Opinion: some joined up thinking vital for Scottish Rugby’s failing academies

Iain Morrison says that Scottish Rugby needs to confront some hard truths and make some tough decisions to fix current malaise in player development

The current academy structure was created by former Director of Rugby Scott Johnson (far right) and managed by sEAN Lineen (centre) but a more joined-up approach is required. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
The current academy structure was created by former Director of Rugby Scott Johnson (far right) and managed by sEAN Lineen (centre) but a more joined-up approach is required. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

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!


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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:

  1. Hug the fee-paying schools tight. They are miniature centres of excellence and should be exploited enthusiastically.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?

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Iain Morrison
About Iain Morrison 36 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.

45 Comments

  1. There was a time, not so long ago, when cricket was the fastest growing sport in Scotland. Why? A dramatic ashes series played on free-to-air television. Shortly after that, all live cricket moved to subscription channels.
    I used to dust off my golf clubs every spring and fire balls into fields adjacent to the course I’d paid to play on (I still call it a power fade), inspired by the Masters, covered on free-to-air television. Tennis becomes popular in the UK for a few weeks every summer because Wimbledon’s on free-to-air television.
    I used to enjoy watching Pro12/14 games on BBC Alba and have occasionally gone to matches, but bat flu’s stopped that attendance and Premier Sports has stopped the TV viewing. Most of the newer squad players for Glasgow and Edinburgh who aren’t involved in the Scotland team are just names, not personalities.
    Yes, schools have to be involved and ties between schools and clubs forged, but what should the kids aspire to being, better players for the sake of it, or a hero they’ve seen on tv? Of course you must encourage those already involved, but be realistic about how dreams and aspirations are formed.
    There were no Scots in that Ashes series, very rarely was one involved in the Masters and only one at Wimbledon. It was the colour and drama of the contest that captured the imagination, the nationality of the participants of less importance than their skill and character. What was most important was they were available to watch. That is crucial to increasing participation.
    If you want to watch rugby on TV now, you have to subscribe to Premier Sports for Pro14, BT Sport for the English Premiership, Sky for French Top 14 and I’ve lost track of who covers the European championships now. Summer international tour games can be on Sky too and now there is talk the 6 Nations could be subscription only in future. If internationals move to subscription only, the game at the highest level in Scotland could wither and die very swiftly.
    Perhaps the increased South African involvement can stimulate more interest in the league our pro teams play in, but it will need free-to-air television coverage for the health of rugby in Scotland.

  2. The comments under this article have been really excellent. There’s things I disagree with in Iain’s original piece but credit for starting the discussion. 👍

  3. A Scotland XV comprised of players entirely developed within the Scottish Schools/Academy/Club scene. Its not a completely failing system

    S Hogg

    D Graham
    M Scott
    A Dunbar
    B Kinghorn

    F Russell
    G Horne

    R Sutherland
    S McInally
    Z Fagerson
    J Gray
    R Gray
    M Bradbury
    M Fagerson
    J Ritchie

    SUBS
    D Hoyland
    P Horne
    (C Shiel)
    J Bhatti
    F Brown
    M McCallum
    S Cummings
    R Harley

    • I’d agree…but it is a limited pool that only really comes from one place. The private school system.

      Who knows what we are missing out on from the comprehensive school system. We could well have an O’Driscoll, a McCaw or another Stanger.

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  4. Interesting article, unfortunately no mention of a huge resource that is perennially overlooked, Scottish exiles.
    My boys (both born in Scotland) were brought up in Yorkshire and played for Schools, Club, District and County. They were involved with the Scottish exile programme, which involved basically a few evenings of skill training and one end of season game. There were lots of decent players at these sessions but they seemed to lead no where. There was no follow up and I suspect most of these players were lost, in spite of playing rugby at a high level and if we’re playing in Scotland would probably been more carefully nurtured. Surely there should be a way of maximising the potential of our entire player pool.
    One of the issues that always annoyed watching boys progress through the English system was the emphasis on size. Basically if the boys weren’t huge by 15 they were cast aside. I saw a number of really good players that were lost because they grew late, but they had vision , good hands , speed and determination, attributes that were often missing in the “chosen” ones who just bullied there way through because of the size difference and not through technical ability. There has to be a way of not closing the door to late developers. In New Zealand they play weight range rugby rather than age range, as otherwise only south sea islanders would get picked at school.
    Finally there is little point in the elite schools playing schools of lesser ability as no one on either side learns from a one sided contest. Maybe a way round this is to form a select team from perhaps 2-3 feeder schools where rugby isn’t currently strong. Then we would be able to get more young players playing more games at a higher level.

