Scotland must get better at developing its own talent, acknowledges Gregor Townsend

National team head coach defends current SQ strategy but also recognises that more must be done to support homegrown talent

Gregor Townsend says Scotland will continue to hunt out Scottish qualified players from across the globe. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Gregor Townsend says Scotland will continue to hunt out Scottish qualified players from across the globe. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

GREGOR TOWNSEND has defended Scottish Rugby’s overseas player recruitment policy for the national and two pro teams – but also acknowledged that more needs to be done to give homegrown talent a chance to succeed.

It is a divisive issue. Murrayfield insists that their SQ [Scottish Qualified] programme is required to secure international success which grows the profile of the sport and generates income to be redistributed to the grassroots. Meanwhile, critics of this ‘trickle-down’ strategy argue that the benefits do not reach the areas which need nurtured in order to develop a self-sustaining structure, with the option of easy fixes reducing the incentive to properly tackle the twin threats of falling player numbers and a dysfunctional development pathway.

Rugby in Scotland, of course, has a long history of taking advantage of the nation’s diaspora, with all three Grand Slam winning teams heavily populated by ‘exiles’, from Australian three-quarter Johnnie Wallace who scored a try in each of the matches of the 1925 success (he also played for the Wallabies and was capped by Scotland whilst on Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University), to ‘Lucky’ Jim Pollock from Wallsend in Northumbria in the 1984 side, to ‘Kilted-Kiwi’ Sean Lineen in 1990.

While the issue has often been dragged into polarised arguments, really it is a matter of balance and deciding if the current approach is really sustainable and fair to homegrown players.


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“Whether it’s emphasis or investment or focus, we need to get those players based in Scotland coming through quicker and getting more opportunities to play at a higher level,” said Townsend.

“Ireland are showing us the way and Italy are showing us the way as well. We’ve got to learn from what we’re doing now but also from what the best models are, and they’re quite close to us, across the Irish Sea and with how good Italy are performing at age-grade level. The two Wales centres [during the recent Six Nations] played under-20s against Scotland in the summer last year.

“So, that’s what we have to get better at, getting our players up to that level where they can almost step up to pro and international level, and we have to be better at giving them the opportunities and the windows for that to happen.

“No Scotland under-20s players from the past two or three years are playing at pro level or are in pro level squads. Now, is that because our squad sizes are the right number for them to come through, or are we doing enough at the 15 to 18 age to help them to come through?

“If you can get your own players through quicker then that’s going to help you long term.”

Townsend recently phoned Australian centre Mosese Tuipulotu – brother of Scotland and Glasgow star Sione – to encourage the 21-year-old to sign for Glasgow Warriors next season, on a salary reported to be three times more than the £46,000 he is currently on.

The Tuipulotus qualify to play for Scotland through a grandmother from Greenock, however the younger sibling is unproven at pro level, having missed almost all of the last two years through a serious knee injury and only making his Super Rugby debut for the Waratahs off the bench last weekend.

“Most of the players who are qualified for Scotland are playing in Scotland but there are also players with Scottish heritage, be it first generation or second generation, who are playing in England and overseas,” said Townsend.

“If they’re at a high level and can add to the pro teams’ quality or the national team’s then of course we’re going to be interested in that.

“The Sione example is a really good one. He is somebody who has come over here, made a massive commitment to move from Japan. He was brought up in Australia, with Tongan heritage but the Scottish link was something that was close to him, and he has been totally committed to improving both himself and Glasgow, and now Scotland.

“He’s really added to our team, and to Glasgow, and, yes, we’ll continue to look for players who are Scottish qualified but I would obviously like to see more Scottish players coming through and playing for pro teams at 18-19 years old. It’s been a while since that’s happened and we’ve got to put more focus on making that happen quicker.”

 

While the senior Scotland men’s team had an encouraging 2023 Six Nations campaign, the reliance on players who were developed in England or the southern hemisphere is a concern. Only nine out of the match-day 23 for the final game of the campaign against Italy learned their rugby inside Scotland.

As it stands, the future success of the side hinges on there being no change in qualification laws and on Scottish Rugby’s scouting network continuing to conjure up individuals who have either slipped through the net or haven’t cut it elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the national under-20s team did manage to break a 15-match losing streak by getting the better of Wales in round two of their Six Nations campaign, but they suffered three heavy defeats on the bounce against France away (54-12), Ireland at home (7-82) and Italy at home (17-40).

