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.
“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.”