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  5. You seem to have omitted the Northern Ireland schools who have contributed greatly to the success of Irish Rugby. The Northern schools compete against their Southern contemporaries on a regular basis for the good of rugby on the island of Ireland.

  6. All these concentrate ,quite rightly, on youth development and pathways.
    Does anyone look at the discards , dropouts and not quite Olympic squad standard from other sports/disciplines? Presumably most are lost to their sport but that may be because a particular , specialised, skill set is not quite good enough. Or physical development is not appropriate . They will have years of basic strength and fitness. How hard is it to teach a sprinter to catch and pass? Can a power lifter retrain as a prop ? An untapped resource ?

  7. Lots to take in here and I confess I haven’t as yet.

    For now, I find myself agreeing with the contributors who are suggesting that the key is to increase participation in the early years. It seems obvious to me that the number of players being input into any pathway will be the major determinant of how many come out the other side successfully.

    So, for me, the law of diminishing returns suggests that tinkering/refining pathways is not going to yield huge improvements. What is important for pathways is to ensure that they are scalable so that when an increased number of candidates come along, the system can cope. Are they? I suspect not.

    But the age old problem is how to increase participation? The reality is that, outside of government intervention at a curriculum level, demand will only be created outside of ‘traditional rugby communities’ (a phrase I have just coined from nowhere but which I hope is understood) in one (or both) of two ways.

    Firstly, through deployment of an army of volunteer coaches who work with primary school children to develop their built in instinct of running, throwing and catching into ‘natural’ rugby players. (It is instructive to consider why rugby, which embraces these completely natural basic instincts, loses out to football, in terms of popularity, where basic skills are arguably less natural).

    While there is probably scope for some of this right now, I don’t think anyone would suggest that this can be rolled out anywhere close to country-wide and it would also require considerable effort to ensure that ongoing playing opportunities were available with either community clubs or the schools themselves. No mean task.

    So, secondly, general interest in the game has to be increased too to increase demand and volunteers. The best, and perhaps only way, this can be done is through the success of national and professional teams and excellent promotion of those teams.

    This, of course, means finding ways of getting success at this level in the short term. And whatever strategies are adopted in doing so must be maintained until the grassroots momentum that we now see in Ireland is established. It requires counter-intuitive tactics at a senior level in order to kick-start / increase organic growth at the grassroots.

    Much of this is simplistic, so I will close by suggesting that we seem to be getting stuck tinkering in the middle layer when we really should be investing as much as possible at either end.

    At the end of the day, no kid is going to start playing rugby because there is a clearly defined pathway to support their transition from a school player to a professional.

    BUT that same kid MIGHT start playing to emulate a Finn Russell or Stuart Hogg scoring the try that wins the Calcutta Cup or an Edinburgh or Glasgow captain lift the Pro12/14/16 or European Cup.

    Not easy.

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    • I see and feel your intent here Garry. Please ignore the childish “Neil”. The rest of us generally do.

      I agree with your thoughts on heroes to admire and aspire to. Its part of what’s needed. I know my heroes were JJ, Calder, Stanger and the like. I hope we get back to those days.

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      • Thanks Grant. That post turned out to be a bit longer than I planned but I’m glad you at least got the drift.

        Even with the best pathways in the world we have to radically increase participation to be able to compete consistently. And increased participation has much wider benefits for society than improving our rugby teams.

  8. Really good discussion here.

    Seems to me it’s about expanding player numbers. Our issue is with concentration into smaller and smaller groups. When most schools state and private running rugby teams we now have few state schools participating. Private schools can then develop players who then get pick for representative rugby and on the cycle goes.

    I would also posit that the obsession with “elites” is part of the problem. Kids develop at different stages and stages. Someone who is good at 13 may regress later as there physical development doesn’t keep up or vice versa with skills.

