High Ground edition 9; dateline 1 November 2011
All Black and blue
RWC 2011 produced the outcome if perhaps not the result the host nation were looking for. Denis Law may have said “One goal is never enough in Europe” but apart from being totally irrelevant in this article, one point was actually enough to win rugby’s big one. The team described by coaching deity Ian McGeechan as “Scots who have learned how to win” squeezed out the result their nation needed, pausing only to shake Craig Joubert’s hand, then spent 20 minutes picking up a little gold trophy. But that’s enough about McCaw, Carter, Nonu and crew: what of the mighty boys in blue? And I mean Scotland not France.
Yet again we came up short, shorter than we have ever done before as it happens. Our quadrennial adventure was a menu of close calls, missed opportunities, missed tackles, plucky failures and not-so-glorious defeats. I am seek (sick) of it but what’s harder to swallow is the constant PR litany of “We’re making progress, we’re nearly there, we’re building towards a brighter future”. I’m nearly ready for “Keep calm and carry on” to come next. To be honest, I don’t know how we get better other than continuing with the nice, easy thing of boosting confidence – Alex Salmond injections anyone? Even the misplaced confidence of England would be nice. You know what I mean: assuming you can beat everybody when it’s patently not the case? I think it’s called arrogance.
A few facts about Scottish rugby are germane. We have relatively few registered adult rugby players; only between 11,000 and 12,000, I believe. Our game is growing again at junior levels but we sorely need successful team performances at national, and Glasgow and Edinburgh level. The problem is that the game is still perceived as being for boys from fee-paying schools (if you want to get picked at national levels, that is) plus some Borderers who get in through the other old-school-tie network.
I don’t know if this is actually true but perception is reality, as some management guru once said – or maybe it was me. The Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) has launched the national Schools of Rugby initiative, which is to be welcomed, aiming for 20 comprehensive schools to become more like their rugby-playing, independent counterparts, with amended timetables for students to access an hour of dedicated rugby coaching at school every day. They also want each school to provide an inclusive rugby approach with opportunities and teams at all age levels for boys and girls. This is laudable but I am wondering if the governing body is trying to make the initiative too wide and too ambitious in its scope. My own view is that we need people, children, and parents to see that if a player has talent then it should only be where this runs out that the progress upwards on the pathway stops. It shouldn’t be about your network, whether that is Fettes Academy, Hawick Young Farmers or the rugby club worthies with the generations of family involvement at the bar and in the committee meetings.
Dare I say it, we might need to take some lessons from the round-ball game when it comes to selecting talent to come through. I know it’s not a direct comparison but Richie Gray and Sam Whitelock (Scotland and New Zealand second rows respectively) are roughly about the same age. One is still treated as a boy when described by commentators as “a prospect”, the other is a world champion. My perspective is that it must be incredibly hard to become an All Black and that fierceness of competition simply to get a place steels the player into a level of mental toughness that is something different to what we are used to. With a small pool and fairly narrow routes to the higher development levels and a professional contract, then maybe in Scotland the journey to the top is not arduous enough? That’s not saying our lads aren’t talented players – some of them clearly are – it’s just that they miss out on the intensity of competition for places.
We also lack a game-changer in our team; an O’Driscoll, a Roberts or a Shane Williams, for example. We have nobody the opposition is scared of, no one like Chris Ashton. Our closest thing to a game-changer down under was a kicker, Chris Paterson, a player so good around the park, in fact, that he was probably wasted over the years by successive coaches taking advantage of his all-round abilities and playing him in three different positions. He remains our third highest try-scorer of all time with 22, and only two or three behind the two guys in front of him, but at 33 going on 34 we can’t build a revival around him.
So if any of you rugger buggers out there have suggestions as to how Scotland maintains tier one status and improves on recent performances please let us know.
Meanwhile, over at the round-ball game, Scotland narrowly missed qualification for another major tournament. Hold the bus – haven’t I heard this story before? An inability to hold a lead less than ten minutes from time followed by some schoolboy defending resulting in the opposition stealing a win. Surely that was Scotland v Argentina at RWC 2011? Well yes and no actually. I’m off to have some porridge (have I told you about porridge?).
Andy Murray beat Nadal and won a tournament! Not a major but we don’t care; he’s third in the world. And finally France have now been in three rugby World Cup finals and lost every one – c’est la vie.
The High Ground
An alternative view of the Scottish sport, leisure and culture landscape