BRIDGING the performance gap between the amateur and the professional game so as to produce players capable of making the step into full-time rugby is one of the key objectives of Super Series [previously known as Super6], and many supporters of Scottish Rugby have gauged the success or otherwise of the competition by the number of players who have graduated from the six core clubs involved into full-time environments.
Before the most recent Sprint Series kicked off earlier this year, Jim Mallinder, Scottish Rugby’s performance director, claimed that: “Since 2019, 34 players who were registered with Super6/Series teams have gone on to play professionally with either Glasgow Warriors or Edinburgh Rugby and, in addition, 21 of those players have signed contracts with one of the two sides, with six earning full international caps for Scotland.”
That sounds pretty promising but it is worth keeping in mind that several members of the Scotland squad currently in France for the World Cup came through the Premiership into the pro ranks before the Super6 concept was first unveiled at the 2017 SRU AGM.
With just two professional sides in Scotland, there will never be enough room at the respective inns at Scotstoun and the Hive Stadium for all of the players in the Super Series who have the ability and desire to give the professional game a crack, so it has been interesting to see players take different routes.
And the comings and goings at current table-toppers Heriot’s provide a useful case study. During the summer, scrum-half Cam Jones earned a full-time contract with the Ospreys in Wales and is set to play in the URC during the comings season, while stand-off Bruce Houston joined English Championship side Ealing Trailfinders on a short-term deal last week. The Scots-qualified Ulster-man came off the bench and kicked a conversion on his debut in their impressive 48-22 Premiership Rugby Cup win over Northampton Saints on Sunday.
Meanwhile, winger Lewis Wells – who was playing for his local club Linlithgow for fun just over a year ago, before making the step up to the Premiership with Edinburgh Accies last season and then at excelling Goldenacre with Heriot’s towards the end of the 2022-23 campaign – is one of four Super Series players (alongside club-mate Ben Smith, Corey Tait 0f Boroughmuir Bears and Alfie Scopes of Watsonians) currently training full-time with Edinburgh on a basis.
For Heriot’s head coach Ben Cairns, the loss of players into full-time environments is undoubtedly a complication, but he argues that he welcomes the disruption to his squad, regardless of whether Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors are the destination for players who move on.
“A big part of Super6/Series coming in back in 2019 was to create a better pathway so that players got more opportunities to showcase what they could do and make sure they were ready to make the step up to full-time environments if that opportunity came about,” the former Scotland cap, said. “It is probably inevitable that there will be players going further afield than just Scotland via this pathway.
“Obviously, you want as many guys going into the Scottish pro environments as possible, but with only two pro teams the opportunities will be limited to some degree, so I think it is a really positive sign for the level of the competition and where Super Series is at that it is helping prepare guys to go into a whole host of different environments.
“Clubs further afield are clearly starting to take note of Super Series and realise that the competition is at a level that they can tap into and pick up players from.
“It is really good to see Cam Jones getting a chance with the Ospreys in Wales after he had stints with a few Super Series clubs, while the Championship in England may not be so well known up here, but it is a good level and over the last couple of years we have seen quite a few players from Super Series go down that route.
“Most of the clubs in that league are full-time now, so it is a step up in that regard and certainly our mindset at Heriot’s is trying to get as many guys as we can picking up contracts. Right now, it is only a short-term deal for Bruce, but it is a good stepping stone for him at Ealing who are a good side.
“And then there is a group of players who will just step up when they move up a level, but have perhaps sometimes gone under the radar previously, so you need to have room in your squad for players who have come from all different types of places.
“That is why I am so chuffed for Lewis Wells and the journey he is on just now. He hasn’t been involved in any academy or age-grade rugby really, but in the last couple of years he has gone from Linlithgow to Accies to ourselves and now training with Edinburgh.
“It is a great story and he is a fantastic athlete who is in great shape so at Heriot’s we are pleased to be able to facilitate his development.
“We have also seen guys like Josh King, who I know from my time at Stirling Wolves, recently earning a deal with Cornish Pirates in the English Championship from Boroughmuir Bears.
“He is someone that maybe missed out on age-grade honours, but has kept grafting and he has managed to get this opportunity off the back of a solid period with the Bears.
“Lewis and Josh’s cases show that Super Series isn’t just about giving guys who have always been in pathway systems or academies a leg up to the pro ranks, but it is also about giving other players the chance to show a wider audience what they can do.”
While Cairns and the other head coaches in the league are trying to help players make the next move, it cannot be forgotten that their bread and butter is to help their club win titles.
“Of course there is a balance to be struck,” Cairns said. “At Heriot’s, we want to be successful and our aim just now is to win the Championship, but our number one goal is to help as many guys as possible to go pro.
“We have to align all our decisions around that and it is a balancing act, but these are positive decisions to have to make.
“In the Super Series environment we are also trying to get players ready for the rigours of pro life as much as possible, so at Heriot’s we train three times a week and this includes S&C and skill development blocks built into our weekly schedule.
“It is as close to a pro environment as we can replicate in a part-time sense, working around resources, time pressures and the players other non-rugby commitments.
“As I said before, there are lots of things to juggle, but I certainly get a buzz from helping players reach the next level and watching guys such as Luke Crosbie, whom I coached at Currie, now in the Scotland Rugby World Cup squad. That’s why I do what I do.”