    I’ve banged on about Range by David Epstein before. It’s well worth a read. 10k hours – wrong. Specialise early – wrong. Play multiple sports -right. Play for fun with your mates – right.

    Keeping on doing the same things and expecting a different result ain’t working.

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  9. Interesting read. I think the system itself doesn’t need to be perfect but ensuring there can be higher levels of numbers involved in rugby in Scotland would really help. If the coaching across Scotland is also of a high standard from juniors all the way up to U18’s then that could help develop a higher quality of player. Young players would be in a better place to kick on at club level domestically and hopefully more numbers would advance to professional careers.

  10. interesting to see that a major problem is that compared to Ireland, Scotland does not have enough fee paying schools and those we have charge too much. Obviously that is Dodson’s fault.

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    • As long as Scottish rugby continues its love affair with fee paying schools (c16k) to the utter disregard of the other 90+% (c175k) we are going nowhere. It’s a numbers game. The base is far too narrow and we need to get rugby played in far, far more state schools. Paying a qualified teacher coach (or 2 or 3) in each state school with good local competitions would be a much better investment than academies filled with mediocrity. Identify the talent and offer SRU rugby scholarships to the elite rugby schools. That might get us somewhere. Who knows, the next Andy Irvine might live in Sitehill or Finlay Calder in Whitfield. He and we will never know because of this totally insular approach.

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      • Bill
        Fully support this. I am an advocate of a bottom up strategy, of which this would be a key part. Grant another commentator suggests that Ireland are doing a lot of this.
        Say an additional £1m/ annum to get around 30 such teachers/coaches/DOs who would introduce and enthuse kids with rugby, would make a huge difference.
        Role model?
        There are plenty, (Moody Blue’s team above has a good number of players from state schools who were enthused by such people), but probably Bill McLaren: as visiting PE teacher in the Hawick primary schools by all account he was a pied piper. Loads of capped players benefitted, and just as many ordinary club players.

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  11. Lots of good contributions here but from someone who has watched a huge amount of youth rugby in last six years it’s genuinely appalling how much talent we discard with barely a second glance, and we do this at the age of fifteen. I could confidently say that for every one player in our development programme there are between ten and twenty more players that are rejected at fifteen and never looked at again who are the equal talent wise (and in a few cases superior to) the chosen few. This is especially apparent as kids get older and develop physically and mentally.It’s frightening the real talent we get rid of which means the tiny few who we develop are never challenged hard enough for their jerseys and the rejects are often lost to the sport altogether. We need to include far more kids in the elite programme and divert cash away from the short term scouting in SA and the crazy vanity projects outside of Scotland.
    If a district has enough talented players to field four or five teams, let’s do that instead of just having four national district sides. It’s reaching point where some kids feel they would have more chance of progressing to pro ranks and national jersey by not being Scottish. If we increase our developmental pool we will improve competition and raise standards across the board, as well as retaining more players. Even with all our issues there really is talent out there but right now it feels like the onus on the programme is to reject as many players as possible not retain them. We are too small a nation to be rejecting potential players, and as rugby is our secondary sport it’s crazy to reject any player who might come through, no matter how late. Worth reflecting that it was very late in the day Finn Russell was recognised…we could be losing more guys like that every single year in favour of someone a lot more beige. We also have to stop coaching the personality out of players….I’ve heard guys in development teams being reprimanded for deviation from the coaches game plan, even when this results in a try. We need players with the character and resilience to try to win games, not automatons who try to not less…eg we prefer scrum halves who take ages to release ball or just box kick the ball back to opponents instead of guys like George Horne who challenge opponents defences and give the ten real space and time to work with.

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    • Agree.
      Having been heavily involved in Youth rugby (including the “pathways”) for about 12 years:
      – the 6 or 7 players I have seen progress to Academy contracts have mostly been keen as mustard, train like mad, decent players, who in my opinion were not exceptionally talented. (and in a couple of cases just big keen lumps)
      – at the same time I have seen 4 or 5 superbly talented sportsmen fall out the system because they didn’t fit the mould, were a bit adverse to weight sessions, or stopped enjoying what the SRU were offering.

