LONDON SCOTTISH were a grand old club with a proud history during the amateur era, renowned for having provided a playing base to more Scotland internationalists than any other team north or south of the border. But their historic significance to the national cause counts for very little in these cut-throat professional times.
Scottish Rugby owes the Richmond based outfit nothing unless some sort of return, which will provide tangible benefit to the game in Scotland, can be guaranteed – and at the moment there is precious little evidence of that being the case.
London Scottish has never been a production line for emerging talent, rather a hub for the huge tartan diaspora in Britain’s biggest city. During its heyday, it performed an important function as a focal point for the Anglo Scottish network, but now that talent identification and recruitment is all run from Murrayfield, what does the club really bring to the party?
When news broke over the weekend that the partnership agreement between London Scottish and Scottish Rugby (which was supposed to involve players and coaching staff being seconded from the governing body to the Championship side) had fallen apart after just four months, it was met with widespread teeth-gnashing on social media and in the press over the damage this would have on player development.
The logic seems to be that sending players down to London Scottish is the only way to circumnavigate the bottleneck created by having an extended academy system but just two professional teams in Scotland. However, this ignores the fact that there are 11 other clubs in the Championship where players can train and play at approximately the same level without any requirement on Scottish Rugby to foot the bill.
There are undoubtedly pitfalls at the bottom end of the Championship, where clubs are operating on a financial knife-edge and players are often an undervalued commodity, so we need to make sure that ambitious youngsters are fully aware of what they are getting themselves into before signing on the dotted line. However, for the likes of Hawick hooker Ross Graham, moving to Yorkshire Carnegie this summer does not mean he has turned his back on the dream of representing Scotland at the highest level one day, but is in fact a positive step towards achieving that goal.
He had other options but came to the entirely sensible conclusion that going to play under the tutelage of two Scottish rugby legends in the shape of executive president Ian McGeechan and head coach Bryan Redpath was the best next step in his rugby career. He is joining an ambitious club with huge potential.
Graham will be 22-years-old when his contract is up, at which point either of Scotland’s pro clubs can swoop for him if they believe it is in their best interests, or he may end up staying in England, either with Carnegie (who fully intend to be playing in the Premiership by then) or with another club in the top flight.
Does anyone really believe that his chances of making it as a top level professional player would have been any better if he had been farmed out to London Scottish next year as part of a state controlled development project, rather than choosing to throw himself into the sink-or-swim environment he will encounter at Headingley?
Scottish Rugby may not be comfortable with relinquishing so much control, but there is something quite admirable about a young player choosing to cut the apron strings and expose himself to different coaching environments and playing pressures from those he has been used to in the insulated world of the Scottish Rugby Academy set-up.
Graham is not alone in choosing this route. Back-rower Jason Hill, who has been one of the outstanding performers for Heriot’s during their recent reign as Scotland’s top club side, struggled to get game time with Glasgow Warriors whilst on a partnership contract last season, and has now put pen to paper with Bedford Blues next season.
Meanwhile, former West of Scotland and Ayr scrum-half Murray McConnell, who played a handful of games for the Warriors before moving to Nottingham last summer, has made over 20 appearances for his new club this season and has signed a twelve month contract extension.
Gary Graham, Nick Campbell, Tommy Spinks and Russell Anderson populate the Jersey scrum, having played international age-grade rugby for Scotland but then struggled to break into professional ranks north of the Border.
Hooker Alun Walker and winger Chris Kinloch are on the books at Ealing Trailfinders; while Doncaster Knights had Colin Quigley at prop, Andy Bulumakau on the wing and Dougie Flockhart on the bench when they took on Bristol in the Championship play-off final two weeks ago.
The list goes on, and there is also the option of negotiating loan deals. London Irish, who will drop into the Championship after relegation from the Premiership this year, have taken fringe Scottish professionals – such as Alex and Ben Toolis, Sean Kennedy and Kevin Bryce – on short-term deals in the past.
So, clearly there is scope for Scottish players to test themselves in the Championship if they believe that is the best way for them to progress their career, and there is no requirement for Scottish Rugby to be be subsidising this when that money could be more profitably used in helping develop the domestic club game – with the ultimate aim of ensuring that it can play a more effective role in helping bring young players through, whilst also providing a suitable environment for established professionals in need of game time to have a worthwhile run-out.
Of course the gap between the pro game and the club game is wider than we would all like, but those who seek to dismiss the BT Premiership out of hand fail to acknowledge the role it has played in allowing the likes of Rory Sutherland, Damian Hoyland, Finn Russell and Matt Scott to come of age in recent years. All four of those individuals adapted to professional life within a season of making the step up from the club game.
Improvements can (and must) be made, and some tough decisions lurk around the corner. Slimming down the Premiership from ten to eight (or even six) teams would help concentrate limited financial and human resources. Having an even geographical spread would make sense but that might require some engineering, which would be pretty tough on the teams which qualify on merit but miss out because they are situated in the wrong neck of the woods. Ring-fencing the league for a set-number of years to begin with, and thereafter having a minimum standards criteria for promotion into the league (in terms of facilities, club administration, community development programmes, etc.) will also have to be considered so that clubs can have a firm grip on what the future might look like as they put together medium to long-term business plans.
If this sounds familiar then that is because it is. Scottish Rugby unveiled proposals for something along these lines back in December 2013, and the issue has been revisited a number of times since then, but managing to establish a consensus to move forward has so far proved impossible.
Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and the clubs set to lose out are (quite understandably) unlikely to support a proposal which threatens their future chances of survival, so it is hard to envisage meaningful change happening without creating a bitter schism. However, it may get to the stage where a breakaway is the only way forward. We allow Scottish club rugby to wither on the vine at our own peril.
Maybe we can even get to the stage one day whereby young players who have missed out at Edinburgh or Glasgow in the first instance do not feel they need to go and play second tier rugby in England in order to keep their professional aspirations alive.