The next task facing that group is the Junior World Trophy in Kenya at the end of July, which they are stuck in after being relegated from the top tier World Championship when it was last staged back in 2019 (pre-Covid).

Failure to win promotion back to the top table would be a major setback to Scotland’s development pathways as exposure to this annual tournament provides valuable growth opportunities to the world’s best young players, so the longer we are not involved, the wider the gap is likely to stretch.

Townsend’s younger son, Luke, played stand-off during that hammering by Ireland under-20s a fortnight ago, while his older son, Christian, is currently a senior academy member having played two seasons at under-20s level without tasting victory, so this is an issue he has personal as well as professional skin in the game.

Asked if he was worried that having only two pro-teams creates a damaging bottle-neck in Scotland, Townsend – who was a ferocious critic of the closure of the Border Reivers 16 years ago – reasoned: “We’ve had two teams since 2007. Ireland [who have four provincial teams] have got more players than us.

“I think we’ve got to give players opportunities to play at a higher level and there’s a lot of things that go into that. We’ve got to back them earlier because often, these players that do get these opportunities, they grab them.

Rory Darge, for example: he couldn’t play at Edinburgh and moved to Glasgow and won man-of-the-match after man-of-the-match, played at Test level, was outstanding in his first games until he picked up the injury. That’s a great example but we need more of them.”


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About David Barnes 4026 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

27 Comments

  1. Might be a good idea to get the upcoming U18 six nations team noted… then see how they all fare on their journeys, if they stay the course, improve or move away 🤷‍♂️

  2. In order to do that the U16 and 18 set up (in particular) is going to need a massive overhaul.
    The reality is that the coaching and admin at regional level, is, by quite a margin, worse than the set up at a number of schools/clubs.

  3. What better way for GT to address the youth feeder problem and create a legacy, than to stand down and become that iconic inspirational coach highlighted in Ian Morrison’s article. It would give the youth development a huge lift if GT became youth development hands on coach. It would hopefully renew GT’s “va va voom” and give the younger players a huge buzz. He would also help the replacement Scotland coach, if the project succeeds in producing talent of international quality and earn him additional plaudits. What a pity the Hastings and their contemporaries didn’t rechannel their experience in this way in previous years.

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  4. It all has to start with a strong, competitive club rugby structure covering the rugby areas of Scotland. If youngsters are encouraged and coached to enjoy rugby they can progress through the age groups and into senior clubs, district teams, age group internationals and then to the top level if good enough.
    We have a club structure of sorts, lets make it work. Disband stupid 6 and invest in club and district rugby.
    Next year don’t play the inter district games in May when many players won’t have had game time for 6 or 7 weeks… integrate it with the club season like before.
    This is the logical commonsense approach that used to operate up to the turn of the century.

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  5. Hi Dom
    Not quite true – see Alfie above but 5 over 2 years is not very productive . I don’t think the u20 players are getting
    enough game time , certainly not in the Super 6 and it would be more productive if they “ learned their trade “
    playing more games alongside experienced players in club rugby

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  6. I don’t see any problem with having an SQ program..and used properly it improves standards at domestic and international levels. The problem, as I see it, is that we have misused the program by completely overloading our only 2 teams with average players who are just seeking a stable salary in rugby. If average is all we can afford …these spots should be given to our upcoming national players for them to develop properly. Are the club results that much better with these average players plugging gaps??…I don’t think so.

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  7. We’ve never had both the pro teams really competitive at the same time, which seems like an issue with quality, but I’m going to argue it’s an issue with quantity too. With a third team, (pipe dream, I know) there’d be so much more opportunity.

    Turner and Darge left Edinburgh for Glasgow to get time, but we’ve got the same issue at Edinburgh now. When everyone is back there’s no room for Muncaster or Boyle, and they both need it.

    Two teams means the back up players don’t get enough playing time, then they’re undercooked when the senior players are away with Scotland.

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    • We need to be establishing a permanent presence in one of Ulster, Newcastle or London Scottish. London Scottish would allow young forwards in particular to get precious game time against tough lower league players in England. Its a hard school down there amongst the forwards. At the moment our young forwards are only coming through at 22/23 because there had to be grown and made battle ready over more years with fewer opportunities.

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      • I’ve never understood why a better loan relationship didn’t develop with London Scottish. Just seems so mutually beneficial, young Scots play at higher level, cements the Scottish element of LS. But looks like LS could be relegated and while I’m sure the Nat 1 division has some decent sides it would diminish the benefit to young aspiring pros if that happened.