      On top of that the total youth participation numbers decline steeply when:
      – an S3 team are forced to progress to an u16 team [S4/S5 side] rather than just a S4 side.
      – once they leave school. (its almost as if most stopped enjoying school rugby when it become too focused/serious)

      While this thread is about the top players pathways, our #1 issue should be participation numbers, which are plummeting.

      Our game needs to first and foremost be fun and enjoyable, this will lead to an increase in participation numbers and a bigger base to the entire playing pyramid. That in future could lead to better players emerging at the top.

      Building a tall thin pyramid to accelerate the elite few to the top is not a good idea!

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      • In my experience Going back a few years , academies or pathway over focussed on Strength and Conditioning at the expense of intensity of skills snd plays at pace .

    • We keep players who are way past there best far too long in international and pro rugby. There are some real talented kids out there but they dont get the chance to build capped international experience from a young age because we keep far too many in my view past it 30+ year olds involved.
      Players like George Horne, Charlie Shiel, Ross Thompson should be approaching 50 caps by now if we’d played them at 18/19 and be hugely experienced in the international arena which can only benefit us for the upcoming world cup.
      Wales are now really suffering because they’ve kept far too many players involved for too long and not bled their talented youngsters in. You cant convince me that Wynn-Jones is the best 2nd row in Wales and that there are no youngsters there to replace him. This was for me the prime reason for our failure in Japan.

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      • Alan-Wyn Jones has been the best Welsh lock until now, not even close

        Ross Thomson is still 20. But should have 50 caps. Aye right. Genius stuff

    • Indeed. Some academy coaches need to remember that to youngsters rugby is a sport to be enjoyed and that you can’t regiment rugby players. Certainly not good ones.

  12. One big issue that makes further integration of Club and School rugby unfair and potentially unsafe, is the different age cut-offs – “1st Sept” vs “1st Jan”.

    Club rugby in Scotland is u18 on “1st September”.

    Scottish School years officially split by 1st March (which with deferred kids stretches to 1st January at best).
    So a Scottish School 1st XV is basically u18 on “1st January”.

    So at u18 level the Clubs have a 4 to 6 months age advantage, just when boys are turning into men.

    To solve this issue “1st January” appears the only workable solution for these reasons:
    – Scottish school cannot allow kids to stay on to match the September cut-off.
    – enforcing “1st September” on schools splits a school year down the middle, and breaks up peer groups of kids. In my experience this leads to a drop-off in the younger half, and undesirable alpha-male behaviour from the older half.

    Also 1st January is the international cut off date, so it seems a no-brainer that it should be the adopted cut-off across Scottish Club and School rugby. (it is also what Football uses)

    I have yet to hear a good reason for using “1st Sept” apart from it was what we did in the 1980s.

    I know the SRU snuck the “1st Sept” cut-off into the School Conferences, which in my experience has just led to multiple issues arising from splitting school year groups.

    Maybe by coincidence the only Schools that benefit from the “1st Sept” date are those that use the English school system (the elite private schools), which splits years by 1st Sept…

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  13. There would be absolutely no point in bringing the Sale or Newcastle Academies into a regional set up. They would be way too good for our sides. Much better to tap into the current, excellent, SQ set up under Rob Brierley and set up 1 or 2 SQ sides from those catchment areas. I know for sure there are plenty good kids in those areas many of whom whilst SQ aren’t involved in the programme. Having matches to aim for and a side to be selected for would encourage involvement.

  14. Grant and Rangi’s comments are absolutely spot on. When people “bitch about posh boys”, no one is saying they want the fee-paying schools to be doing less – we’re questioning whether other kids are getting a fair crack, what talent might be being lost along the way, and whether rugby is fulfilling a broader, inclusive social function. By all means hug the private schools tight, but they’re 4% of the school population and that player base will only get us so far, no matter how well utilised.

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    • Thanks David.

      That’s my point exactly. Its not a private school bashing session. Its a lets add to this and see where we get. I am willing to bet there are some wonderful players out there that just haven’t discovered a love for the game, watch it but don’t play or have not discovered that they have that talent.

      They deserve every opportunity.

  15. This is interesting. However:

    “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.”

