valid point that Scotland is far too small not to exploit every available resource.
THE situation has recently changed for the better in clubland where the top six – Boroughmuir, Hawick, Stirling County, Melrose, Marr and Ayr – are to compete in the new ‘Open Conference’ against each other, home and away, at under 15s, 16’s and 18’s levels. This new tier was only set up last year, so it hasn’t yet been road tested but if it adds quality and intensity to youth games it will serve its purpose.
It’s a start, but it’s not enough, and something needs to change. If the academies were working, then Scottish Rugby would not have to embarrass itself importing South Africans by the kilo. Mallinder won’t damn this procession of “project players” although he does insist that his priorities lie elsewhere.
“My first priority will always be to develop and produce homegrown Scottish players,” says the Englishman. “That has got to be the priority. We need to get as many of those as possible coming through the system.
“Then we need to look out for Scottish-qualified players, who certainly then become an interest. And we have seen some examples: the Cam Redpath example is an interesting one, Scottish parents, I know Bryan very well. Cam himself was not born in Scotland but he does have lots of connections to the country. Those would be my priorities. We develop our own and we have Scottish-qualified players coming through.
“We then have to give our head coaches the capacity to keep our squads competitive. With just having two professional teams, when we have overlaps (Test windows) we lose a lot of players and what you could say is: ‘Let’s put ten young Scottish lads in’, but these coaches are here to win things. They want to be winning games and qualifying for Europe. We want winning teams. We want to be winning and we want to see Scotland winning. That is a really important point.”
If he wants winning teams, why doesn’t Mallinder at least attempt to keep Scotland’s brightest talent in Scotland? “We do, we do,” he insists. “We want to keep all our best Scottish qualified-players in Scotland. Sometimes we can’t do it. Sometimes it’s finance and sometimes it’s different reasons, but I can confirm we want all our Scottish players playing in Scotland.”
Again, with just two pro teams it should not be difficult to keep our best players in Scotland, but Mallinder wants things both ways. He complains that because we only have two pro-teams, both of them will be stripped of their best players come the Test windows, but he can’t, or won’t, concede that with just two pro teams our four academies should be filling their recruitment needs far better than at present.
ROB MOFFAT has experienced both sides of the youth equation. A former PE teacher at Dollar Academy and director of rugby at Merchiston, the ex-Edinburgh coach is currently DOR at Melrose and is hands on (or will be soon) with the club’s age-grade partnership with Earlston High School in the new Open Conference for clubs.
Moffat is too much of a diplomat to criticise the academies, but he does concede that the entire system is failing our young players in Scotland simply because there is no joined-up thinking.
“We need far more…” – he pauses to pick the right words – “…communication and coordination between all the different sections of rugby, because that is the only way to help the players.
“There needs to be far more talk about who is playing where. I’d like to see far more movement as happens in New Zealand. So, in the Mitre Cup you get club players rubbing shoulders with Super Rugby stars. In the Test window, how many Super6 players got game time with the pro teams?”
With so few numbers, Scottish rugby’s big problem is critical mass. We simply don’t boast enough good U18s teams at school or at club level to ensure the players are tested properly every week. At least not without radical change.
“It was Frank Hadden [the former Scotland coach] that set up the schools’ conference system and it works very well,” says Moffat, whose sentiments are echoed almost universally. “Frank sat down and spoke to all the headmasters individually and persuaded them to sign up to the idea.
“The best development for young players is to play against opposition of similar quality, so I said to him at the time that he should have gone the whole way and involved the best clubs as well. Perhaps two conferences of six or eight teams, the best clubs and schools together, that would help.”
It would, even if it means the club teams are fronted by schools as most of them are already in partnership: Ayr/Wellington, Marr/Marr College, Melrose/Earlston High School.
About one year ago, Mallinder made what he hopes will prove a telling change, asking the Stage 3 (full-time) academy players to train with their respective pro-teams. “That is absolutely vital…we need to give the system a chance to work,” he says, presenting his tweak as a game changer.
But I have heard this tune before… and more than once.
THERE are a few things that Murrayfield could attempt in order to improve matters. The following ideas are culled from a large number of people, some of whom can talk on the record but some of whom cannot, so I will claim them all as my own:
- Hug the fee-paying schools tight. They are miniature centres of excellence and should be exploited enthusiastically.
- Leave the schools alone in the first half of the season, up to the end of December, to concentrate on the cup and the conferences, which get a universal thumbs up.
- Upping the intensity of matches is the key to success, so find a way to get the best schools playing the best club sides at U18s level. Arrange play-offs between the top two sides from each competition
- Resource the academies properly. One insider moaned about the lack of money and manpower to do the job properly. Another said there wasn’t enough movement of players in and out of the system after the initial selection process. Be self-critical, review all the processes, share best practice, drive improvement.
- Extend the inter-regional competition to include the academy sides from Sale, Newcastle and anyone else who might play against us. Again, intensity of matches is the key, so the more the players get the better.
- Give younger players game time in the PRO14 whenever possible. Ross Thompson only got a start for Glasgow as a last resort but, praise be, the young Scot out-played an average South African fly-half on the day. Am I the only one itching to see Rory Darge and/or Connor Boyle play regularly in Edinburgh colours?