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      • be careful what you wish for. London Scottish are currently a basket case with about half a squad of players and relying on loan players (mainly from Quins) to put out a side. For example tomorrow they have eight loan players in their starting fifteen.

        Establish a relationship with a club yes but London Scottish aren’t a club in any real meaning of the word.

    • Fully agree that the 2 pro teams creates a bottleneck. Whoever gets into the team at Edinburgh and Glasgow (and is SQ) then they are very likely to be getting a call up to the Scotland squad at some point – so there isn’t really much chance to bed in as a pro and then hopefully reach international level. This should mean however that the SRU and those teams need to be more targeted at the non SQ players. We do need some but they need to be limited so that the bulk of the squads are eligible and back ups are also SQ and get as much experience as possible.
      Also glad that it is been pointed out that there are a few players that have been through the u20s over the past 3 years that are pro. Given that we have well documented issues getting our u20s enough high quality game time leaving them up against it compare to other teams – I also think we need to wait a couple of years to see how well a u20 team graduates. If you go back to 2020 or 2019 roughly a third of each u20 squad makes it to pro (if you count exiles and lads who move away to make it) so 5-6 from the last few years is a bit below par but hopefully we can see a few more start stepping up. I think there are a few from the current crop that despite some heavy defeats at u20s should have a great chance if developed properly.

  8. “Scotland must get better at developing its own talent, acknowledges Gregor Townsend”

    Tell your boss then Gregor.

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  9. “No Scotland under-20s players from the past two or three years are playing at pro level or are in pro level squads.”

    Simply not true. For example:

    Patrick Harrison is on a pro contract at Edinburgh (played U20s in 2021 & 22)
    Alex Samuel is on a pro contract at Glasgow (played U20s in 2021)
    Max Williamson is on a pro contract at Glasgow (played U20s in 2021 & 22)
    Euan Ferrie is on a pro contract at Glasgow (played U20s in 2021)
    Ben Muncaster is on a pro contract at Edinburgh (played U20s in 2021)

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  10. We need to get GT , Mallinder and members of the SRU Board openly supporting initiatives like The Scottish Rugby State School Strategy 2022 -28 led by Gavin Scott to get more youngstersplaying rugby in Scotland . This should be backed up by links to the clubs through Development Officers paid for by the SRU and also linked to an improved pathway system that is flexible enough to allows young players to progress as they physically and mentally mature. This is where the SRU should primarily be putting their effort and resources

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  11. Could offside line track down the u20s of a few years ago and find out what they’re doing now and what their experiences were? Covid no doubt distorted things but sure there are some insights there…

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  12. Whilst I think the main thrust of this is true, there are some young lads coming through. Alex Samuel, Jamie Dobie, Ben Muncaster and others like Ollie Leatherbarrow down at Exeter. Dobie, I think, didn’t turn out for the under 20s, so I wonder if the brightest talents are just sent to the pro sides directly.

  13. Whilst we definitely need more home grown talent let’s not forget that the No1 team in the world includes:
    Bundee Aki
    Rob Herring
    Jamison Gibson-Park
    Mack Hansen
    James Lowe

    We need to get the blend right but most teams are pursuing a ‘qualified’ program.

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    • We only have two pro sides and two thirds of them came from outside Scotland. The Irish fans would be rioting if that was the case for them. We are totally unsustainable at the moment and noone at the top has any will to change it. Indeed a cynic might wonder who is profiting from the overseas scouting and recruitment….

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      • This is a big underlying issue that needs to be addressed. Player agency is a very incestuous business. Full of ex players with links to coaches and union bigwigs.

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  14. I wonder and I don’t think this is cynical by Gregor that this is his USP and potential legacy if he wins a contact renewal. He will understand all the flaws in the Scottish system (his boys are in it I think) much better than an over seas coach. That’s could a a dual legacy in 4 years a good national team and the beginnings an Irish/Italian system for age grade. There is a better understanding of the amount of money being donated by wealthy Irish to their albeit Independent School system. I’m not for that but could this type of money not be leverage from wealthy Scots into a system that creates Pro under 20s of the calibre of the Irish lads by 5 years time?

  15. This is getting really interesting. Glasgow coach yesterday now Townsend. Why now and why them popping up?

    This is a damning comment “No Scotland under-20s players from the past two or three years are playing at pro level or are in pro level squads”. So where are they?

    Combined with the current U20s not playing much rugby that doesn’t sound like a great strategy to me. But then what do I know? I understand professionals are dealing with this. If one could identify themselves that one be great.

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