    This isn’t crushing failure. If we assume players start in the academies at what 16-18 at the earliest then we can assume the graduates who are capped are 22-24. Given the age range if the squad goes up into the early 30s then it’s fair to assume given another six years there will be a much larger proportion of the senior squad having come from the academies.

    Or did you expect the Senior national team to be entirely players under 25 six years on from the academies being launched?

    The academies are fine. The issue is raw materials.

    Out if the 370 odd state schools in Scotland only around 22 have rugby teams in each year group. Fix that. Widen the player base. Then you’ll get 1. More and 2. Better Players coming through.

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  16. I live in Ireland, in Leinster province to be exact. I coach here, and would have a good appreciation for just how strong the Leinster system is. My own club has 6 players all currently playing in Pro14 that came through the Club/Leinster/IRFU system.

    I have been banging on about this for ever. The only part this opinion is missing is the connection with non-rugby playing comprehensive schools, local communities, and local rugby clubs. My own town has a population of 12K and we have produced some great rugby players at professional level. Why?

    A few reasons. But primarily because we have a great link to the wider community, a dedicated volunteer coaching set up, and the support of Leinster, and the IRFU in bringing coaches and players along a pathway. Each coaching team stays with their age group and brings them through to senior club level.

    The other part is what we call “CCRO’s” – they are community officers who go to non-rugby playing comprehensive schools to introduce the sport at its basic levels and to make the connection between the club and the school. It works well, and to the point we have a thriving minis section from U5 to U12, the youths section has many representatives in the Leinster development squads, and this is where the real journey starts into the pro game.

    We don’t teach to win. We teach the values of good technical play, solid understanding of the basics, teams working together, and solid fitness. Winning is a by-product of this mindset.

    There is one other aspect that Scotland does not have. Gaelic sports. Both Hurling and Gaelic Football bring great crossover skills and we see a lot of kids who play both. Their hand/eye and tactical intelligence abilities are very evident from that mix….not to mention their fitness.

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    • Grant
      I have been enjoying your posts, and this is another very good one.
      I would like to see a long term bottom up approach, something Colin Gregor also proposed recently saying it would take perhaps 10 years.
      This would replace our short term fixes of overseas journeymen and the like.
      A key component of such an approach would be investing in what you call CCROs, growing the game in under-represented areas.
      Much to admire in what the Irish are doing, and also further up they back their youngsters: eg Leinster recently kept their youngsters in the starting team when their internationalists came back. Another problem here, see my other post on this article.

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      • Thanks Keith. Very kind.

        For me its very simple. Get them in at an early age, make it fun, make it competitive, and give them the basics. But make sure no one is excluded. As a coach I make it my business to know the background of most of the kids we coach…and we have a very diverse set. Very few at private school, and very few that don’t play other sports too.

        I’d rather they had that wider base at a younger age. It means that they become more adaptable as they get older. I just finished reading Ken Scotland’s biography, and we need to get back to kids playing multiple sports right into their teens. I don’t care what it is but it should be as a wide a base as possible. Its all developmental.

  17. There should be more interaction between the state schools and the fee paying schools. That system would identify more Scottish talent and then we might be able to compete with the Irish

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  18. We also need to revisit the play one match a weekend nonsense.

    I understood the private schools weren’t keen on playing the clubs hence why it’s never happened before. We need to fix that.

    I question the “we need to win” mentality. Neither Edinburgh or Glasgow can be relegated. Yes we need to be competitive but stuffing sides with foreign mercenaries does not help build Scottish rugby.

    You can only wee with the appendage you have is a truism.

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  19. I’m with you for much of this Iain but would challenge the fact that the solutions offered up don’t acknowledge the underlying problem. That being the importance of growing the number of people playing the game in the first place as surely the foundation of any plan for improving the quality of what emerges at the other end. What the Leinster scenario demonstrates is just how much talent can be extracted from a small (all be it well populated) area, with an effective system in place. More players will result in more clubs being able to operate at a higher level which will improve the competitiveness of youth club/school rugby. That should be the priority. Sitting above that, a proper representative structure where the best young players are selected, on merit, to compete with and against the best players at their age group and ensures that all players have the opportunity to progress where they have the talent and wherewithal to do so. What we must resist is the type of elitist thinking within youth club rugby in particular that got us to where we are now and works against the growth of our sport. From a performance perspective, the next Finn Russell could be born anywhere. We need a system that recognises this fact and thus is designed to ensure that this young prodigy has access to a local club where he can fall in love with the sport in the first place. A system that then minimises the barriers for him to progress to the level that his talent may take him. I have every respect for some of the individuals quoted in this article but challenge some of the same old short term thinking that I see continually regurgitated. We need to grasp and address the cause of the problem not continually look to manage the symptoms of it. Once we have that, then the Academies or whatever they are replaced with, may just work as intended.

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    • Rangi,
      Thanks for your thoughts. I don’t think we are miles apart. We both acknowledge the need for competitive games. You want added numbers (as do we all) but my plan allows for good intense competition given what we have got…at least that was the idea. We need the best 18’s to be be playing against each other regardless. Only with good competition will players ever improve…

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      • Iain

        Good piece again.
        Your point 6 is the most pertinent for me.

        We have been producing a lot of good players, but we have not developed enough of them.

        For me the key issue in Scottish Rugby is that we have a structure with far too many players getting little or no game time, other than the occasional playing down, rather than players getting game time at different levels and then playing up.

        In addition the E & G coaches do not rotate their squads enough and so we get situations like:
        • Jamie Bhatti our 3rd choice Scottish loosehead quitting his contract to try and get game time at Bath
        • Brandon Thomson looking like a startled rabbit in the headlights when he finally get some starts.
        • Matt Smith quitting rugby altogether, scunnered.
        • Hamilton Burr frustrated by lack of opportunity goes off to NZ to play club rugby and ends up playing with and against All Blacks in the ITM Cup. Hurrah, well done. A system that works

        Our system is broken, until we fix it we will continue to squander money and fail to develop our talent.

        The current review of strategy needs to focus hard on this.

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      • no doubt you will recall attempts to get private schools to play U18 club sides, and what happened next. Yep, the schools thumbed their noses. Better to be big fish in a small pool for them, and easier to raid any state school with a scholarship offer and so another Scotland player on their marketing.
        We need private schools right now, desperately, but they are as much part of the problem as the solution

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  20. Part of what i understood from this is that without the BT deal which Mark Dodson had a big role in, we would have had no funds for the academies? Lets give the guy some credit here all.

    I agree the academies are a work in progress, improving of course but there are some other issues from schools to academies and academy players getting the game time once at the Pro level.

    Should the SRU have a more dominant say in how the club coaches recruit? Follow a Leinster style so to say, one or 2 marquees and the rest homegrown talent?

    Take a 2-3 year hit i suggest – recruit no more foreign players until we have a really high % of homegrown talent coming through.

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    • Furthermore… A sides for Glasgow and Edinburgh to compete against the Irish or English A sides?

      Even a combined Edinburgh/Glasgow A side, SRU lead, could bridge that small gap we are missing from Super6/academy to Pro appearances

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    • no budget for marquee signings without depressing salaries of the rest even more. Irish teams have the benefit in retaining players in that no play in Ireland no play for Ireland. we can’t do that with just 2 teams, the Scotland pool would shrink by half.

      I think the SRU have too much say in who is signed. Set some rules for how many nSQ and let the teams recruit and be held accountable. As it is someone at Murrayfield has too much say but the Edin and Glas coaches get the flak

  21. This is a good article. Thank you

    In addition;

    Edinburgh schools, with more boys per year and on English or deferred school year entry with huge numbers of older boys per academic year is a nonsense mismatch until u16 and it’s about old boys bragging. It benefits no one else.

    The open conference is great news. Will be great.

    The pathways system should though be replaced wholesale with regional sides for longer (no Scotland picks till u18) playing in the post conference weeks of January-March u16-18. But again spread the regions not Glasgow AND the West – which is ridiculous given where players are concentrated but South West, Borders, Glasgow, Edinburgh. East and Central. A best of Glasgow u16 side would take a best of Edinburgh side on any given day as Hawks demonstrated until the playing time rules curtailed and GHA has done recently.

    Let’s hope R number and vaccine allow a tiny bit of u18 summer term Rugby. It is possible. We can hope.

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